Nuestra Historia - ‘Going from one country into another’

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East and West Las Vegas evolved as if they were two neighboring countries, divided by a river, with a border crossing on Bridge Street.

The remarkable separateness of the two towns was vividly observed by Milton Nahm, as he recalled covering the Carl Magee trials as a cub reporter for the Optic in 1923 and 1926.

Nahm’s description of the pronounced divide is intensely poignant, and his narrative transports you to that time:

“You couldn’t duplicate the feeling you had when you went from East Las Vegas, the New Town, to Las Vegas, the Old Town. It was as if you were going from one country into another. When I walked across the bridge over the Gallinas on my way to the courthouse, I realized that I was moving from something to something else.”

In the same narrative, Nahm recalled, “As a kid, along with most of the other boys, I had known that if you wanted a fight — not caring why or with whom — you went down to the swimming pools in the Gallinas and shouted ‘greaser’ across the stream.”

Born in East Las Vegas in 1904, and raised here, Nahm was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. A longtime professor at Bryn Mawr College, in 1964 Nahm published Las Vegas and Uncle Joe, about his time growing up here. (The writer was personally acquainted with the scholarly Nahm, who died in Pennsylvania in 1991, at age 87, and was descended from early Las Vegas Jewish merchants of Stern & Nahm fame.)

How did this great and deep divide occur, and why was the separation so stark and so rapid? The simple answer is that the division was deliberately set in motion by the business and railroad interests of the time — the location of the railway itself, announcing and marking the bifurcation which would ensue. As noted in a previous column, the A.T.&S.F. could have easily run its rail line through the existing community, and many locals were even enticed to believe that would happen. Instead, the railroad chose to avoid the “Mexican” settlement west of the Gallinas, and bypassed the community by more than a mile, quite a distance in those days. (See “The Railroad Bypasses Las Vegas,” Nuestra Historia, July 15, 2011.)

If the symbolism of both the location of the rail line and the arrival of the first locomotive on the Fourth of July in 1879 did not sufficiently rebuff the Hispanic people on the west side, Russ Kistler made sure the demarcation was heard loud and clear when his Optic announced on Nov. 20, 1879, that “East Las Vegas is an American town for Americans only.”

As the clarion call for separateness was announced by both the railroad and the Optic, and as Anglo newcomers arrived by rail in great numbers in the months and years following 1879, a new town emerged overnight, as if transported from another world. The layout of the new settlement was modeled after a Midwestern locale, and a grid system was promptly devised for its streets and parks, all quickly named for Anglo-American notables, including Lincoln, Douglas, Jackson, Tilden and Washington. (See “Bridge, Streets and Trolleys,” Nuestra Historia, Dec. 9, 2011.)

The makeshift rail town which had suddenly appeared with the railroad, was soon replaced with permanent structures along Railroad Avenue and Center Street (Lincoln). The nascent business district was quickly complemented by an adjacent residential area, platted along Lincoln, Jackson and Tilden streets, where many A.T.&S.F. officials and employees built homes, as did early eastside merchants and professionals.

Ironically, much of the property for the railroad right-of-way and the first business and residential districts in New Town were acquired from Lorenzo Lopez, who owned vast holdings on the empty highlands and plains east of the Gallinas River. (Lopez was the son of Don Francisco Lopez, an early founder of Las Vegas, who was a prominent merchant and freighter, and father-in-law of Romero brothers Trinidad and Eugenio.)

Within a few years, the business district expanded northwest from Railroad and Lincoln avenues, and by the 1880s, multi-story buildings were dotting Sixth Street and Douglas Avenue, and forming along Grand Avenue. These included Union Block, Clement Block and Center Block, and small hotels and business outlets of every kind.

At the same time, a second residential area began to grow north across Douglas and National avenues, in addition to the Tilden, Jackson and Lincoln sector. The Hillsite (Carnegie) Park area, and beyond, was soon developed, boasting modern and fashionable homes built by the affluent professional and merchant class which was making East Las Vegas the premier American city in New Mexico.

While the east side flourished, what was becoming of Old Town?

Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.