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Las Vegas, N.M. — Soldiers and scalawags along the Santa Fe Trail

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LAS VEGAS, N.M. — You must take your imagination with you if you go looking for remains of the Santa Fe Trail. Because, as they will tell you at Fort Union National Monument, "the winds blowed and the grassed growed."

Even at the monument, which is considered one of the best places in the country to see the trail, there are only gentle swells and faint indentations in the landscape to mark the pathway of the countless wagons that traversed the trail in the mid-1800s.

Still, along this desolate stretch of New Mexican prairie, about 28 miles from Las Vegas, N.M., you can close your eyes and see it all — the wagons laden with goods to trade, the dust kicked up by their wheels, the men on horseback riding along. You can almost hear the creaks and jostles of the wagons, the shouts of riders; you can almost smell the leather of saddles, the smoke of campfires.

The Santa Fe Trail was one of the great highways of the 19th-century frontier. Stretching for 800 miles from Independence, Mo., to Santa Fe, N.M., it was established in 1821, the same year that Mexico won independence from Spain. Before that, foreign traders were forbidden in the Spanish territories, but Mexico was eager to obtain goods from the United States, and a lucrative trade began.

Las Vegas was the first city that traders coming from Missouri reached, and although Santa Fe was the territorial capital and final destination, Las Vegas actually eclipsed it in importance for half a century or more. Founded in 1835, Las Vegas was, notes historian Michael L. Olsen, "once the most important city in the Southwest. It boasted fine hotels and numerous mercantile houses which sold goods from around the world. From about 1850 to 1900 it had no rivals from Kansas City to Los Angeles."

Nowadays, Las Vegas is a city of only moderate size and importance in New Mexico. But if you come here, you will find it has interesting stories to tell — not only of the Santa Fe Trail but also of the soldiers and a few of the scalawags who followed it west.

The trail

The Santa Fe Trail once ran right through the center of Las Vegas. Paved over long ago, it has turned into Bridge Street, a thoroughfare that separates "New Town" from "Old Town." Shops and galleries now line the street.

The Old Plaza, at the center of Old Town, was once where traders parked their wagons. Flat-roofed log and adobe buildings around the square formed a defensive enclosure into which livestock could be herded in case of attacks from sometimes hostile American Indians.

A walking tour of this downtown area (stop at the museum sponsored by the Citizens' Committee for Historic Preservation on Bridge Street to pick up a guide) will take you past such buildings as Wesche-Dold (built in 1865), the Plaza Hotel (1882), the Dice Apartments (1846), the E. Romero Hose and Fire Company (1909) and the Courtroom Building (1882) and more. You will see an eclectic mix of architectural styles and building materials.

In all, Las Vegas has nine separate historic districts and 918 buildings and homes listed on the National Register of Historic Sites.

The soldiers

It was at the Old Plaza that Las Vegas became a part of the United States. In 1846, the United States declared war on Mexico and sent troops westward under the direction of Gen. Stephen W. Kearney. On Aug. 14, Kearney and his men marched into Las Vegas, and standing atop one of the flat-roofed buildings on the Plaza, Kearney announced that he was taking possession of New Mexico.

A plaque on a tree at the square records his speech that fateful day: "We come amongst you as friends, not as enemies; as protectors, not as conquerors . . . for your benefit, not your injury. . . . I shall not expect you to take up arms and follow me, to fight your own people. . . . But he who is found in arms against me, I will hang!"

Fort Union was established in 1851, after the war, to protect wagon caravans moving along the Santa Fe Trail and to deal with what the army of the day termed the "Indian problem."

Because of its strategic location, it also played a part in the Civil War drama that played out in New Mexico. In 1862, Confederate forces were sent from Texas to disrupt supply lines and take control of the Santa Fe Trail. They were defeated by a force of Colorado and New Mexico volunteers and U.S. regulars from Fort Union in the Battle of Glorietta Pass. The site of the battlefield is located at Pecos National Historical Park about 40 miles from Las Vegas. Tours are available with advance notice.

Fort Union was abandoned in 1891, having outlived its usefulness and the frontier. Today, as you wander among the melted adobe walls and free-standing chimneys, you might not realize that it was once the largest U.S. military installation on the southwestern frontier.

The ruins here are actually from the third fort built on the site, constructed in 1863. A self-guided walking tour will take you past the Post Commander's house, the Post Officers quarters, the parade ground, the storehouses, mechanics and transportation corrals, the hospital and other remnants of military life. And it is easy to imagine the hustle and bustle of army life at this remote outpost.

You may also come to appreciate, as fort historian Robert M. Utley does, that "the ruins of Fort Union graphically commemorate the achievements of the men who won the West. Located on the route of the Santa Fe Trail where the mountains meet the plains, the fort is centered in a region full of historic events and brimming with the romance of the frontier. As a base of operations for both military and civilian ventures in New Mexico for 40 years, Fort Union played a key role in shaping the destiny of the Southwest."

But these frontier cavalry aren't the only soldiers you'll encounter in Las Vegas. You'll also meet soldiers at the City of Las Vegas Museum and Rough Rider Memorial Collection.

When Teddy Roosevelt came to New Mexico in 1898 to recruit volunteers for a regiment of "hardy cowboys from the West" that would come be to known as the Rough Riders, 21 men from Las Vegas signed on.

The following year — after all the fighting — the Rough Riders chose to have their first reunion in Las Vegas. Roosevelt arrived by train, and the war heroes paraded through the town and went on to rodeo events, musicals, ballroom dancing and other celebrations.

Yearly reunions were held in Las Vegas until 1968. Artifacts and mementos owned by members of the regiment form the nucleus of the museum's collection: photographs, flags, medals, uniforms centered around this philosophy of Roosevelt: "Far better to dare mighty things than to take rank with those poor, timid spirits who know neither victory or defeat."

The scalawags

The railroad arrived in Las Vegas in 1879, essentially marking an end to the Santa Fe Trail — but not to the town's colorful history.

The railroad brought prosperity as well as travelers. The Plaza Hotel was erected in 1882 to accommodate an influx of travelers. Registered guests included Billy the Kid and Doc Holliday. That same year, the Montezuma Resort and Hot Springs Hotel was built. Guests who came there to "take the waters" included Theodore Roosevelt, Ulysses S. Grant — and Jesse James.

Among other outlaws that were lured to Las Vegas by the increasing prosperity were Stuttering Tom, "Scarface" Charlie, Little Jack the Cutter, Tommy the Poet, Flapjack Bill and the Durango Kid. Wyatt Earp came here, as did "Dirty Dave" Rudabaugh and his Dodge City Gang.

A gazebo on the Plaza marks the place that once served as vigilante justice for Las Vegas. A windmill there was used as a makeshift gallows.

"Las Vegas used to be mentioned in the same breath as Deadwood and Tombstone," says local historian Elmo Baca. "Billy the Kid used to hang around here a lot. On Dec. 25, 1880, he was arrested by Pat Garrett in Stinking Springs and brought to jail here by wagon. People lined the street to see him. He spent the night in jail and gave an interview to the Las Vegas Daily Optic. Many historians think that the two known images of Billy the Kid both came from Las Vegas."

But if the town was wild and woolly, it also enjoyed increasing refinement. The Montezuma was considered one of the great spa hotels of its age, says Baca. Anyone who wanted to see the "wild West" would come to this glamorous hotel. Average stay in those days was six weeks.

The hotel is now the campus for the United World College, so it still lends a cachet of importance to the town.

Shortly after the turn of the century, Hollywood discovered Las Vegas. Legendary cowboy Tom Mix filmed 16 movies here.

Heroes and hooligans — this area of New Mexico has them all; and even after all the changes caused by weather and time, there are enough remnants and reminders around that it's easy to imagine what it was like.

Carma Wadley visited Las Vegas as the guest of Las Vegas/San Miguel Chamber of Commerce. For travel information, you can contact the chamber at 701 Grand Avenue, Las Vegas, NM 87701; call toll-free, 800-832-5947 or visit www.lasvegasnm.org.

E-mail: carma@desnews.com