Forty-five years ago, the night of Feb. 27, 1968, East Las Vegas Mayor Ben Lingnau and West Las Vegas Mayor Fidel “Chief” Gonzales, symbolically buried the hatchet which had divided the twin cities for almost a century. Joined by a crowd of hundreds, the two mayors stood at the very center of the bridge which separated East from West, as they celebrated the successful referendum of that momentous day, merging Old Town and New Town, and establishing one unified Las Vegas.
That Tuesday, the people on both sides of the Gallinas River voted to end the racial and social divide which had separated the two towns since the railroad arrived in 1879.
In this series, Nuestra Historia will recount the rocky road to consolidation, and explain the separation which preceded the merger and which defined East and West Las Vegas for almost a century – a stark division now obliterated, but an integral part of Las Vegas history.
Many young Las Vegans and newcomers alike find it difficult to understand that two separate and distinct municipalities existed side by side along the Gallinas, each with its own mayor and council, and its separate police, public works and utilities departments. Yet, in a peculiarly symbiotic existence spanning almost a hundred years, the two towns remained separate and apart — resulting in a distinct evolution and character which makes the tale of the two cities unique in the annals of New Mexico history.
We begin with the evolving demographics of East Las Vegas after it was founded by the railroad in 1879. As the new rail town emerged, its population was almost entirely non-Hispanic, with shop keepers, railroad employees, professionals, adventurers, and a multitude of others arriving daily to make their place in the new boom town. Hispanics remained west of the Gallinas River, and in the many outlying placitas which had grown along with Las Vegas Grandes since the earliest days after the west side was founded in 1835. (See “The Railroad Bypasses Las Vegas,” “An American Town by Americans Only,” “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Frenzied Growth on the East Side,” and “Placitas Grew with Las Vegas,” Nuestra Historia, June, July and Aug., 2011.)
As New Town began its lightening-speed ascent to become New Mexico’s premier Anglo-American city, its fast-growing population soon required domestics, gardeners, stable boys, fire stokers, wood and coal haulers, and the many other menial and manual services needed for the burgeoning rail town. These jobs were quickly taken by Old Town Hispanics, who crossed the Gallinas River to fill every manner of manual and domestic service, returning home to the west side after a day’s or night’s work.
Within a short time, however, more and more Hispanics who had taken jobs on the east side (from both Old Town and the outlying placitas), began to take-up residence in New Town, in the areas east of the railroad tracks, on Pecos and Commerce Streets, and later along Railroad Avenue – and the Hispanic barrio was born in East Las Vegas. (The other Hispanic enclave which existed early-on was La Lanera, the area north of the present-day Wilson Athletic Complex on the Highlands University campus.)
It was not until the 1950s that a sprinkling of Hispanics began to reside in the Tilden, Jackson and Lincoln Street area of East Las Vegas, gradually increasing their number in what had been New Town’s first residential neighborhood. In the following decade, a few Hispanic families began to acquire homes in the exclusively Anglo neighborhoods west of north Grand Avenue, and the Hispanic population grew slowly into the areas along Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Streets.
Against this demographic backdrop and strata, since its earliest days, East Las Vegas was governed as an exclusively Anglo-American city, as urged by Russ Kistler’s Optic in 1879. And notwithstanding the sizeable and always growing Hispanic population on the east side, it was not until 1968, just two years before consolidation took effect, that the first (and last) Hispanic was elected mayor of New Town.
An identical pattern of governance dominated the Las Vegas City Schools, and since the creation of that school district in the mid-1880s, no Hispanic would serve on the east side school board until the 1950s, and he would remain the sole Hispanic on the board for yet another 20 years.
But we return to the early days, when dentist Frederick E. Olney was elected the first mayor of East Las Vegas. The Olney building, extant at the southeast corner of Douglas Avenue and Sixth Street, was built by this early mayor, who was apparently popular as both a dentist and politician.
We will continue with other early officials of East Las Vegas, including Charles Tamme of the famous Tamme-Duncan Opera House, and New Town’s colorful and controversial Thomas V. Truder, who had to fight all the way to the New Mexico Supreme Court to hold on to the mayor’s office.
Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.