Posted by: Brad Nixon | August 6, 2013

Boom Town

Everywhere one travels in the U.S. are towns whose best days seem unavoidably behind them, despite the noblest and most diligent efforts of local promoters, hard-working business people and the Chamber of Commerce. Wagons drawn by horses and oxen gave way to the locomotive, the locomotive to local roads traveled by automobiles, then to interstate highways. Mining and oil drilling, logging and ranching came and went; local shops were replaced by shopping malls; interurban streetcars were replaced by universal ownership of automobiles. As the shape of civic life changed, cities that once hosted tens of thousands of residents faded, sometimes literally into dust.

High Mountain Mining Town – Ghost Town

Some once-thriving places are utterly abandoned. Here’s Bodie, California, high in the eastern Sierras.

Copyright 2013 Willard Nixon

The rollicking, boisterous home to as many as 7,000 residents during a gold mining boom in the late 1870s (Main Street featured 65 saloons), Bodie’s mines declined in the 1880s, and everyone went elsewhere. It’s a genuine ghost town.

In the Pacific Northwest Forest

I wrote previously about the little town of Concrete, Washington.

Concrete’s boom arrived decades later than Bodie’s, with logging and the mining and manufacture of Portland cement as the economic drivers. It, too, faded as those industries evaporated, then suffered a major blow when the state highway bypassed it. CLICK HERE to read that entry.

Former boom towns whose tide has receded from the full are everywhere, not only in the west, and they’re not all a hundred years and more in the past, as one can see in Gary, Flint, Dayton, Akron, DETROIT. Thousands of once-thriving towns have languished as downtown retail moved to shopping malls, as Interstate highways bypassed them, canal traffic ceased or mills and manufacturing moved overseas.

The American west has some of the most picturesque and dramatic examples, including one of the Colorado mining towns I wrote about several months ago, Victor:

Like an aging music celebrity whose music is no longer popular, these places are still alive, but unappreciated and underemployed. In Victor’s case, there’s still gold mining: Lots of it, on a large scale. But it’s more mechanized than during the era in which Victor flourished, so mines don’t need a town of hundreds of workers and supporting businesses.

The Railroad Meets the Santa Fe Trail

This meditation on boom towns came to mind when The Counselor and I recently visited Las Vegas, New Mexico, at the foot of the Sangre de Christo mountains, astride the Gallinas River, alongside the old Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad tracks, and off to the side of Interstate 25.

Las Vegas NM Brad Nixon 0819 (640x480)

As I wrote in my previous post, Las Vegas burgeoned when the railroad came through in the 1870s. The city boasts hundreds of historical buildings from a range of styles spanning a hundred years. Many are in beautiful condition and others are suffering to one degree or another. Las Vegas’ prosperity declined as competition from other railroad junctions slowed its growth in the early 20th Century.

I started thinking of Las Vegas as a city that needs saving. How in the world can this town maintain and restore its impressive catalog of important buildings? As so often happens, if one takes time to consider other perspectives, I’ve altered that view. More than 14,000 people live in Las Vegas. There are shops and stores; farming and ranching still keep many of the residents employed, if not at the pace of the heady days of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. A photographer could spend days capturing the picturesque structures. One could and paint an unfairly negative picture of the town by focusing on derelict or weathering buildings. Here, though, half a block off Railroad Ave. is a genuine gem, built in 1908. Like many of the historic buildings in town, it’s in excellent condition.

Wells Fargo bldg Las Vegas NM Brad Nixon 0804 (484x640)

There are banks and art galleries, a university and a bookstore, Tome on the Range!

Tome on the Range Las Vegas Marcy Vincent (640x448)

Like ’em on Facebook.

There are churches, two high schools … this is certainly no Bodie, California, and unlikely to become a ghost town. The people of Las Vegas would resent me portraying their home as one fading into the western sunset. They have a thriving public library, an original Carnegie Library, set in its grassy square.

Will Las Vegas be able to maintain or restore and preserve a significant portion of its 900 historically significant buildings? Possibly not. There are means to growth they could consider: turn themselves into a gambling mecca, as did Cripple Creek, Colorado? That’s a path fraught with risk. They certainly would have a tough journey to become a draw for art and culture along the lines of Santa Fe and Taos. Should they promote the town as a retirement mecca with good quality of life, as has another New Mexico town facing a similar fate, Silver City, far to the southwest? Antiques and shopping? Las Vegas has some good antique shops with genuinely local flavor, but the World Wide Web has taken most of the profit out of that business.

No, Las Vegas won’t save every building, but people matter more than structures, and one assumes that the civic leaders, arts organizations, the Las Vegas Citizens’ Committee for Historic Preservation and ordinary citizens will do all they can to achieve some balance of focus on past, present and future. The LVCCHP has an excellent guide to the notable structures in town. Pick it up at the Visitors’ Center, located in the still operating train station on Lincoln, just off Railroad Avenue:

Las Vegas NM train station Brad Nixon 0792 (640x480)

Las Vegas is an excellent place to visit for a look at a capsule of a couple hundred of years of history. It has a lot of tourism competition in a region packed with prehistoric and historic sites, scenery of unsurpassed beauty and excellent food and culture. We travelers under western skies have to bear in mind that towns like Las Vegas aren’t Disney World or Six Flags Over New Mexico, put up for our pleasure; they’re home to people who have to decide if it’s more important to put some more computer terminals in that Carnegie Library of theirs, or improve the streets or vote in a school improvement bond than to save the Old Sutherland Place. They have a wonderful, immediately accessible past all around them, but they have a future to consider. If you have an opportunity, stop in to see how they’re doing.

I wrote about the Las Vegas, New Mexico Carnegie Library in the previous post.  CLICK HERE to read it for some background about the growth of Las Vegas along the old Santa Fe Trail, its rise to prosperity and its fate after its boom days.

© Brad Nixon 2013, 2017. Bodie, CA photo © Willard Nixon 2017; Tome on the Range photo © Marcy Vincent 2017, used by kind permission. All other photos © Brad Nixon 2017.

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