Petersburg, New Mexico: The Town that Never Was

By Rick Hendricks

John Alexander Dowie was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1847. In 1860 he moved to Australia and in 1888 relocated to the United States. In 1896 Dowie founded the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church. Dowie established the city of Zion, which was formally founded in 1900 in northern Illinois as a utopian community where smoking, drinking, eating pork, theaters, dance halls, doctors' offices, and secret lodges were forbidden. A believer in divine healing, Dowie opposed all forms of medicine.

In 1905 Dowie's suffered a stroke in Mexico while traveling and looking for a potential site for a new community. His principal lieutenant, Wilbur Glenn Volvia, seized control of the community and assets of $12 to $20 million 1906. Volvia was born in Indiana in 1870 and joined Dowie's church in 1898. He moved to Australia to head a branch of the church there in 1901. Dowie died in 1907, the year in which Volvia traveled to Las Vegas, New Mexico, to look over land for a New Zion, a socialist agricultural colony where debt would be unknown.   

Prospective settlers acquired land at Petersburg Townsite, 20 miles northeast of Las Vegas and on the surrounding 30,000 acres. It was going to be the world’s largest religious colony and San Miguel County’s biggest city. The town was named for Deacon Peters, the Overseer of the New Mexico colony. The work of engineer John L. Zimmerman, Petersburg was elegantly platted, a mile in length and half a mile in breadth with wide streets that measured 60 feet by 100 feet, churches, a school, a hotel, a livery stable, stores, a grain elevator, and a mill. For a promise to move to New Mexico, individuals could obtain as much as 320 acres of farmland and a town lot for $1. Offices in Chicago and Las Vegas deeded over dozens of plots land through 1910.  Many purchasers were Midwesterners and some actually moved to New Mexico; but by 1910, most had resold their land.  Promised railroad facilities never materialized. Surveyors’ stakes disappeared, and Petersburg, New Mexico vanished without a trace, a utopia that never was.

Among the names of families planning to settle in Petersburg were: Hochstettler, Miller, Kaufman, Sears, Kesler, Yoder, Taylor, Hershberger, Sebring, Lellier, Koeneke, Goetsch. Emil Goetsch purchased  a quarter section (160 acres) Fred B. Browne and wife in Chicago on 29 November 1910. The deed was registered in Las Vegas on 6 May 1911. Another quarter section was purchased from Noah A. Robinson on 15 Dec. 1910 in Lake County, Illinois. Goetsch registered lots 10 and 11, Petersburg townsite on 3 Jan. 1911. The Goetsch family's ranch in Cherry Valley was the closest to the planned townsite of Petersburg.

By 1937 Volvia had lost his church and declared bankruptcy. He died in 1942.