By 1871 there existed a transcontinental railroad across the United States, spanning the northern Great Plains, and soon plans were in place to run a rail line to the southwest, roughly along the route of the Santa Fe Trail.
Thus was commenced a new railway from Topeka, Kansas, to Santa Fe. (As early as 1863 the Atchison & Topeka Railroad added Santa Fe to its company name, when it decided that New Mexico’s capital city would be the southern destination of its rail line.)
At the time, as the country recovered from the ravages of the Civil War, there was fierce competition between the great railroads, as they raced each other to expand west. Competition for the southern route was especially contentious between the A.T.&S.F., and the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, and by 1877 both companies had taken their rail heads as far as Pueblo, Colorado. (The southern destination of the Denver & Rio Grande was El Paso.)
When both companies neared Raton in late 1878, it became apparent there would be room through Raton Pass for only one rail line, and they each raced to be the first. Through some last minute shenanigans, the A.T.&S.F. crew beat the Denver & Rio Grande to the Pass by only one day (some say a half hour), grading and staking out a rail bed, and claiming Raton Pass under the doctrine of prior construction. Thus it was that the A.T.&S.F., not the Denver & Rio Grande, would make its way to Las Vegas less than a year later.
As the rail line approached Las Vegas in 1879, our town existed only west of the Gallinas River. Since its founding in 1835, our town’s core was its central plaza, with growth to the west, north and south. Upper Las Vegas (San Antonio) had also been settled beginning in the early 1840s, but the entire area east of the Gallinas River was scarcely populated, and used only for grazing livestock.
As the railroad continued south from Raton, Las Vegans fully expected the rail line to come through their town. The expectation was entirely reasonable, as Las Vegas was a thriving and existing settlement, and agents of the A.T.&S.F. had solicited pledges from local businessmen, for the construction of a railroad station near the plaza.
So confident were the townspeople that the railroad would come through their community, that freighter and merchant Rumaldo Baca built a four-story hotel to accommodate the anticipated business from the soon-to-arrive railroad. Baca erected his hotel in 1878, directly across and south of the newly completed Our Lady of Sorrows Church.
The building was designed to house businesses on the ground and second levels, with rooms to be let on the upper floors. The building featured Baca’s distinctive style, with the uppermost floor providing a not-quite full level, with boxed protruding windows. (At about the same time, Baca helped build the Sisters Academy on South Gonzales Street, and that building also featured Don Rumaldo’s distinctive style, as appears in the photograph which ran with this column on June 3.)
Of course, the railroad bypassed Las Vegas by about a mile, and Don Rumaldo’s ambitious hotel would be known forever as Baca’s Folly. The savvy Rumaldo later recouped his loss, however, when he sold his land holdings west of the Old Town Plaza. (Baca and Don Miguel Romero had acquired much of the land immediately west of the plaza, and considerable profit was made when the land sold after the 1880s.)
Other Las Vegas merchants had also anticipated that the railroad would come through town, and made financial pledges toward the construction of a railroad depot to be located in the vicinity of their business establishments around the plaza. They too were sorely disappointed, if not outraged, when the railroad was located a mile east. (The pledges were solicited by agents of the A.T.& S.F., indicating that at least for a time there was a plan to run the rail line through Las Vegas.)
Why did the A.T. & S.F. locate its railroad a distant mile east of Las Vegas? The railroad’s excuse was that it wanted to avoid the expense of building a rail span (bridge) over the Gallinas River, as its tracks were approaching Las Vegas from the north along the eastern plains.
The townspeople felt otherwise, and the prevalent opinion at the time ascribed a much less wholesome motive to the decision to bypass Las Vegas: A new rail town was envisioned for Anglo newcomers, which they wanted established apart and away from the “Mexican” people who lived on the west side of the river.
Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.