Las Vegas prospered for almost a half century before the railroad arrived in 1879.
During that short span beginning in 1835, our town saw expansive growth and change. Because of its prime location along the Santa Fe Trail, Las Vegas experienced more bustle and flurry than any other place in New Mexico.
In the 50 years before the railroad, our town witnessed first-hand the major transformative developments of the time, and more than any other place in New Mexico, Las Vegas was at the crossroads of history.
In 1841, only six years after they settled their town, the first Las Vegans gathered in their plaza to join Gov. Manuel Armijo in a great bonfire as he burned a proclamation of invasion carried by 300 Texans in their futile mission to conquer New Mexico. The Texans were captured and marched from Las Vegas to Mexico City as prisoners of war.
Five years later, on Aug. 15, 1846, the original settlers of Las Vegas were the first to witness the occupation of New Mexico by the United States. On that Saturday morning, they saw an encampment of 1,700 soldiers across the river on the highlands east of their town, and stood bewildered as General Kearny galloped into their plaza and proclaimed, from the roof top of our mayor’s house, the annexation of New Mexico.
Only 11 years before, the 36 original settlers of Las Vegas had established their town west of the Gallinas River, in a fully enclosed plaza, next to which they had laid out an acequia for irrigation of their farmlands. On the west side of their plaza, they had built an adobe church, in honor of Our Lady of Sorrows, the patroness of their town.
Trade between New Mexico and the east had started as early as 1820, but after the American annexation in 1846, the first citizens of Las Vegas saw more and more traders and caravans crossing through their town. By the late 1850s their small agrarian community had become a bustling trade stop along the Santa Fe Trail.
Several early Las Vegans joined the expanding commerce along the Trail, and established their own freighting operations. Within a few years, Miguel Romero and his five sons were running one of the largest overland freighting firms on the entire Santa Fe Trail.
Beginning in the late 1850s and all through the 1860s, Anglo settlers made their way to Las Vegas, many opening stores on the plaza. Within a short time, the central plaza was transformed from its original one-story adobe enclosure, into a newly conceived style of two-story, framed and porched buildings, giving birth to a unique territorial style architecture, which would spread throughout New Mexico.
Among those arriving in the 1860s were several German Jews, including Joseph and Emmanuel Rosenwald, and Charles Ilfeld, who would establish great mercantile houses, and begin making Las Vegas both a Jewish enclave and major commercial center of the Southwest.
By the 1860s, Miguel Romero’s freighting venture had become the most lucrative business in the area, and quickly blossomed into a vast mercantile, ranching and lumber empire run by his five sons, Trinidad, Eugenio, Hilario, Benigno and Margarito. Before the end of the 1870s, Don Miguel’s five sons were completely dominating the financial and political affairs of Las Vegas and San Miguel County, and their influence soon spread throughout the territory.
During this pre-railroad era, Las Vegas overtook the Valley as the hub of commerce and activity, and in 1864 the county seat was moved from San Miguel del Bado to Las Vegas. As well, since the 1840s, placitas had been growing all around Las Vegas, first in Los Valles de San Agustín, but quickly in all neighboring directions, and San Miguel County became the most populous county in New Mexico.
A large church was erected a block west of the plaza, replacing the original adobe church, and the new, almost cathedral-size church, again honored Our Lady of Sorrows, the patroness and namesake of Las Vegas Grandes de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores.
A system of formal education was established in an area the early settlers designated as El Distrito de las Escuelas, south of the plaza, and included the Sisters Academy and the Jesuit College, both of which first started in homes made available by original settlers Rumaldo Baca, Manuel Romero and Francisco López. Las Vegas quickly became an education mecca, attracting students from as far away as Mexico and Denver.
This all occurred within 50 years after Las Vegas was settled, and it all happened west of the Rio Gallinas. There was no Las Vegas east of the river.
This would all change on July 4, 1879.
Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.