Las Vegas, New Mexico


The town of Las Vegas, New Mexico wants you to know that it’s the original Las Vegas.  Don’t worry, you won’t get it confused with the similarly named city, a few hundred miles to the west.  But you might get confused by the fact that it’s actually two towns in one, with two distinct downtown districts, that are merely a few blocks apart, but both loaded with their own character and history.

I didn’t know that, as I wandered off Route 66 (the original alignment bypassed the city by just a few miles, on its way to Santa Fe).  Adding to the confusion, the people who made my road atlas decided Las Vegas wasn’t big enough to add a separate city street map.  So, I was left to follow signs and make guesses about exactly where I was, and where I was headed.  I first wandered into West Las Vegas, also known as Old Town.

On the way into Old Town Las Vegas (via Grand Ave., New Mexico Ave., and National St.) I passed Our Lady of Sorrows Church.

At the time it was constructed, Our Lady of Sorrows Church was the largest stone building in New Mexico.  Construction was completed in 1870.

Just a few blocks past the church, is Old Town Las Vegas’s town square.  After the town was established as a Mexican settlement in 1835, the town was laid out in a style similar to other New Mexico towns.  The town square provided a place of protection during attack–ranchers could drive their cattle onto the square, and the surrounding buildings provided some safety.

On one side of the square, the old Plaza Hotel looks impressive, and dates back to 1882.  A standard room isn’t terribly expensive, so this might be a good choice if you’re ending the day in Las Vegas.

Watch for a faded ghost sign on the side of the Plaza Hotel.

Also on the plaza, the old Navajo Textiles building caught my attention.  It’s all boarded up now (and many of the tiny square windows that weren’t boarded, are now shattered), but back in the 1940’s, this factory made parachutes used by American troops.  (Notice the sign above the front door, with a parachute on it.)

On the east side of the square, Bridge Street continues on to the Gallinas River.  There are plenty of businesses in these old buildings, and many of them are still open.

Be sure to walk inside Plaza Drugs, on the corner of Bridge Street and the plaza circle.  The ice cream and soda fountain is still open for business, and the entire building has been nicely restored.  You can also see a Lego-block reconstruction of the store, inside a glass display case.

East Las Vegas, New Mexico: New Town

Because I didn’t have a good map of Las Vegas, I didn’t know that New Town was just a few blocks away from Old Town.  Had I followed Bridge street for just a few blocks, I would have ended up there, but instead, I backtracked all the way to Grand Avenue, then headed north.  When I spotted the two-story-tall cowgirl, I was baffled.  Had I driven into a completely different town?  And was this town named “Calumet”?

Of course, what I had found was New Town.  It only seemed like it was several miles from Old Town, thanks to the circuitous route I took–in reality, it was just a few blocks away.

New Town sprung up after the arrival of the railroad in 1880.  The railroad’s prosperity allowed New Town to have plenty of big-city amenities, like an electric railroad running through town, an opera house, a Carnegie library, and a big Harvey House hotel.  It also brought lawlessness, and the likes of Jesse James and Billy the Kid.

But what about that Calumet mural?  It may look like it’s a century old, but the truth is, the mural was added during the early 1980’s, during the filming of Red Dawn.  Calumet was the fictional town (in Colorado) where the Soviet invasion played out.  The town liked the mural so much, after the Hollywood crews left, they kept the cowgirl.  Plus, the message next to the “Howdy” seems to work too: “Where the Great Plains Meet the Mighty Rockies”.  That fits just fine for Las Vegas.

Las Vegas, New Mexico also starred in other movies, including Easy Rider, Convoy, and The Astronaut Farmer.  Also, 2007’s best picture winner No Country for Old Men was filmed mostly in Las Vegas.

New Town’s businesses haven’t fared quite as well as Old Town’s.  Stores like Murphey’s Drugs are out of business.

Gordon’s Jewelry still has a nice clock on the sidewalk.

I’m not completely sure whether the Serf Theater is open or closed.  I do know that No Country for Old Men made its New Mexico premiere here in 2007, but according to an undated article on the Las Vegas Optic website, no movies have played there since then (although I’m not sure when “then” was.)

The Serf Theater’s strange name comes from the four names of the builder’s children: Sarah, Eddie, Richard, and Frida.

Note: This trip was first published in 2008.

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