After seeing the plazas of Old Town Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Taos (among others) on our drive through New Mexico, the one here in Las Vegas came as something of a surprise. Like the others it is a legacy of Spanish colonisation, but it has retained fewer adobe buildings and has less of the Spanish air to it. Instead it feels a little like a small Victorian park, surrounded by buildings that are still historic but dating mostly from the more recent past.
The plaza began, as was the custom for Spanish settlers, with the construction of a number of small homes around an open space that could be defended easily from attack. When the Santa Fe Trail route was established, locals were quick to encourage passing merchants to overnight here, and the resulting trade led to the city’s expansion. Over time many of the houses surrounding the plaza were converted into stores, or even totally demolished and shops built in their place. The area became the lively hub of the city, and was witness to several historical events. For instance, a plaque in the park commemorates the day in August 1846 when General Kearney stood on top of a building here and claimed the territory for the United States (sorry, no photo – it was raining too hard by the time we came back to the park after our walk and a coffee!)
When the railroad came to Las Vegas it arrived a mile to the east, and a new town grew up there. West Las Vegas remained as a bit of a backwater, but still thriving enough for a while for new businesses such as the Plaza Hotel and Ilfield’s Emporium to be established. But when the main railroad line was diverted south of here both parts of the city suffered, and for a while the buildings around the plaza, as elsewhere in the city, fell into decline.
In recent years the city has enjoyed something of a resurgence, and here in the plaza area this is exemplified (and was in part triggered) by the restoration of the Plaza Hotel. But there are several other buildings of note around the perimeter, with a few still retaining the old adobe (albeit now mostly covered with stucco) while the majority are Victorian in appearance.
Several of these are shops and one or two offer refreshments. We had looked in vain for a good cup of coffee on Bridge Street (a woman in the only café that was open told us that their espresso machine was broken) so we were very happy to find that Tapetes de Lana, a weaving and textile arts co-operative on the north-east corner of the plaza, had a coffee bar where we got an excellent mocha, and also enjoyed browsing the crafts on sale and seeing the old looms in use there. You can read more about Tapetes de Lana here – it’s a very laudable business.
On the north side of the plaza we especially enjoyed the works on display at Zocalo Gallery (212 Plaza), another co-operative but this time featuring painters, potters, jewellery makers and more. You can see some examples of the work on their Facebook page.
When the railroad came to Las Vegas it arrived a mile to the east, and a new town grew up there. East and West Las Vegas were actually two separate towns until as recently as 1970. For years the area between them, now filled by Bridge Street and its offshoots, was semi-rural, used by settlers to grow crops. But as East Las Vegas expanded it stretched out towards its neighbour and Bridge Street was born. Lined with commercial buildings in a wide range of architectural styles, it is today a slightly kitsch (to my eyes) mix of the seedy, the small-town Americana, and the sympathetically restored.
Reflecting the city’s sudden boom, triggered by the coming of the railroad, many of these buildings were quickly thrown up, constructed of inexpensive materials. When the city declined, so did they. But perhaps ironically, the city’s economic decline during the mid 20th century helped in the preservation of these unique historic buildings as there were no funds for restoration during a period when such tasks were approached with much less sensitivity than is the case nowadays.
The whole area has been declared an Historic District by the city council, and over 90 buildings in and around it are listed on national, state or local registers of historic buildings. Some of the most notable, according to the sign we saw, include the Italianate Stern & Nahm Store (1883-1886 – my second photo) and the “World’s Fair Classic” style Romero Hose and Fire Company building (1909 – photo in my travelogue). But we enjoyed just as much the less remarkable buildings and the general sense of a town that is lived-in rather than on show – a great antidote to the sometimes too-studied artiness of Santa Fe or even Taos.
The thing that brings me back to Las Vegas again and again is its proximity to pristine wilderness.
Only a few miles outside of Las Vegas, past the canyon ranches and historic villages that line Gallinas Creek, NM 65 ends and turns into a dirt forest road, heading into the Santa Fe National Forest.
Forking to the left, you begin to climb, quickly. Eventually the road ends in front of a trail head (where the road used to go). Just above you is Johnson's Mesa, one of the highest points in the area.
Johnson's Mesa is a plateau, mostly a field ringed by trees. It is fairly well-used as a camping area, with restroom facilities at the actual site. The top and sides provide some gorgeous valley and mountain views. There are also several trails that run off into the virgin wildnerness to the west.
The road up is open in the summer and can be done in a passenger car (normally). The side road to Johnson's Mesa may be a little trickier without a high-clearance vehicle, but I've seen cars there.
Seeing "Hot Springs Road" on a map may give you the odd idea that there are hot springs somewhere near Las Vegas. Well, you'd be right. Some of the best-maintained and most accessible public tubs I've ever seen are located on Hot Springs Road (NM 65) along Gallinas Creek very near Armand Hammer UWC.
There are several groups of tubs, so you can choose one where there's room. There are also different temperature levels, indicated by signs near the tubs themselves. They are all pretty hot though, so be advised.
The tubs are maintained by the nearby school, and are not crowded, but are also rarely empty. Very clean and inviting.
Oh, and sorry, clothing required.
Welcome to the midpoint café in Adrian, Texas.....exact midpoint of Historic Route 66! 1,139 miles from Chicago and 1,139 miles to Los Angeles on the Mother Road, the midpoint café is a destination in and of itself.
Stop in to see the best auto car museum in New Mexico! Located on the Historic Route 66 in SANTA ROSA. Be sure and bring your camera to see the most nostalgic, custom, and original street machines you'll ever see in one place. Also, enjoy the fully stocked gift shop and food court. Hours are 8am to 6pm in the fall and winter, and 8am to 8pm in the spring and summer. Admission is $5 per person, 12 and under are free.