Thursday, July 03, 2014

Hard Roads: Engle, New Mexico

There’s not been much written about Engle, New Mexico over the years. The usual ghost town books I consult only mention the town in the context of its stage and rail connections to other places. But Engle, now not much more than a handful of buildings persisting in the relentless heat of a dusty former rail stop 20 miles east of Truth or Consequences, sits within an area that has played a major role in the histories of Spain, Mexico, and the U.S. Currently, it is the home base for an enterprise owned by a well-known cable television magnate and, in the future, may be passed through by some very wealthy people on their way to…orbit.

It makes sense to start the story of Engle with the Jornada del Muerto, the “Journey of Death,” which runs through the town. Or, perhaps, a couple hundred feet west, if you want to get technical. Considered the most treacherous part of El Camino Real, this stretch, beginning slightly north of Las Cruces, traversed a desolate wasteland devoid of water, firewood, or shelter. So, if the Apache didn’t get you, the desert itself might. Just imagine traveling over an ancient lava bed by horse in the early 1600’s without a Wal-Mart or 7-11 in sight. It might sound like heaven now, but let’s not romanticize too much. The closest city to the north, a long 90 miles away, was named Socorro (i.e., succor, relief, aid, etc.) for a reason. But, all that aside, plenty of travelers did survive the journey and thus, for many years, one of the most important trade routes in the history of the world passed right outside what would become Engle’s front door.

Founded in 1879, Engle was, like so many other towns in the West, born of the railroad. Named for R.L. Engle, the railroad engineer who supervised construction of the line through town, due to a paperwork error Engle was officially known as "Angle" for its first six months. An attempt to rename the town "Engel" in the 1920's, in honor of Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe (AT&SF) vice-president Edward J. Engel, was halted in the 11th hour when "cowboy chronicler" Eugene Manlove Rhodes asked Senator Bronson Cutting to pull some strings.

The railroad soon built a station and Engle thrived as a shipping point for cattle from surrounding ranches. Horses, mules, stagecoaches, and eventually trains transported ore east from the more remote mining towns on the edge of the Black Range, including Cuchillo, Chloride, and Winston (then known as Fairview), and from Engle it all moved on to larger cities, such as El Paso. A post office opened in 1881 and the place was off and running.

From 1911-1916, the construction of Elephant Butte Dam, about 10 miles west, increased the population greatly. The peak came at about 500 residents. But with completion of the dam workers left immediately and Engle began its decline. By 1919, 300 residents, over half the peak population, had left. Seven years later, only 75 souls remained. In 1945, much of the land to the east and south of town was claimed by the federal government for White Sands Missile Range, snuffing out most of Engle’s remaining light. But not quite all of it.

While the post office closed in 1955, a few people live in Engle yet. The train still rumbles by, however, it doesn’t stop. Not many original buildings stand, but one, the old schoolhouse, occupies what would seem to be the spiritual center of town. That’s not just on account of it being the most prominent building you see as you cross the railroad tracks, but because it’s now the Engle Country Church featuring “bible preaching and gospel singing” at 10 AM on the third Sunday of every month. Conveniently, there are some vineyards being tended nearby, too, in case the supply of wine runs low.

Engle has also become the headquarters of the Armendaris Ranch, a massive 362,885-acre spread owned by Ted Turner of CNN and Jane Fonda fame. Word is that when he comes to town, his entourage lays the necessary groundwork a few days in advance and then Ted blows in, checks on his buffalo, maybe does a little hunting, and is off again. Turner owns two other huge ranches in New Mexico and is the second-largest private landowner in the state.

Moving into the totally surreal, Engle is poised to be a way station for those heading to Spaceport America. Anyone not flying directly into and out of the spaceport or coming up from Las Cruces would be obliged to go through Engle. It is strange to imagine that some of the richest, most famous people on the planet might see Engle shortly before they are launched into orbit for a few seconds. On the other hand, those who traveled the Jornada del Muerto hundreds of years ago might well appreciate the irony. For the dusty little patch of Chihuahuan Desert on which Engle persists has a habit of being a quiet witness to great journeys.

It’s not easy finding information on Engle. The usual physical sources overlook it, but on-line you can find most of what seems to exist at Even Legends of America won’t tell you anything about the town. But they will tell you that, in the 1880’s, Bill Hardin, famous gunfighter John Wesley Hardin’s first cousin, was lynched by a mob after killing a man near Engle. Oddly, the “Ghost Towns of Sierra County New Mexico” promotional card is one of the better resources, even at all of five sentences. NM Place Names recounts how Engle came to be called Engle (and then almost wasn't). Otherwise, Wikipedia will tell you about the Jornada del Muerto and Spaceport America will tell you about Spaceport America.

Next time we’ll cross I-25 and move nearer the Black Range to visit the relatively well-known partial ghost town of Hillsboro, NM. Until then, have a happy 4th of July and safe travels, everyone.

JULY 2014 UPDATE: Mr. William M., former resident and continued aficionado of the wide-open spaces of New Mexico, has contributed a very interesting photo postcard. Postmarked from Engle to Mrs. Anna Martin of Cuchillo, NM, William guesses the card is from about 1910. Note the sparse address and even sparser message, which reads, "Hello Anna Dady (sic)." The few words speak volumes about this time and place. We can only assume that the stoic desert fellow pictured is indeed Anna's father, probably captured by a photographer traveling through Engle. William adds, "It was sent from one ghost town to another ghost town – only in New Mexico."

Thanks for the great addition, William!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Peace in the Valley: Monticello, New Mexico

Okay, it’s true that Monticello, New Mexico isn’t a full-on ghost town. Some folks do indeed live there. But it’s got its fair share of old, empty structures, including an impressive adobe school built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). In 1980, Philip Varney included Monticello in New Mexico’s Best Ghost Towns because of its “extraordinary charm.” Well, in this case, perhaps not much has changed over 34 years because Monticello remains extraordinarily charming. Judging from Varney’s photos, some buildings look better and some perhaps worse. However, if you stopped for a couple hours to eat lunch on the shady steps of the school and listened to the birds sing while the wind blew gently through the tall cottonwoods, as I did, and then explored the rustic little plaza, you might think about buying a secluded retreat in Monticello, as I also did.

Monticello, in southwestern NM, is 25 miles northwest of Truth or Consequences, not far from Cuchillo, and was originally founded in 1856 as Cañada Alamosa. The name honored the town’s cottonwood-lined canyon. The Alamosa River flows alongside. Clearly, in the green, 23-mile-long Monticello Valley within which the town sits, cottonwood trees have always been a big deal.

Early on, Cañada Alamosa was the headquarters of the Southern Apache Agency. By 1870, 500 Apaches lived in the area and Cochise, the Apache leader and namesake of Cochise County, AZ, brought his entire Chiricahua Band in with him in the winter of 1871. But, in 1874, when the agency was moved a handful of miles northwest to the Ojo Caliente Reservation, near present-day Dusty, in what's now known as the Monticello Box Canyon, the Apache were dispersed. Almost 20 years later the town became known by the much less poetic moniker Monticello.

In 2003’s Ghost Towns Alive, Linda Harris says the name change was the result of postal system bureaucracy. The story goes that in 1892, Alphonse Bourguet and his brother, Aristide, French emigrants, wanted to establish a post office in Cañada Alamosa. However, the policy of the day dictated that postal names be a single word. Alphonse had once been postmaster in Monticello, NY and Aristide must've figured that worked pretty well the first time because he submitted Monticello as Cañada Alamosa's replacement. This is all similarly recounted in The Place Names of New Mexico.

But I have read other accounts, including in New Mexico’s Best Ghost Towns, stating that John Sullivan was the town’s first postmaster, also from Monticello, NY, and he made the change. However, I think this is now considered incorrect. Some Bourguet’s and Sullivan's still live in Monticello. Perhaps they can tell us! Whatever his role, John Sullivan’s home was reportedly a stage stop, claimed to be the first in Sierra County. Sullivan’s place still stands off Highway 142, which leads into town and passes the plaza. For some reason, New Mexico True says his home was the San Ignacio Catholic Church!

The Monticello Valley has always been a ranching and farming community and it remains so today, producing organic vegetables and award-winning balsamic vinegar. But it’s true that it’s not as bustling as in the past. The large Monticello Public School, mentioned earlier, has been reduced to a picturesque shell. Built in 1935, it's said the school burned down when a student's chemistry experiment exploded. However, that may be nothing more than a rumor propagated by my friend at Viva New Mexico. The plaza, quiet and empty during my visit, once provided a thick-walled adobe fortress complete with gun holes to guard against Apache attacks. A couple homes on the outskirts of town, one fairly large, appear long-abandoned, with vintage vehicles parked outside in various degrees of decay. Of course, I was in heaven.

On the other hand, the San Ignacio Catholic Church, built in 1867, is well-maintained and lovely. Located on the north side of the plaza, services are still held there. There may yet be a dried-out pump organ in the choir loft. Restored territorial-style homes with corrugated tin roofs peak from behind lush greenery. What appears to have once been an antique store sits silently to the east of the plaza. Quite derelict in a photo in Varney’s book, it’s clearly been restored, even if it’s now vacant again. Within its cool, blue walls are many of the antiques that must’ve once been for sale and the ceiling shows several large, beautiful vigas running lengthwise. Outside are a low, weathered, wooden patio and an old bench. Anybody want to go in on the place with me? That's it below.

In 1910, at its peak, Monticello had 573 residents and there may have once been more than 1,000 families throughout the valley, which includes the adjacent town of Placita. The 2012 census has the population at 135, yet most folks probably don't live in town year-round. I saw only a few people, all of which passed by in cars or trucks as I took photos along the roadside.

I attempted to get to the cemetery southwest of the plaza, but after crossing the shallow Alamosa River ran into several private property signs without a graveyard in sight. It’s a shame, because I hate to miss an old cemetery. But it does provide an excuse for a return visit. As if I needed an excuse! To further prove that point, as I left, four cow ponies crested the rise beside the cars pictured below. You might be able to make out the hawk soaring through the upper right of the frame. Extraordinarily charming indeed.

Most information for this post came from the NM ghost town books of Varney and Harris, with a bit from The Place Names of New Mexico. Viva New Mexico, and Legends of America were also useful. has a couple interesting tidbits and presents demographic info from 2012. The Wall Street Journal did a great piece on the local balsamic vinegar and referenced peak population. New Mexico True, the state's official tourism website, gets much more wrong than right, but at least they tried. Finally, if you want to know about the healing waters of Ojo Caliente and the ruins of the Apache agency, this page is quite informative. Maybe some day I can do a post about that agency.

Next time, we’ll cross I-25, head through T or C, and have a look at Engle. Once filled with workers busy constructing Elephant Butte Dam, this dusty railroad wayside is now poised to be the gateway to Spaceport America.

Monday, June 09, 2014

City of Dust Featured at Like the Dew

I pretty much can't bear to read articles about myself. Luckily, I don't have to do it very often! In this case, the pain is balanced out by the fact that the piece was written by the excellent Columbia, South Carolina-based author Tom Poland and published at "Like the Dew: A Journal of Southern Culture and Politics." Mostly about my photography in Georgia and South Carolina, it does lead off with a sly reference to a Replacements song they've actually been playing recently (and, no, it's not Left of the Dial). Thanks to Tom for being so kind to myself and City of Dust.

You can find the feature and attendant photos HERE.

I should have a post on Monticello, New Mexico up in the next couple days. I'm pretty happy with some of the photos I took, so that's always a good start. More soon!