The original Las Vegas: A place to return to, time and again
By the Las Vegas Optic staff
Copyright 2018 Las Vegas Optic
Las Vegas and San Miguel County are located in scenic northern New Mexico, 60 miles from Santa Fe, 120 miles from Albuquerque and 70 miles from Taos.
Scenic beauty, eclectic Victorian and northern New Mexico architecture, a growing art community and interesting people combine to make Las Vegas and the surrounding area a favorite for both families and adventurous singles and couples.
One of the area’s main attractions is its rich history. Las Vegas has been in existence as a city for nearly two centuries.
The original township in West Las Vegas was a Spanish land grant community called Nuestra Señora de Los Dolores de Las Vegas Grandes (Our Lady of Sorrows of the Large Meadows). In 1835, the settlers of San Miguel del Bado formed a plaza, or public square, in the old Spanish-Mexican tradition.
Today, the Old Town Plaza still reflects the protection and environmental needs of the settlers. It is laid out with buildings constructed side by side with a common wall to form a town square. This area was the hub for community, family life and agricultural commerce.
In the 1820s, during the infancy of the Santa Fe Trail, Las Vegas was the first major settlement that traders encountered upon entering Mexico.
It was a festive occasion for locals when caravans would arrive in the Las Vegas plaza. Settlers would set up market displays for their goods and often hosted festive “fandangos” for travelers, with dancing and gambling.
In 1846, U.S. President James Polk determined that the United States would take over these lucrative northern Mexico states and declared war against Mexico. On Aug. 14 of that year, Brig. Gen. Stephen Kearny and his troops marched into the Las Vegas plaza and proclaimed New Mexico for the United States.
To protect Hispanic settlers, the Santa Fe Trail freight wagons, Anglo immigrants and other travelers on the Santa Fe Trail, Fort Union was constructed in 1851 near Las Vegas.
By the 1860s, Las Vegas became a leading commercial trade center in New Mexico.
Eventually, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad arrived on July 4, 1879. Immigrants from every walk of life began to arrive and settle in the Las Vegas region.
When the railroad bypassed the original plaza settlement and ended east of the Gallinas River, on “the other side of the town,” a separate boom town called East Las Vegas emerged.
The advent of the railroad rapidly transformed Las Vegas from a rural community into a regional commercial center of national prominence. Prosperous merchants began building elaborate commercial and residential structures in styles popular back East.
The competing eastside, or New Town, district became the fashionable commercial and residential area and was established as an Anglo settlement. Bustling mercantile houses, hotels, saloons and dance halls sprang to life. Horse-drawn streetcars established a circle route between the depot and Old Town Plaza.
By 1882, Las Vegas had grown to a population of nearly 6,000 residents and rivaled Denver, El Paso and Tucson in size. During this time, the magnificent Montezuma Hotel resort was built by the railroad, and in 1893, New Mexico Highlands University was founded. Initially the school was dedicated to training school teachers.
Despite the growth, construction and cosmopolitan lifestyle of Las Vegas, the outlying villages and land grant areas retained their pastoral and agrarian character — still evident and preserved today.
The railroad also introduced a whole new dynamic to the area, from Fred Harvey’s hospitality services, to the Wild West exploits of desperados, gamblers and hell-raisers like Billy the Kid, Doc Holliday, Big Nose Kate, the Dodge City Gang and Vicente Silva. History buffs will be fascinated with Wild West stories that regale the colorful background of the area in books such as Howard Bryan’s “Wildest of the Wild West.”
In 1905, Las Vegas economic fortune began to decline when its position as a major shipping terminus ended as the railroad moved to the south. The agricultural depression of the 1920s and 1930s and a long drought brought to a close almost a century of economic boom-town prosperity for Las Vegas.
West and East Las Vegas continued living side by side for years. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the two towns were finally consolidated into one local government.
Las Vegas has had its share of fame and fortune. In 1912, iconic professional boxer Jack Johnson trained and fought in a world championship match here. Later, the area saw royal visits at United World College by England’s Prince Charles and Queen Noor from Jordan.
Recently, Las Vegas has been building its reputation as a destination for the film industry. Early Tom Mix films may have been the beginning, but “Red Dawn,” “All The Pretty Horses” and Oscar-winning “No Country For Old Men” demonstrate time and again this area’s ability to capture world attention.