Typically, when you tell people you’ve just been to Las Vegas, they ask how much you won and what shows you saw.
In 2019, when I was in the Sin City variety of Las Vegas, since I don’t gamble, I didn’t win anything; as for a show I saw, it was “Piff the Magic Dragon.”
Fast-forward to 2020 and my answers are “nothing” and “none.”
That’s because this Las Vegas trip was a day trip north on I-25 to the original Las Vegas, the one in New Mexico.
About the time ATSF railroad came through in late 1879, it was the biggest city between San Francisco and Independence, Mo. (Think about that for a minute.) It rivaled Tucson, Denver and El Paso, and six trains rumbled through there daily.
I’ll admit, I lived here in New Mexico for at least 40 years before finally visiting Las Vegas, and that initial trip was only brief, following a few hours at nearby Ft. Union.
But the more I learn about Las Vegas, N.M. — remember, I am a “lifelong learner” — the more time I want to spend there.
With the late 1880s growth came a distasteful element: outlaws, bunco artists, murderers, soiled doves, thieves — leading noted historian Ralph Emerson Twitchell to proclaim, “Without exception, there was not a town which harbored a more disreputable gang of desperadoes and outlaws than did Las Vegas.”
Billy the Kid, Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp weren’t strangers to the streets of Las Vegas.
In fact, Holliday arrived there in 1879, opening a dentistry office, but then shuttering it and opening a saloon. He didn’t stay long: He got into a gunfight with a guy named Mike Gordon, killing him with three shots to the stomach, and then leaving on the lam, with a lynch mob formed.
Famed hotel entrepreneur Fred Harvey had La Castañeda constructed just a few steps off the ATSF tracks, and it opened in 1898. In 1899, soon-to-be President Teddy Roosevelt and 21 of his famed Rough Riders climbed off the train for a reunion at Castañeda.
Obviously, the Castañeda is one of the must-see sites in Las Vegas, as well as the buildings being restored on nearby Railroad Avenue, which include the Rawlins Building, a one-time hotel across the street from La Castañeda. (A big shout-out to Allan Affeldt, who invested in La Castañeda to have it restored to its 20th-century glamour, similar to what he’d done with La Posada in Winslow, Ariz. It would have been a monumental shame to see this relic vandalized or, worse, torched, before Affeldt began his magic a couple years ago.)
Longtime Albuquerque residents who fondly recall the Alvarado Hotel, also a Harvey House, may be interested to know its design was based on the design of La Castañeda.
A short walk from the railroad district takes you through the New Mexico Highlands University area and within range of some glorious homes from yesteryear. Arriving at the historic plaza — Las Vegas’s Old Town center — is the Plaza Hotel, another of Affeldt’s investments, which many folks recall from watching episodes of “Longmire” on TV or “No Country for Old Men” on the silver screen.
If you go, be sure to check out Railroad Avenue, Grand Avenue, Douglas Avenue and Railroad Avenue in the New Town portion
If you’re so inclined, a short drive north from Grand Avenue onto I-25 will take you near swales from the Santa Fe Trail – traces of the wagon wheels that took so many settlers west, with the end of the Santa Fe Trail maybe a day’s ride away, in Santa Fe.
Remarkably, there are more than 900 (not a typo) buildings in Las Vegas listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Maybe someday I’ll see them all. Maybe you’ll be enticed to be a “day-tripper” during a pandemic to get outta town. You could do worse than enjoying what Las Vegas has to offer.