The stage was set for the momentous election to choose the first mayor of the combined city of east and west Las Vegas. It was July 18, 1882, and the racially charged contest was an obvious and heated struggle between the Hispanics in Old Town, and the Anglos in New Town, whose population in just three years equaled or exceeded that of the half-century-old west side.
Oliver L. Houghton was the candidate of the new rail town flourishing east of the Gallinas River. Because he maintained a hardware business on both sides of the river, Houghton’s supporters felt he had the advantage. The Hispanic and Old Town candidate was Eugenio Romero, second oldest of the five Romero brothers, and son of Don Miguel Romero, one of the original founders of Las Vegas Grandes de Nuestra Senõra de los Dolores.
The election would determine much more than the first mayor of the combined city, it would symbolically decide the compelling question whether the Anglo newcomers would take control of Las Vegas, or whether the Hispanics would continue to have a say in their governance and destiny.
A rough count of the populace appeared to give the Anglos a slim majority, and the east side was confident of victory. But it was not to be. As reported the following day by the Denver Republican, a leading Colorado newspaper of the time, “a Mexican cyclone swept over Las Vegas with a two hundred vote majority for the Mexican candidate for mayor.” Eugenio Romero defeated O. L. Houghton, and at the age of 44 became the first and only mayor of the combined city of east and west Las Vegas. (The eastside did not fully appreciate that the Romero family had established a substantial presence in Las Vegas, that Eugenio’s parents, although deceased by 1882, were still beloved by the community, that the Romero brothers could outmaneuver the most formidable political foe, and that they could outspend anyone.)
Don Eugenio would hold this unique distinction for 88 years, until 1970 when East and West Las Vegas were consolidated. Two years after the 1882 election, the territorial legislature enacted a law which dissolved all municipalities in New Mexico, and required that they re-incorporate under new statutes. In 1884, therefore, the combined city of east and west Las Vegas — which only two years earlier had incorporated as one municipality and elected Eugenio Romero as mayor — was dissolved and no longer existed, all by legislative fiat.
It has always been maintained in the Hispanic community that the railroad and business interests of East Las Vegas were responsible for enactment of the 1884 law which dissolved the combined Las Vegas city. Although the law applied throughout the territory, it was widely regarded as a special and local law aimed at allowing the east side of Las Vegas to secede, fearing “Mexican” domination after suffering the unexpected loss to the Romero family in 1882. (The Optic’s Russell Kistler is believed to have also played a major role.
He was well acquainted with Thomas B. Catron, leader of the powerful land-grabbing Santa Fe Ring, which controlled the territorial legislature at the time, and Catron later became part owner of the Optic.)
The Romero brothers, by then influential throughout the territory, either could not stop the dissolution law from being passed, or chose to allow its enactment, deciding it would be more expedient for the family to rule absolutely in Old Town and the rest of San Miguel County, and concede New Town to the Anglos.
After the dissolution law was enacted in 1884, there was again no municipal government in either east or west Las Vegas. In 1888, however, the citizens of New Town incorporated the east side of Las Vegas as a separate and independent municipality, with a population nearing 3,000, and Charles W. Wiley was elected the first mayor. Thereafter, East Las Vegas would not have an Hispanic mayor for almost 80 years, until just before consolidation in 1970.
The west side incorporated in 1903, and Don Eugenio’s younger brother Margarito was elected the first mayor of the Town of Las Vegas. Margarito was followed as mayor of Old Town by Don Eugenio’s son Secundino, with Eugenio occupying the position from 1914 until his death in 1920.
For almost a century, the two towns remained separate municipalities. In 1968, by an overwhelming majority on both sides of the Gallinas, the people voted to consolidate East and West. In 1970 the consolidated City of Las Vegas held its first election, 88 years after Don Eugenio Romero had been elected the one and only mayor of the combined city. (Later columns will relate how consolidation came about, and who the major players were at the time.)
Jesus L. Lopez is a resident of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.