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Las Vegas Plaza

On Monday, June 3, 1968, two counterculture bikers cruised into Las Vegas, New Mexico, joining a parade of high school bands, cowboys on horses and vintage cars that wrapped around the town’s old plaza. The bikers were actors Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper.

The Las Vegas Plaza, portrayed in the movie Easy Rider (1969) as Small-Town America, began much different 135 years before Fonda and Hopper tripped into town. It started in the 1830s as a Mexican plaza of low adobes, a meadow and a church. But over the years, especially after the arrival of the railroad in 1879, it would change its image to one of an American Main Street, of brick buildings, a designed park and street lighting. In many ways, the conversion of the Las Vegas Plaza parallels New Mexico’s road to statehood.

Officially laid out on April 6, 1835, the Las Vegas Plaza came about after four residents — Juan de Dios Maese, Manuel Duran, Miguel Archuleta and Jose Antonio Casado — of the Jurisdiction of San Miguel del Bado, on behalf of themselves and 25 other landless heads of families, petitioned the Mexican Republic for a land grant on the Gallinas River in the area of Vegas Grande, or the “Great Meadows.”

On that day, Jose de Jesus Ulibarri, the alcalde of nearby San Miguel del Bado marked off the outer boundaries of the grant, designating farm lands to the families, and selecting the site of the plaza near the great meadow along the west side of the river. In common with other plazas of the era, Ulibarri specified that the space be surrounded by a defensive wall “built by all” members of the land grant. Along with the wall, a well was dug in the center of the plaza and a church, Nuestra Senora de los Dolores de Las Vegas, erected by settlers on the southwest corner.

The plaza looked very much like a Mexican era settlement of the time, but complicating its colonial landscape, it lay right in the path of the Santa Fe Trail. This fact would mix up its history, making it a meeting place of international commerce and Manifest Destiny.

Destiny came on the morning of August 15, 1846, when Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny rode into the plaza with his 1,000-man Army of the West. In the plaza — which the Americans referred to as the “square” — Kearny, as recalled by Lt. W.H. Emory, ascended a rickety ladder to top of one of the houses fronting the plaza, and proclaimed New Mexico the territory of the United States. He made assurances that the United States would protect the new territory, even against Indian attacks. He asked for the allegiance of the alcalde and others gathered on the rooftop. He read the same proclamation in Santa Fe four days later.

Despite Kearny’s proclamation and an occupying army, Las Vegas didn’t change much until the arrival of the railroad. In the ensuing years the plaza played a part in commerce; first with the Santa Fe Trail, and later as supply depot for Fort Union, approximately 30 miles to the north. During the Civil War, it temporarily served as the territorial capital, after Confederate forces occupied Santa Fe following the Battle of Valverde on February 21, 1862. From the Exchange Hotel on the plaza, Governor Henry L. Connelly governed the territory for a month, returning to Santa Fe after the Confederates were defeated at Glorieta Pass.

During the territorial period, prominent traders such Charles Ilfeld and Hilario Romero headquartered their businesses which extended throughout the territory and into southern Colorado, west Texas and eastern Arizona on the plaza. Long mule-driven wagon teams run by the trading houses and those arriving on the Santa Fe Trail could be seen and heard clomping around the plaza. The plaza became a stop for a tri-weekly stagecoach from Fort Smith, Arkansas; a mail route between Las Vegas and Mesilla; and other stage lines unloading in front of the Exchange Hotel, including the Overland Stagecoach from Kansas City and the Barlow and Sanderson Company, following the Santa Fe Trail.

But the horse and mule-drawn commerce of the 1870s soon came to a close with the arrival of the railroad a decade later. (Livestock were actually prohibited from the plaza starting in 1877, after a smallpox epidemic frightened the merchants). With the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway in East Las Vegas on July 4, 1879, as stated in the nomination, “the social and economic life of the plaza and West Las Vegas changed.”

First came the outlaws: Jesse James arrived December, 1880. Later his killer, Bob Ford — much to the town’s chagrin — became a familiar face along the plaza. Then came “Billy the Kid,”  in manacles, being escorted by Sheriff Pat Garrett to the jail just off the plaza. And then with the string of lesser known lowlifes — Caribou Brown, Dirty-face Mike, Hoodoo Brown, Scare-face Charlie, Jack-knife Jack, Pegleg Dick and a dozen others — tramping about the plaza, the citizens revolted. On March 24, 1882 a placard warned that any “thieve, thugs, fakirs and bunko-steerers,” naming Billy the Kid specifically, were found in the city limits after dark, would be “invited to attend a grand necktie party, the expense of which will be borne by 100 substantial citizens.” And with that, the old windmill in the center of the plaza became the “Hanging Windmill.”

More positively, the coming of the railroad brought new building materials and architectural styles, which changed the face of the plaza from an adobe village to an American commercial district. This change came dramatically a year after the arrival of the railroad with the construction of the three-story, red-brick and cut-stone Plaza Hotel, and 1882, Charles Ilfeld’s three-story “Great Emporium” constructed next to the hotel and re-faced with marble in 1890. Across the street from the hotel, the John D.W. Vedeer Building, built around same time, is trimmed with cut-stone ornamentation and a cast-iron cornice and crown. And brick-constructed buildings dressed in imported architectural styles began to appear all along the plaza.

Change came not only with the appearance of new buildings and architectural styles, but to the plaza’s appearance itself. In 1881, citizens of West Las Vegas renovated the area into an American-style park, removing the ghastly “Hanging Tree,” filling in the well, and enclosing the oval shaped space with a white picket fence and four gates. A year later, 100 cottonwoods were introduced, together with low shrubbery along the main, graveled path. Flowerbeds were planted and decorative street lamps were placed atop each of the four gates, and later, an octagonal bandstand installed, turning the once-dirt plaza into a vision of the Midwest.

The plaza at first benefited from the arrival of the railroad. But as the nomination states, “the fact that the tracks were not laid across the Gallinas River to West Las Vegas inevitably resulted in the shifting of importance and activity to the new railroad town of East Las Vegas.”

Today, only a one-story adobe block making up the Dice Apartments on the north side of the plaza (most likely where Kearny gave his proclamation), resembles in any stretch of the imagination what the plaza looked like before the railroad. With some creativity, one can see General Stephen Watts Kearny, making his promises from the rooftop of this building to a baffled crowd below. But to Hollywood, Las Vegas’s plaza signaled something different — Main Street America.