Discovering the other Las Vegas: Las Vegas NM

This post on Las Vegas NM was originally published in September 2012. It was updated and republished 5/11/16.

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

The historic Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas NM photo Steve Collins

The historic Plaza Hotel, Las Vegas, NM, photo/Steve Collins

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.

The Plaza

Las Vegas NM Working on a campesino sculpture in the Plaza photo Steve Collins

Working on a campesino sculpture in the Plaza photo/Steve Collins

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 in Las Vegas

The People’s History of El Norte painted by students in Las Vegas NM photo Steve Collins

Part of a mura titled The People’s History of El Norte painted by students photo/Steve Collins

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.

A rainbow of light at the Dwan Light Sanctuary Las Vegas NM photo Steve Collins

A rainbow of light at the Dwan Light Sanctuary photo/Steve Collins

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

Las Vegas NM

Las Vegas’ old depot was renovated in 2003 photo/Steve Collins

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 Castañeda Hotel, a former Harvey House hotel, lies just north of the station. The hotel, in in a seriously deteriorated state, was purchased in 2014 by hotelier Allan Affeldt, owner of Las Vegas’ historic Plaza Hotel and the iconic former Harvey House La Posada in Winslow, AZ. He and his team are in the process of turning it into a boutique hotel. Tours of the historic property are available through Southwest Detours. The company also offers tours of the former Montezuma Castle a former Harvey House as well as the Plaza Hotel.

The Rough Rider Museum

Rough Rider Museum Las Vegas NM photo Billie Frank

Rough Rider Museum, photo/Billie Frank

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.

Vintage signs

Las Vegas NM Vintage coke sign photo Billie Frank

Murphey’s Drug isgone, but the Coke sign remains, Las Vegas, NM, photo Billie Frank

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.

Read more about Las Vegas
Las Vegas New Mexico film locations
Stay at the Historic Plaza hotel
Diverse dining in Las Vegas

If you like vintage signs like the Coke sign above, you might really like the Classical Gas Museum in Embudo, NM.



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20 Responses to “Discovering the other Las Vegas: Las Vegas NM”

  1. Karen
    September 19, 2012 at 5:29 am #

    LV is a jewel and although it doesn’t cater to tourist traffic with lots of directional signs, advertising, etc. those in the know (or know someone who can provide advice) are in for a relaxing treat. And up the road a bit is the United World College and “Montezuma’s Castle”, another impressive piece of architecture.

    I really hope the old Castañeda Hotel can be fixed up like the old La Posada has been in Winslow, AZ–another of the Harvey Hotels.

    • Billie Frank
      September 19, 2012 at 7:02 am #

      We were armed with some suggestions from a friend who’d lived there which was a good start. We also asked people for directions and they were all helpful. One directed us to the depot with the Visitors’ Center. When I had questions about the towns history, a few people directed me to Range Books. I actually spoke with someone there while doing a bit of research on the town’s history while writing this. We’ll check up on the Castaneda from time to time to see if the rumor of a new owner and renovation was true.We didn’t get to Montezuma’s Castle, but did discover it was also a Harvey House at one time.Years ago, we went to the hot springs there. That’s all for another LV post some day.

  2. Anita @ No Particular Place To Go
    May 22, 2016 at 11:37 pm #

    I definitely prefer old “boom and bust” western Railroad towns to the glitter and floor shows of LV, NV and I much enjoyed your introduction to this New Mexican town. The Rough Rider museum would be fascinating to visit and I imagine that when the 20 plus young men set off to join Theodore Roosevelt the population of marriageable males plummeted!
    Anita @ No Particular Place To Go recently posted..Grottoes and Golden Arches – Ponta da PiedadeMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      May 31, 2016 at 12:28 pm #

      Las Vegas is booming again! It’s been an under-appreciated destination and I’m really glad that people are discovering it. There were always way more men in the old west than women, so the men probably still greatly outnumbered the women.

  3. Karen Warren
    May 23, 2016 at 4:37 am #

    Lots of lovely history and old buildings – I think I’d rather visit the New Mexico Las Vegas than its better known namesake!

    • Billie Frank
      May 31, 2016 at 12:30 pm #

      The town is loaded with architectural treasures- Queen Anne Victorians, craftsman bungalows, old late 19th century commercial buildings. If you like old buildings and history you’ll love LV,NM

  4. Janice Chung
    May 23, 2016 at 2:31 pm #

    I would MUCH prefer visiting Las Vegas, NM rather than the other place. Love the vintage signs and that the town is trying to restore a lot of the Victorian buildings. It looks like it is also becoming an artists haven in view of the murals and increase in galleries.

    • Billie Frank
      May 31, 2016 at 12:31 pm #

      There are great signs around town and great buildings. It is becoming an artists’ haven. Several new galleries have opened and are working to open over the last few years.

  5. The GypsyNesters
    May 23, 2016 at 6:47 pm #

    Certainly a far cry from the more famous Las Vegas, but better in a real way. As in the real world.
    The GypsyNesters recently posted..Now We’re Cookin’! How Cooking Classes Enhance Travel (Around the World)My Profile

    • Billie Frank
      May 31, 2016 at 12:32 pm #

      It’s the antithesis of glitz and more my kind of town- but you can’t gamble-lol.

  6. Jo ~ Lifestyle Fifty
    May 24, 2016 at 12:31 am #

    Some great suggestions and lovely to read a little about the history of Las Vegas, somewhere we’ve never been but would love to visit one day. The vintage signs scattered around would be something we’d seek out, along with some of the other quirkier aspects you mention.

    • Billie Frank
      May 31, 2016 at 12:34 pm #

      It’s a quirky magnet. We love old signs and appreciate the ones we’ve encountered. Also check out the Classical Gas Museum on the way to Taos- lots of vintage neon, old gas pumps and more. We have a post on it if you want to check it out.

  7. Donna Janke
    May 24, 2016 at 6:05 am #

    I’ve driven past Las Vegas New Mexico a few times on the Interstate. It looks like I should stop and visit next time. The restored historic area would be interesting to see. And I love quirky!
    Donna Janke recently posted..Craft Beer in Wine CountryMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      May 31, 2016 at 12:34 pm #

      Next time exit even if it’s just for lunch and a swing through town.

  8. Grey World Nomads
    May 25, 2016 at 6:03 am #

    I like vintage signs like the Coke sign. We are not too much into city tripping but Las Vegas NM looks like a place to visit on our travels around the US next year.
    Grey World Nomads recently posted..House Sit In Southampton Country HomeMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      May 31, 2016 at 12:37 pm #

      If you’re traveling around the US- a great way to go cross-country is following Historic Route 66. The pre-1937 road came up from Santa Rosa which is southeast of Las Vegas. You could take a short detour.

  9. Sue Reddel
    May 25, 2016 at 3:04 pm #

    How interesting! I had no idea there was a Las Vegas in New Mexico. I just adore old signs and art so I know I’d enjoy a visit.

    • Billie Frank
      May 31, 2016 at 12:39 pm #

      Most people don’t. When I was a concierge people used to come to my desk having seen the sign for Las Vegas and would say they didn’t know LV was this close to Santa Fe- used to crack me up. People have an interesting sense of geography.

  10. Fred
    August 20, 2017 at 5:54 pm #

    I have just returned after a few years away, and was sad to see that Murphey’s Drug store is gone. It was one of two old fashioned drug stores with soda fountains in this historic town, now there is only one. I sincerely hope that one is here the next time I come to town!

    • Billie Frank
      August 21, 2017 at 12:10 pm #

      At least the great sign is still there.

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