The first mission was built here between 1615 and 1626, but during the Pueblo uprising of 1680, the local Piros and the Spanish settlers fled south. It wasn’t until 1816, that a small group of Spaniards resettled Socorro and rebuilt the church, completing it in 1821. Unfortunately when we visited in September 2011 the church was closed for what is apparently much-needed renovation, as past neglect of the adobe structure has led to extensive water damage.
According to the small leaflet about Socorro’s history produced by the local tourism board, “There are 4 sub floors under the church. Records show that four priests & General Manuel Armijo, the last governor of the Territory of New Mexico, are buried under the church. Some descendants of the early settlers say that in the early 1800’s, an Apache Indian raid was halted when they saw a man with wings and shining sword hovering over the church door. Shortly afterward, a petition was made to the Bishop to change the name of the church to San Miguel (St. Michael), the Angelic Protector of the people.”
We went to Saturday evening Mass here (held in the parish hall because of the church closure) and were really taken by the friendliness of the local people. One couple were celebrating sixty years of marriage, with four generations of their large family around them - a lovely thing to be part of!
About half a block south of the Plaza in a quiet street near the County Hall is this odd-looking memorial. This is a fragment from Jumbo, a rather cute name for a rather sinister object. Jumbo was the huge steel vessel designed to contain the explosion of the first ever nuclear device, which was detonated at the Trinity Site 35 miles southeast of Socorro on 16th July 1945. It was 25 feet long, 12 feet in diameter and weighed 214 tons. It was not actually used for that first explosion but as it was just 800 feet from ground zero it did suffer some damage, and in later experiments had its ends blown out. It is thus a slightly disturbing souvenir of those early experiments in atomic warfare. Even today many Socorroans apparently remember the light of the first atomic blast at White Sands Missile Range. Trinity Site is now a monument, open twice a year.
If you pass by Socorro on I25, or even if you leave the Interstate and drive through on the main thoroughfare, California Street, you could be forgiven for thinking that there is nothing to the town apart from chain motels, fast food restaurants, supermarkets, shopping plazas and gas stations. Certainly you are unlikely to realise from this superficial glance that there is any real history to the town, let alone that some of this history is on show just a block behind the modern face that it turns to the highway. But so it is. One block west of California Street is Socorro’s Plaza, and in its immediate surroundings you can get a sense of the small pueblo it once was.
The plaza on the late Saturday afternoon when we visited appeared to be a popular hang-out for local young people, assorted dog-walkers (see photo three for an unusually dressed pooch!) and other locals maybe meeting up with friends prior to evening Mass at the nearby church or a few Saturday night beers perhaps. The atmosphere was quite lively but not one in which we as the (I think) sole tourists felt out of place. The centre of the plaza is a small park, Kittrel Park, named for a local dentist who first planted the grass and trees here, and around it a number of historic sights such as the “Wheel of History” in photo 2. This bronze sculpture, just to the north of the plaza itself, was created in the late 90s to illustrate the history of the town. Around the edge of the plaza and in nearby streets are a number of interesting signs such as the ones in my main photo and photo four, each depicting a feature of the town or surrounding area.
When you’ve finished your stroll around the plaza and are ready for some refreshment, I can recommend the Manzanero Coffee Bar on its eastern side. They brew proper espresso, make some delicious iced coffee drinks, and it’s the sort of place where you can sit for ages over a cup while reading a book, writing your post-cards or catching up on your VT notes ;-) Next door is an historic bar, the Capital Bar (photo five), which lays claim to being the oldest still-operating drinking establishment in town. We were driving however, so favoured the coffee shop on this occasion.
The tall building with the advertisement painted on the side was built in the 1880's as the Knights of Pythias Hall. The building next door was built around the same time. Some of the extra touches used in constructing the building show the benefit derived from the mining boom and the railroad.
The Manzanares Historic District extends east of the highway towards where the railroad depot was. The beautiful Val Verde Hotel was built in 1919 using the Spanish Mission Revival style of architecture and was considered a very luxurious hotel. It has a very nice courtyard out front. It is no longer in business but is historically and architecturally interesting.
This two story brick building was built in 1880. It housed a drugstore that was once the oldest operating drugstore in the state, and was founded by a relative of Conrad Hilton. It also held a Masonic Lodge. Today it houses the Chamber of Commerce.
This home was built around 1870 for Juan Jose Baca, grandson of one of the founders of Socorro. Baca maintained a business in his home and the two story part of the home was a general merchandise store. The home has 18 inch thick walls, a small courtyard and an elaborate balcony on the second floor.
Probably the most famous building in Socorro after the mission is the Garcia Opera House. It is located a short distance from Kittrel Park and was built by Francesca Garcia in 1884 using money left to her by her late husband. The opera house was built with curved walls 34 inches in width to improve the strength and the acoustics of the building. It also has possibly the last "raked" stage in existence in the United States.
Isidro Baca Park also contains a piece of "Jumbo", a huge steel vessel designed to contain the first nuclear explosion at nearby Trinity Site. Socorro offers trips to Trinity Site in April and October.
Isidro Baca Park, also known as Veterans Memorial and Park, runs from Kittrel Park to the Socorro County Courthouse. It contains monuments to area veterans and an anti-aircraft gun. It is named for PFC Isidro Baca the first soldier from Socorro killed in Vietnam.
When the town was first laid out there was a plaza north of Kittrel Park. Kittrel Park was nothing more than an open Army field in 1850. By the 1880's Kittrel Park was called the "Plaza". Dr. L. W. Kittrel, a dentist and postmaster was instrumental in keeping the park active. Reportedly, when he died he was buried in the park and it was given his name. Kittrel Park is well laid out with large trees providing shade, park benches, a nice gazebo where bands sometimes play, and artistic metal signs depicting area attractions both past and present. Area businesses grew up around the park and down Manzanares Avenue toward the railroad depot.
The mission here was founded in 1598 and the parish established in 1615. The mission was built in 1821 and was originally called "Nuestra Senora de Perpetuo Socorro" (Our Lady of Perpetual Help). The mission quickly became a center for the community and its activities. In the early 1800s a band of Apache planned to attack the church; but called it off when they reportedly saw a man with wings carrying a sword hovering over the doorway to the mission. A petition was made to the bishop to change the name to San Miguel in honor of St Michael Angelic protector of the people. The church is very impressive and a pretty reminder of the town history. It is also the main attraction in one of the three historic districts in Socorro.
The Socorro Heritage and Visitors Center is located in the old Water Commission Building. This building was built between 1913 and 1930 using coursed ashlar stone. The center has a nice collection of old photographs and memorabilia and souvenirs of the town.
The Socorro County Courthouse was built in 1940 using the Spanish Pueblo Revival Style of architecture. It replaced the one built in 1884 using the High Victorian style of architecture that was damaged by an earthquake in 1906. This is a pretty building with projecting Vigas and wooden lintels. One of the prettier courthouses in New Mexico.
What originally attracted me to this place was the movie "Contact," much of which was filmed at this site.
There's really nothing like the VLA simply because of the grand scale of it set against the otherwise bleak and featureless landscape of the Plains of San Augustin. The site was chosen for its remoteness, being so far removed from anything that could remotely be a "city" but also surrounded by mountains on either side to prevent interference from radio signals. Cell phones use is also prohibited in the area, even though you have no chance of getting a signal.
The best time to come is near sunrise or sunset, when the sky creates the purple and orange hues that the Southwest is so famous for, while the sun tries to reach you through the holes in the structure of the dishes.
Be advised that you can't just get out of your car and walk anywhere on the site. Near the visitor's center, there is a defined trail that you are expected to follow, getting you close to one of the dishes, but not letting you step too far out.
If you have an interest in the landscape as well, you can also drive down NM 54 a little further, out of the VLA territory, and simply get out of your car to walk around the plains. NM 54 leads into some of the most beautiful country in the Southwest, but that's another story all its own.