This post on Las Vegas NM was originally published in September 2012. It was updated on April 27, 2016.
When people hear that Santa Fe is about 70 miles from Las Vegas, they get really excited. If you’re looking for glitz and big time games, you’re going to be disappointed. It’s not LV, Nevada, the signs are referring to, it’s Las Vegas NM. But, if you’re looking for great Victorian architecture, and an interesting chunk of New Mexico history, you’re in for a treat.
A short history of Las Vegas NM
Originally, settlers from San Miguel, NM came north and settled in what later became known as Old Las Vegas NM. Most built on the west side of the Gallinas River (the Plaza area). From 1825 to the 1880s, Las Vegas NM was the largest city in the southwest. In 1879, it became a major railroad town and remained so into the early 1900s. At one point there were two different towns, West Las Vegas (the older portion of the city) and East Las Vegas, the “newer” part. The river was the dividing line. They were consolidated into one city in 1960.
Las Vegas was a big railroad town flourishing from 1879 into the early 1900s. The town saw boom and bust periods over the years. Many of the late Victorian stone and brick commercial buildings and the period homes that are on the town’s tree-lined streets fell into disrepair. Slowly the town is being restored.
A bit of historical trivia: famous names that lived in or visited Las Vegas NM include Billy the Kid (who spent one night in the Old Las Vegas jail), Doc Holliday, Big Nose Kate, Kit Carson, Jesse James, and Pat Garrett. On a more respectable note, and Teddy Roosevelt visited the town for the Rough Riders Reunion in 1899. Some of Tom Mix’s westerns were shot here.
Much of the town’s historic Plaza, anchored by the renovated Plaza Hotel, built in 1882, has has been refurbished. We stayed there on a subsequent visit to Las Vegas. We went to check out the Italianate Veeder Block building, circa 1880, on the west side of the Plaza and discovered an odd sign on the door: “Absaroka County Sherriff’s Office, Buffalo, Wyoming. It was a bit of an anomaly. Turns out, the fictional Absaroka County is the setting for the contemporary Netflix western, Longmire, starring Robert Taylor and Lou Diamond Phillips. Part of it was filmed in Las Vegas NM. We’ve become big fans of the show.
While checking out the Plaza with its Vistorian gazebo we met artist and santero, Peter Lopez from Montezuma, NM. He was up on a scaffold carving a statue he’s named Un Campesino (The Farmer) into the trunk of a dead Chinese elm tree. The statue, a tribute to farm laborers throughout North America, is part of an Art in the Public Parks project. When finished, tree will be dedicated to the farmers and ranchers of San Miguel County.
Lunch at Charlie’s Spic and Span
Driving east you pass many great buildings before arriving at the campus of New Mexico Highlands University. A turn down 8th Street takes you to Douglas. Hang a left and you’ll see Charlie’s Spic and Span (715 Douglas Avenue 505-426-1921). No, it’s not a cleaning store; it’s a café with what our friend, Tina, calls, “the best sopapillas in New Mexico.” We ordered stuffed ones. Steve opted for carne adovada and I got the shredded roast beef. Both were smothered in really hot green chile. They were wonderful! The posole I ordered as my side was loaded with big chunks of pork in it. Portions were huge; we packed up the leftovers and enjoyed them at home the next day
Art on Las Vegas.
When we left Charlie’s we noticed a nine panel mural behind a parking lot directly across the street. The People’s History of El Norte was painted by 300 local high school students under the direction of artist Rock Ulibarri, the muralist at the local Casa de Cultura, a non-profit agency involved in cultural and educational activities. Since our first visit in 2012, we’ve discovered that there’s an artistic renaissance happening in Las Vegas NM. Lately, the city’s been attracting artists from around the country and even the world. A French couple recently opened a gallery and renowned artist Ed Raucha’s brother is opening a gallery. Tina Mion, partner in the Plaza Hotel with her husband Allan Affeldt, shows her art in the hotel, along with the sculptures created by the hotel’s General Manager, Dan Lutzick. They’re currently renovating the Castaneda Hotel which will also showcase the duos’ art.
Don’t miss the amazing Dwan Light Sanctuary showcasing the prisms of artist Charles Ross.. When the light hits right the sanctuary is awash with rainbows of light. The space radiates a sacred energy and calls out for visitors to take a bit of time to sit and reflect.
The old depot
Then it was on to the historic restored Las Vegas Depot, built in 1899. The station, renovated in 2003, is both the town’s Amtrak station and their Visitor’s Center. Stop here and pick up the valuable guide to historic Las Vegas put out by the Citizen’s Committee for Historic Preservation. It’s free! At present two Amtrak trains on the LA to Chicago route, one in each direction, stop every day. The La Castaneda Hotel, built to be the jewel in the crown of the Harvey Houses, lies just north of the station. Today it sits forlorn and boarded up, but there may be a buyer for it. Perhaps, it will be returned to its former splendor.
The Rough Rider Museum
From there, we headed to the City of Las Vegas Museum and Rough Rider Memorial Collection. The museum has a collection of Las Vegas and Rough Rider memorabilia. The town sent at least 20 men to Ride with Roosevelt; there’s a strong connection to the fabled unit. The Rough Riders Reunion Association donated the collection to this city where many of their reunions were held. The La Castaneda Hotel was the site of the first Rough Rider Reunion held in 1899. As mentioned above, Teddy Roosevelt was there for the occasion.
Las Vegas NM has some great vintage signs scattered around town. We love the Murphy’s Drugs Coke sign we passed in East Las Vegas. The building now houses a bank, but the sign lives on.
Driving out of Las Vegas NM, we knew that we’d only scratched the surface of this historic New Mexico town and that we’d be back.
Author’s note: We’ve been back several time since our first exploration in September 2012. We love this quirky city and plan to spend more time there.
If you like vintage signs like the Coke sign above, you might really like the Classical Gas Museum in Embudo, NM.