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Visiting Las Vegas--in Historic New Mexico?

January 24, 1988|W. S. STARKEY | Starkey is a free-lance writer living in Anaheim

LAS VEGAS, N.M. — "Notice to thieves, thugs, fakirs and bunko-steerers among whom are J. J. Harlin, alias 'Off Wheeler,' Saw Dust Charlie, Wm. Hedges, Billy the Kid, Billy Mullin, Little Jack the Cutter, Pock-Marked Kid and about twenty others: If found within the limits of this city after ten o'clock this night you will be invited to attend a grand neck-tie party, the expense of which will be borne by 100 substantial citizens."

So warns the placard displayed in the Rough Riders Museum on Grand Avenue in this New Mexico town. Back in the bad old days the warning was posted on a windmill that served as the vigilantes' favorite gallows.

Billy the Kid did, in fact, grace the Las Vegas jail for a while, and Doc Holliday was in town long enough to gun a man down; but colorful as it was, outlawry was only a minor chapter in Las Vegas' past.

A visit here validates the tag that New Mexico attaches to its name: Land of Enchantment? Absolutely! Getting in touch with Las Vegas' past is a thoroughly enchanting experience, and even the lukewarm history buff will find his time well spent doing so.

Driving down University or National or any of the other streets that radiate from the tree-doted plaza, you will notice that many of the shops are boarded up now. Many others have drastically abbreviated business hours.

So you'd never guess that in Las Vegas' heyday it ranked with Denver and Albuquerque as one of the three major cities in the Southwest. Its eminence stemmed from its status as district headquarters for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad.

Trading Center

Before that it was the largest and busiest trading center along the Santa Fe Trail, which shared honors with the Oregon Trail as the chief arteries for opening the American West before the railroads came along.

Near the diminutive Gallinas River, which bisects Las Vegas, the ruts of the Santa Fe Trail are still plain to see. You can see them, too, at the ruins of Ft. Union about 30 miles north of Las Vegas.

The half-hour drive from Las Vegas to Ft. Union, north on I-25 and New Mexico 477, pays handsome dividends in historical perspective.

Deservedly, the ruins of the fort are a National Monument. History-steeped staff members at the monument's museum are ready and willing to spend one-on-one time with you to answer your questions.

The fort was established in 1851 as the designated headquarters of military defense for the Southwest and fulfilled that vital role until it was abandoned in 1890.

You tread the fort's original flagstone walkways during much of the one-mile stroll through the crumbling adobe remains of the supply depot, hospital, officers' row and company quarters.

On the yardstick of human history in the region, though, the ruins of Ft. Union are only an inch mark. The area was inhabited long before there was a Las Vegas, a Santa Fe Trail or the need for a fort to defend them--at least 10,000 years ago, the archeological evidence says.

Pueblo Heartland

More recently, the region was one of the heartlands of Pueblo civilization. A few miles southwest of Las Vegas, professor Bob Mishler of New Mexico Highlands University is leading the effort to unearth the remains of Pueblo settlements.

At one site, a large kiva of the Anasazi (basket maker) culture has been excavated. Dating technology has pegged its occupancy at about AD 830.

Surrounding pueblos are being dug out now. (By contacting Mishler at the university, a visitor to Las Vegas may be able to arrange to watch the archeologists at work--or even, with careful coaching and close supervision, be allowed to work with trowel, dental pick and artifact tray himself for a while.)

Honed by the tonic freshness of the high plains air, the sightseer's appetite precludes his dwelling in the past indefinitely. You'll find choice Mexican cuisine at picturesque eating places here.

For mesquite-broiled steaks, an unlimited salad bar and moderate prices by California standards, the Redstone Steak House, 612 6th St., is worth a try for dinners from $9.95. Phone (505) 454-1909.

Although Grand Avenue offers the customary comforts of several standard-brand motels, a couple of lodging options can sustain the mood of stepping back into the past.

A short drive from the plaza down University to 6th, then west past Douglas to Railroad Avenue takes you to a magnificent brick hotel, the Castenada, 44,000 square feet of marble-floored dining and ballroom areas, spacious rooms and apartments.

Teddy Roosevelt Visited

Teddy Roosevelt favored this once opulent jewel in the chain of Harvey House Hotels when he was in town for his exuberant Rough Riders reunions.

Scarcely half a dozen rooms or apartments, at $150 a month, are occupied at any given time. The Castenada fronts the railroad at 524 Railroad Ave., adjacent to the AT&SF depot. Phone (505) 425-9985.

Across Railroad Avenue the Harvey House where the Harvey Girls lived has long been sealed with clapboards and scrap lumber, its painted name faded and barely discernible.

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