From the Old Town Plaza on the west side of the city to the Railroad Station on the east, Las Vegas offers a full range of shops and restaurants in buildings of unusual historic significance and aesthetic value.
Enjoy your visit to Las Vegas – a city of uncommon friendliness and character, with plenty to see and do and a rich historic past.
Las Vegas (The Meadows) offers a rich, complex cultural and economic history. Visitors and residents can explore the town on foot or by car, or on tours and through exhibits and literature in the Las Vegas Citizens’ Committee for Historic Preservation at 116 Bridge Street, The Visitor’s Center at the railway depot 500 Railroad Avenue, The Chamber of Commerce at 1224 Railroad Avenue and the City of Las Vegas Museum at 727 Grand Avenue.
Old Town Plaza
The region was colonized while part of Mexico in 1835 and Las Vegas itself was settled by Spanish farmers and sheepherders. Adobe and log buildings surrounded present-day Old Town Plaza as protection against Apaches and other Plains Indian marauders. The first settlers planted crops on streets adjacent to Old Town Plaza, and watered them using acequias off the nearby Gallinas River. The town’s first public building was its church, Nuestra Señora de Dolores de Las Vegas, built in 1836. Part of that building still stands behind Plaza Antiques, at 1805 Plaza, though the church was moved to 403 National, one block west of the Plaza.
Las Vegas’s geographic location between the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (a spur of the Rocky Mountains) and the Great Plains made the town an important stop on the Santa Fe Trail. By 1846, Las Vegas was a community of over 100 homes. That year, Las Vegas also was the first town in New Mexico invaded by conquering U.S. forces led by General Stephen Watts Kearny, who during the U.S.–Mexican War of 1846-1848 proclaimed New Mexico’s annexation by the U.S. from the roof of the Maes House/Dice Apartments at 218 North Plaza). Kearney’s exact words to the men of Las Vegas can be read on a plaque opposite that building.
Las Vegas was a thriving commercial center during the territorial period (New Mexico became the 47th State of the Union on January 6, 1912). Forty thousand cattle grazed on surrounding pastures. One-quarter of the territory’s 20,000,000 pounds of wool was sheared near Las Vegas, weighed near the Plaza, and hauled to Kansas in trains of up to 200 wagons. At 1814 Plaza, the original rock wall for the building, which dates from 1880, still stands and can be seen inside the World Travelers Cafe.
The trade in wool and livestock brought large mercantile concerns. The Wesche-Dold Building at 1805 W. Plaza was built in 1865 by traders Andrés and John Dold, and is an example of Territorial architecture. This architectural style was introduced by the U.S. Army, and combined Greek Revival with adobe and stone. There are many other examples of Territorial architecture in west Las Vegas. One of the other remaining adobe buildings on the Plaza, the Des Marais House/Our Lady of the Sorrows Parish Hall, at 1810 E. Plaza, was originally built in this style, which features lintels over the windows and columned arcades.
Thanks to the Santa Fe Trail, German-Jewish immigrants such as Emanuel Rosenwald and Charles Ilfeld established prosperous trading businesses in town, and Las Vegas became Northern New Mexico’s most important mercantile center. Currency was scarce in the territory, so merchants like Rosenwald and Ilfeld had to be skilled at bartering sheep, cattle, wool, and hides for such commodities as flour, maize, coffee, candy, saddles, eye glasses, cloth and furniture. By the late 1870s, when the railroad was built a mile east of the Plaza, Las Vegas was a town of more than 2,000 people, and the center for the entire region’s grazing lands. Over a million dollars in wool, hides, and pelts where shipped from Las Vegas. In the 1880s, Charles Ilfeld built the Charles Ilfeld building, which can be seen at 224 N. Plaza, and has undergone major renovation to double the occupancy of the Plaza Hotel and to provide a ballroom/convention space on the first floor that will accommodate up to 300 people.
In 1882, local businessmen lead by Benigno Romero formed the Las Vegas Hotel and Improvement Company, to provide Las Vegas with a hotel worthy of its status as a railroad town. The Plaza Hotel, which was built that year, can be seen at 230 Plaza. The Italianate building, still a source of pride for Las Vegas, was purchased and restored by Plaza Partnership, Ltd. in 1983. The Courtroom Building, at 213 S. Plaza, was also built in 1882 and served as a courtroom until 1885.
Meanwhile, Las Vegas’s Old Town Plaza was also the scene of frontier justice. Legitimate business activity attracted transient traders, cowboys and outlaws, who frequented the local saloons and gambling halls. Violence and crime plagued Las Vegas, and a vigilante movement responded by hanging offenders from the Plaza’s ‘hanging windmill,’ until that structure was demolished in 1880.
One of the worst miscreants in Las Vegas history was a seemingly respectable saloon owner named Vicente de Silva, the leader of La Sociedad de Bandidos from 1890-1894. La Sociedad was responsible for a rash of robberies and murders in present-day Old Town before de Silva was killed by his own men. His identity as the gang’s leader did not emerge for until over a year after his death.
In 1890, the Plaza saw political unrest when Las Gorras Blancas, a group of farmers formed a populist movement led by Juan José Herrera and staged masked protests on horseback against the sale of public land to the wealthy – a dispute solved when the City of Las Vegas acquired the Land Grant in 1903.
By 1914, Las Vegas had evolved from frontier town to well-established community. The Louis Ilfeld Building at 220 N. Plaza was built in 1921. Louis, who was Charles Ilfeld’s son, established his office there after graduating from Yale. The façade was restored in 1975 by the owners of Los Artisanos book store, which occupied the site for many years until its current use as offices for the Plaza Hotel.
Bridge Street – National Avenue
Bridge Street becomes National Avenue after crossing the Gallinas (the first bridge was built in 1879, the existing bridge in 1889). Bridge Street/National Avenue served as the connecting street between West Las Vegas (Old Town) and East Las Vegas (New Town). Enjoy walking, running, or bicycling along the river on the path between Lincoln Avenue and Mills Avenue, once a spur of the railroad built to bring ice from Gallinas Canyon, west of the city.
On February 28, 1968, the mayors of West and East Las Vegas, which existed as two separately governed communities since the railroad was built in 1879, held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to unite the two cities as one. “Breaking the Old Bitterness,” read the Las Vegas Optic headlines. See the historic plaque on the bridge, commemorating this event.
New Mexico Highlands University and University Avenue
The public and commercial establishments of Douglas Avenue and the Normal School, now New Mexico Highlands University, signaled Las Vegas’s evolution from a frontier town to a solid community that culturally and economically served a varied, hard-working citizenry. By 1914, Las Vegas was a real city.
In 1882, three years after the advent of the railroad, Las Vegas had a population of 6,000, and a new commercial district was established on Douglas Street, which can be reached by turning right off National onto 12th Street, passing Havens’ Livery stable at 623 12th Street. This building is on the 1886 Sanborn map, and is on the historic register as the Taichert hide warehouse. The building now houses Stuff, an antiques and collectibles shop (see listing below).
The Ilfeld Auditorium, 1914-21, on University Avenue, was built of sandstome, brick, and ceramic tile, with funds donated by Charles Ilfeld, in the memory of his wife, Adele. It is considered one of New Mexico’s finest examples of Romanesque Revival, and frequently hosts musical events featuring noted musicians. See images of this building at www.lasvegasnmcchp.com and www.greatbuildings.com.
Douglas Avenue School, which faces University Avenue, was built in 1928. Designed by John Gaw Meem, it was built on the foundation of an earlier school, also in the Richardsonian Romanesque style.
Rogers Hall, at 8th & National, was a WPA project. Also designed by John Gaw Meem, and built in 1936-37, it was built in Spanish Colonial style.
Kennedy Hall, on University Avenue, was built as a dormitory and student union, in 1940, in a style similar to that of Rogers Hall.
Thomas C. Donnelly Library, located on National Avenue, Monday – Thursday, 7:30 a.m. – 10:00 p.m., Saturdays 1:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m., Sundays 1:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m. The library has a special collection of historic books about Las Vegas and New Mexico history, and houses the CCHP photograph collection. Visitor’s computers are available in the lobby. See www.nmhu.edu for additional library information. Also in the library is the Ray Drew Gallery, Monday – Friday, 8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m., with rotating fine arts exhibits and shows.
Though it is not part of Highlands University, the Las Vegas Carnegie Public Library has played an important part in Las Vegas cultural history. Come visit this lovely Carnegie library, built in 1904, at 500 National Avenue where you can also picnic in one of Las Vegas’ city parks. The library is open Monday – Friday, 8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. and Saturdays 8:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. Offers a pleasant reading room with computers. A complete schedule of children’s and other events is available at www.lasvegas.gov/library or for more information call (505) 454-1401 x 272.
Douglas Avenue Townhouses “The Flats” 1105-1119 Douglas, were built by Rapp & Rapp Architects in Italianate style in 1898, to serve as temporary housing for railroad executives.
The Johnsen and Company Building, at 619 Douglas Avenue, was built of stone rubble in 1883. It stood alone for some time, but by 1900 was one of a line of commercial buildings that is now included in Price’s Home Furnishings, at 607 Dougas (see listing below).
In 1921, the Rapp Brothers of Chicago built the Bank of Las Vegas at 622 Douglas Avenue. The building is of Missouri sandstone, in Neo-Classical style.
Gordons Jewelers (see below), at 606 Douglas Avenue, was built between 1890-1902. Many of the store’s Beaux-Arts details are intact, inside as well as outside the building.
Crockett Block (Murphey’s Drug Store) at the corner of Douglas Avenue and 6th Street, was built in 1898 in the California Mission style, by the Rapp Brothers. The building has kept its original interior. Look through the windows to see the original marble soda fountain and tin ceiling.
The Masonic Temple, at 514 Douglas Avenue, was built in 1894-95 by the Rapp brothers. Considered the finest surviving example in New Mexico of Richardsonian Romanesque style, it was built of locally quarried purple sandstone.
The Railroad District
Las Vegas had a lot of growing pains to go through before becoming the prosperous, well-established cultural center it grew to be in 1914. The Railroad brought much of that prosperity and potential. It also brought lawlessness and violence that the people of Las Vegas had to overcome to grow into a safe, established town and city.
1879 saw the end of the Santa Fe Trail. The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railway company chose to build their town-site and railroad one mile east of the Plaza. Building lots were sold, and soon after a New Town, or East Las Vegas, became a popular destination for ‘track followers’ who came to new railroad towns eager to establish businesses.
This activity attracted other sorts of newcomers to East Las Vegas as well: thieves, gamblers, robbers, and swindlers, many of them from the old Dodge City gang. Among them was Hyman C. Neill, aka Hoodoo Brown, who became the first justice of the peace in East Las Vegas, and hired his old Dodge City cronies to ‘police’ the new town. This amounted to a protection racket, paid for by the owners of saloons, gambling halls, dance halls, and legitimate merchants, who built quickly along Railroad Avenue across from the present-day Castaneda Hotel.
Hoodoo Brown’s police force included such worthies as Tim Pickett (later a member of Billy the Kid’s gang), Dave Rudabagh (a notorious desperado) and J.J. Webb.
A number of Brown’s men were suspected of the many stage coach and train robberies that occurred when they controlled East Las Vegas. Deputy ‘Mysterious Dave’ Mather was accused of being an accessory to those robberies, and other gang members were suspected of the actual robberies, but the case against them was dismissed for lack of evidence.
Hoodoo Brown’s reign was short-lived. In 1880, J. J. Webb shot and killed a young rancher who’d unwisely displayed a thick wad of cash. Webb claimed that he killed the young man for threatening a police officer, but a witness contradicted this story. The Grand Jury indicted Webb for the murder, and Hoodoo Brown (who’d appropriated the money taken from the dead cowboy) was indicted for larceny. Brown disappeared. Webb was arrested, but escaped from the Las Vegas jail.
Las Vegas’s Railroad district hosted a number of other notorious outlaws. Doc Holliday, who was friendly with the Brown crowd, opened a ‘gin mill’ on Center Street (now East Lincoln). His activities were mainly confined to gambling. He also left Las Vegas in 1880. Monte Verde, aka Belle Siddons, was another colorful character of the period. As Ms. Siddons, she had been jailed in Missouri as a Confederate spy; as Monte Verde, here in Las Vegas, she was a card dealer who mercilessly cleaned out many a cowboy and railroad worker before she moved on to El Paso, also in 1880.
Perhaps the whole crowd met up somewhere later. Their departure did not put an end to violence in East Las Vegas, which remained a popular destination for desperados. Between 1879 and 1884, Las Vegas was one of the most lawless towns in the country. A Marshall was killed in the Dance Hall Battle of 1880, at the Close and Patterson dance hall on Railroad Avenue. The men found guilty of his murder were shot by his widow when they were brought to the gallows.
On April 8, 1880, The Las Vegas Optic published the Vigilante notice, which warned that outlaws would be shot on sight (or strung up by ‘hempen necktie.’ ) For some months, there were few shooting incidents in Las Vegas.
The last cowboy outlaw to terrorize Las Vegas was ‘Navajo Frank,’ who was born on the Bosque Redondo Indian Reservation at Fort Sumner sometime in the 1860s and as a child sold to a sheep rancher. Western legend has it that Frank turned renegade after being falsely accused of cattle theft by an employer. By the time he hit Las Vegas, in the early 1880s, he was a full-time rustler who committed mayhem for amusement. One day in town, he lassoed and dragged an elderly gentleman until a passing hack driver fired on him. The gentleman survived, but Navajo Frank was captured by a posse, jailed, and subsequently lynched.
Most of the original Railroad District buildings burned down long ago – a fate common to frontier wood-frame dwellings. The present-day Las Vegas Railroad Depot was built in 1898, in the Mission Revival style.
La Castañeda Hotel was one of the early Harvey Houses, and also built in the Mission Revival style in 1898. Theodore Roosevelt and his Roughriders held their first reunion there in 1899.
The Rawlins Building, at 515 Railroad Avenue, was Built in 1899 to serve as residence for the Harvey girls who staffed La Castañeda’s dining room.
The Gross Kelly Building, at 420 Railroad dates from 1898-99, for one of New Mexico’s most important mercantile companies. In 1982, the building was acquired and restored by PNM, a public utilities company of New Mexico, to serve as their district headquarters.
In 1902, a streetcar system was built to run from Railroad, along Douglas, and thence to the Plaza.
The Wells-Fargo Building at 612 East Lincoln was built in 1908, in the Neo-Classical style.
No Las Vegas narrative would be complete without mention of the Las Vegas Optic, 614 Lincoln Avenue, (505) 425-6796, Monday – Friday, 8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. The Optic started in 1879 as a weekly newspaper published by Russell A. Kistler, who chose Las Vegas as a community with economic opportunities when the railroad was built here in the same year. Since then, the Optic has changed hands at least ten times, covering major stories of local, state, and national importance, including a local case that related to the Teapot Dome Scandal.