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The antithesis of the Nevada city that shares its name, Las Vegas, elevation 6,470 feet, is a town of about 15,000 that time appears to have passed by. For decades, Las Vegas was actually two towns divided by Rio Gallinas: West Las Vegas, the Hispanic community anchored by the Spanish-style plaza, and East Las Vegas, where German Jews and midwesterners had established themselves around a proper town square. Once an oasis for stagecoach passengers en route to Santa Fe, it became—for a brief period after the railroad arrived in the late 19th century—New Mexico's major center of commerce, and its largest town, where more than a million dollars in goods and services were traded annually.
Booming business and near-total lawlessness characterized the 1870s. Famous characters on both sides of the law passed through the town—including Doc Holliday (who practiced dentistry here), Billy the Kid, and Wyatt Earp. Fierce battles for land—often swindled out of the hands of illiterate Hispanic land-grant holders by ruthless American businessmen—and water rights ensued, with the Gorras Blancos ("White Hoods") appearing in 1889 to begin their campaign of cutting fences and setting fire to buildings on lands that had once been community property of the many land grants of the area. Today, the town is considerably more sedate.
The seat of San Miguel County, Las Vegas lies where the Sangre de Cristo Mountains meet the high plains of New Mexico, and its name, meaning "the meadows," reflects its scenic setting. A few funky bookstores, Western-wear shops, restaurants, and coffeehouses line the Old Town Plaza and the main drag, Bridge Street. More than 900 structures here are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the town has nine historic districts, many with homes and commercial buildings of ornate Italianate design. In fact, it's often said that Las Vegas provides a glimpse of the Victorian style that would have characterized Santa Fe back in the late 19th century, a few decades before that city was given an idealized adobe makeover in order to attract tourists. Strolling around this very walkable town gives a sense of the area's rough-and-tumble history—Butch Cassidy is rumored to have tended bar here, and miscreants with names like Dirty-Face Mike, Rattlesnake Sam, and Web-Fingered Billy once roamed the streets. You may also recognize some of the streets and facades from films; Las Vegas is where scenes from Wyatt Earp, No Country for Old Men, and All the Pretty Horses were shot and where Tom Mix shot his vintage Westerns.
Las Vegas at a Glance
- Armand Hammer United World College of the American West
- Las Vegas City Museum & Rough Rider Memorial Collection
- Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge
Sports and Outdoors
Elsewhere in Northeastern New Mexico
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