It's all about authenticity in the 'original' Las Vegas
Travels with Deb
Debbie Stone | May 16, 2018, 11:42 a.m.
It’s Vegas, baby! But, if you’re looking for cheesy Elvis impersonators, glitzy shows or swanky casinos lining the streets, you’re not in the right place. This is Las Vegas, New Mexico, or what the locals like to call the “original” Las Vegas. Here, scenic beauty, rich history, eclectic architecture and a burgeoning art community combine to create one of Northern New Mexico’s most fascinating destinations. It’s a hidden gem that’s slowly being discovered by visitors to the region, who seek authenticity in their travels as they take a trip back through time.
In this land of legend and lore, you’ll find a city with a colorful Wild West past and deep historical roots that are preserved through tales and within the more than 900 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The area was first inhabited by Native Americans before Coronado discovered it in 1541. In 1835, the Mexican government bestowed a Land Grant to the inhabitants and eleven years later, as a result of the Mexican-American War, the territory became part of the U.S. The Santa Fe Trail brought settlers, traders and other travelers, and by the 1860s, Las Vegas was the commercial hub of New Mexico. Later, when the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad arrived, immigrants from every walk of life came to establish themselves in the region. The advent of the railroad rapidly transformed the town from a rural community to a center of national prominence. Two towns were created – East Las Vegas, or New Town, where the railroad was located, and West Las Vegas or Old Town.
Residential architectural styles varied dramatically depending on which side of town you lived. In Old Town, adobe and territorial styles were the norm; whereas, in New Town, homes were built to accommodate the tastes of prosperous merchants hailing from the East Coast. These styles included Victorian, Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, Tudor and others.
By 1882, Las Vegas had a population of almost 6,000 and rivaled Denver, El Paso and Tucson in size. During this time, the railroad constructed the magnificent Montezuma Hotel resort, which was initially managed by Fred Harvey. Additionally, New Mexico Highlands University was founded with the original purpose of training teachers. Celebs, U.S. Presidents and other notable figures, as well as gamblers and desperados like Billy the Kid, Doc Holliday and the Dodge City Gang, all made their way to Las Vegas at one time or another in the heyday of this dynamic town.
But, the city’s economic fortune began to decline in the early 1900s when the railroad moved to the south. And then the agricultural depression of the 20s and 30s, combined with a lengthy drought, brought an end to almost a century of boom town prosperity. West and East Las Vegas continued to exist as separate entities up until the 1970s when the two mayors met each other on the Gallinas Bridge, shook hands and agreed to consolidate into one local government.
In recent years, Las Vegas has been making an effort to entice more visitors and reinvent itself as a tourist destination. And the word is gradually getting out that this is a destination worthy of an off-the-beaten-path stop. Local resident Kathy Hendrickson is doing her part to shine the light on the town’s many attractions through her company, Southwest Detours. Hendrickson gives guided tours to folks curious about the area’s history with a focus on the Las Vegas Plaza and Plaza Hotel, Montezuma Castle, Castaneda Hotel and other iconic sites.