Nuestra Historia - East Las Vegas claimed Highlands

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Plans are for Nuestra Historia to recount, in a latter series, the history of Highlands University, from its founding through the tumultuous times in the early 1970s, when the Hispanic community fought for and won its rightful place in the university’s governance.
Our present tale of two cities would be incomplete, however, without a brief mention of the struggle between Old Town and New Town, to claim and locate the university on its side of the Gallinas River — and how that struggle deepened the divide between the two towns, and insulated Highlands from the Hispanic community for almost 80 years.

By the time the territorial legislature created Highlands University in 1893 (New Mexico Normal until 1941), East and West Las Vegas had separated, and existed “as if going from one country into another,” as recounted in an earlier column. The new university would further alienate East from West, and the simmering rift between the twin cities would openly erupt over the location of the Normal school. (At the time, the term “normal” was given to post-secondary institutions whose primary mission was to train teachers under established education norms, a concept and appellation having its origin in 17th century France.)

Territorial governor L. Bradford Prince, a former New Yorker (Flushing, Queens) who came to New Mexico in 1878, had the onerous task of appointing the first board of regents for Highlands.

Unwittingly or not, Gov. Prince set in motion events which would widen the Las Vegas divide — appointing three regents from Old Town, one from New Town, and one from Albuquerque.

From Old Town, Gov. Prince appointed long-time merchant and land surveyor Frank O. Kihlberg, county schools superintendent Charles R. Rudolph, and Tranquilino Labadie, a business associate of Don Eugenio Romero. The other two regents appointed by Prince were East Las Vegas businessman Edward Henry, and W.S. Burke from Albuquerque. (Kihlberg drafted the first plat of Las Vegas in 1868, Labadie later became a prominent merchant and leader in Guadalupe County, and many of Rudolph’s descendants continue to live in Las Vegas.)

At their first meeting on March 23, 1893, the regents decided that selection of a site for the new school would be their first order of business. Instead of making a firm and swift decision, however, the governing board appointed two site-selection committees — one from New Town and one from Old Town. The decision proved to be both chaotic and divisive, though we will never know whether it was “prompted by a desire to be completely fair to both communities or to encourage competition,” as noted by renowned historian Maurilio E. Vigil. (Vigil’s book, “Defining our Destiny,” is a detailed history of Highlands University published in 1993, and credit is given to him and to the many works of Lynn I. Perrigo, for this and future columns relating to Highlands.)

For almost a year, the regents struggled to select a site for the new university, and the two committees and other citizens offered both land and opinion as to where the school should be located. The consensus in East Las Vegas was that the Normal school should be located there because the west side already had the Insane Asylum, and because the east side — incorporated as a municipality in 1888 — with its newly developing infrastructure, and police protection, was better suited to accommodate the new school.

Finally, on Dec. 12, 1893, in a divided decision, the board of regents decided the university would be in Old Town, on Hot Springs Boulevard, the three Old Town members voting in favor, and the New Town and Albuquerque regents voting against. Despite the division, the Old Town majority moved quickly to have the site surveyed, and even awarded a construction contract for the new school’s first facilities.

But the struggle for Highlands was hardly over. Immediately, New Town citizens filed a lawsuit and secured an injunction against the regents, prohibiting them from proceeding with the Old Town site.

The injunction allowed East Las Vegas to buy time to get the territorial legislature to intervene — a ploy used more than once to frustrate local decisions not favorable to the east side. (As recounted in previous columns, after Don Eugenio Romero defeated the Anglo candidate to become the first mayor of the combined city of Las Vegas in 1882, the legislature passed a special law allowing New Town to secede; and in 1903, when the west side incorporated as the Town of Las Vegas for the purpose of administering the Las Vegas Land Grant, the legislature passed another special law, placing control of the grant in the hands of Judge William T. Mills.)

The territorial legislature again intervened in the tale of two cities, and New Town once again prevailed. In February 1885, the legislature — controlled by Anglo land barons of the notorious Santa Fe Ring — enacted a law which located Highlands University at the intersection of National and Main Street (University Avenue) “in East Las Vegas.”

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