Forget about the sweet smell of pinon smoke, picturesque adobes, or a Val Kilmer sighting; this is southwest New Mexico a wide, arid landscape known for its cattle, chile, border culture and relentless heat.
Despite its relatively flat topography, southern New Mexico displays one of the most complicated routing chronologies of the Old Spanish Trail. Harry Lockes 1916 routing had the OST shooting directly west from El Paso across the sand hills to follow the right-of-way of the Southern Pacific Railway to Deming. An early 1920s alignment headed north from El Paso, taking future US 80 to Mesilla Park, and then crossing the Rio Grande on a narrow diversion dam. By 1926 the OST had shifted north, beginning its trek across the desert at Las Cruces, on the same route as Interstate 10.
By our count, there are more than four alignments of the Old Spanish Trail in New Mexico. Though many are still traceable in a high clearance vehicle, we recommend following the frontage roads north and south of I-10. These, for the most part, incorporate sections of the 1930-31 realignment of US 80 and the Old Spanish Trail.
El Paso to Las Cruces
The 1929 Old Spanish Trail took US 80 north from El Paso to Las Cruces over a new concrete road on what is todays NM 478. Aside from a few roadside fruit and chile stands, beyond Anthony there are few diversions. We recommend instead taking NM 478 to Berino, then heading west on NM 226 to pick up NM 28, an older highway following roughly the path of the historic El Camino Real. This road passes through the historic villages of La Mesa and San Miguel as well as a beautiful stretch of highway shaded by mature pecan trees, courtesy of Stahmanns Farm, one of the largest pecan orchards in the world. At Mesilla is a historic plaza town settled after the Treaty of Guadalupe in 1848. Historic buildings along the plaza include the 1906 San Albino Church, a ca. 1860 house containing the Gadsden Museum and the famous La Posta Restaurant, the site of a Butterfield Stage Line stop.
Las Cruces, a swelling sunboom community, has demolished much of its history. Its Main Street, once lined with handsome brick commercial buildings, experienced an unfortunate 1970s Urban Renewal project, turning the once vibrant street into a doomed pedestrian mall. Nearly 30 years later, the street faced with boarded-up shops is being reconsidered for vehicular use. In August 2005 tractors tore down the 1970s mall entrance, a symbolic gesture toward reopening Main Street. The two-story, adobe Rio Grande Theatre, one of the few historic buildings to survive the ill-fated renewal, is currently undergoing restoration and will be turned into a state-of-the art performance center. At Alameda Boulevard, the 1930s alignment of the OST headed west on Picacho Boulevard, a busy road offering a good sampling of tourist courts and pre-chain motels.
Because of the Border Control checkpoint, all east-west traffic must use Interstate 10, curtailing much opportunitu to follow the 1930s alignment immediately west of Las Cruces. Before getting on the interstate, stop at Bowlin's Old West Trading Post, one of three Bowlin operations along Interstate 10. Here one can still buy a pair of moccasins, a rubber tomahawk, and a rattlesnake rattle encased in Lucite. The familiar Bowlin Travel Centers, many sporting the trademark "Running Indian" logo, started on Route 66 in Bluewater, New Mexico. Despite their modern veneers, the three Bowlin trading posts date to the late 1940s.
At Cambray is a chance to experience a 1930s alignment of US 80. Take Exit 116 and head west on NM 549. Near Cambray the old road begins to ascend the approach of a timber bridge over the Southern Pacific. Constructed in 1930 as part of the realignment of US 80, the Cambray Overpass is one of the last vintage grade separations along the Old Spanish Trail. Its steep approach and limited sight distance give a sense of road design inthe 1930s. Several miles to the west are an abandoned Shamrock Oil & Gas service station and cabins.
Deming, a crossroads town with an up-and-coming historic downtown, offers two alignments of the Old Spanish Trail.
The older alignment used Spruce Street. Highway artifacts along Spruce include Joe Perk Coffee Shop (a former Conoco outlet), the Coronado Apartments (once the Duncan Hines-recommended Coronado Motor Court), and the hidden and subtly streamlined Casa Linda Apartments (formerly the Casa Linda Courts and Evans Motor Company Service Station).
The newer alignment to the north followed Pine Street, a modern thoroughfare lined with 1950s and 60s motels with names playing upon the heritage of the area: the Wagon Wheel, Western, Westway and Butterfield Stage. Intersecting the two alignments at Silver and Gold streets is the historic downtown area, boasting a fine collection of brick commercial buildings dating from the early 20th century.
Deming to Lordsburg
The 1930s alignment of US 80 and the Old Spanish Trail left Deming on NM 418. This road cuts across level desert with the imposing Red Mountain to the south forming the only landmark in the vicinity. Aside from an abandoned Texaco station, little evidence of the roads role as a transcontinental highway remains. Using I-10 to access Lordsburg, you will pass exits for Gage and Separ, each once stops along the Southern Pacific and critical service points on the Old Spanish Trail. Gage, historically the principal shipping point for area mines, is now an archaeological ruin. Old US 80 and the foundations of a service station and general merchandise are located just north of the interstate. Separ, along the historic Janos Trail a route established by the Spanish to connect the Santa Rita copper mines near Silver City to northern Mexico is the site of the last Bowlins store on the OST. First called the Continental Divide Trading Post, the current Continental Divide Store is graced by two oversized steel and foam board teepees, and offers the same kitschy merchandise as the other Bowlin outlets.
No person with a lick of sense would ever pass up Lordsburg, as it would be a reflection on his good judgment, cheered the Lordsburg Chamber of Commerce in 1929 anticipating the arrival of the OST Motorcade. Though Lordsburg today looks as though it is on deathwatch, during the 1920s and 30s, it was a livewire town and a big booster of the Old Spanish Trail and Broadway of America highways.
To accommodate transcontinental travelers, local entrepreneurs built the grand Trost-&-Trost-designed Hidalgo Hotel in 1928. The Pueblo Revival edifice, host to a number of Broadway of America meetings, boasted a lobby with a beamed ceiling and rich red leather chairs, giving the impression of entering the living room of one of the haciendas of Spanish days. The construction of Interstate 10 dealt a strong blow to the hotel and Lordsburg. Today, only half of the hotel exists.
Completely gone is the Hidalgo Court, one of the most fanciful courts along the OST. What remains are a few vintage courts, including Hawkins Camp, and a string of lifeless motels from the 1950s and '60s. The C&B Auto Camp, one of the last true auto camps in New Mexico, was razed in November 2004.
Lordsburgs condition is so dire that the New Mexico Heritage Preservation Alliance designated Motel Boulevard one of the states most eleven endangered properties in 2003. Despite the bleak prognosis, Lordsburg has a historic downtown commercial block poised for revitalization, and serves as gateway to Shakespeare, a former mining boomtown with a reputation for lawlessness.
Lordsburg to Rodeo
Lockes pioneer routing directed the Old Spanish Trail south from Lordsburg through mining country in the Pyramid Mountains, site of a small silver boom and later a diamond hoax. Unconfirmed rumor has it that Charles Manson camped in these hills before heading to Los Angeles. Little trace of this early route remains. From the 1920s onwards the OST followed the ATSF to Steins, now a ghost town open for tours, then headed south to cut through Granite Gap on its way to Arizona.
New Mexico 80 follows the trace of the Granite Gap-San Simon Cienega route, a stagecoach and wagon road that replaced the narrow pass at Steins Peak. Today, NM 80 from Interstate 10 to Rodeo faithfully follows the 1930s alignment of US 80. What was a seemingly a monotonous landscape along I-10 takes on new interest as the dramatic Chiricahua Mountains emerge to the west. The Chiricahua Apache once roamed these mountains, with Anglos following, mining for copper and gold. Granite Gap, first mined in 1879, became a prosperous mining district. Though the Great Depression ended large-scale mining, seasonal tours are available through Granite Gap Mines. Beyond, the highways descends into a wide arid valley leading to Rodeo, the last OST town in New Mexico and historically an important livestock shipping point on the El Paso & Southwestern Railway.
Drive the OST is developing narrative travelogs for each state; please see the State Travelogs section for more information.