Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Life (and Death) by Railroad: Yeso, New Mexico

Most of the ghost towns I visit have been written about by Philip Varney in his New Mexico's Best Ghost Towns: A Practical Guide. The problem is that this guide was first published in 1981 and thus many of his photographs and descriptions date from the late 1970's. When I go to check out one of these towns I usually find MUCH LESS than he did. Well, what do I expect? We're talking at least an additional three decades of exposure to elements both natural and manmade. One exception to this rule might be Chloride, currently pop. 11, which, after nearly disappearing totally, has been resurrected as a charming slice of history wwaaayy out in southwestern New Mexico. At some point I'll do a post on Chloride. On the other end of the spectrum is Yeso, a ghost town which actually looks pretty similar to how it must have when Varney stopped by. Although Yeso is not entirely a ghost town; a few people do live there and a functioning post office sits right across the street from the abandoned one.

Yeso sprang up along Yeso Creek, but the water was not fit for consumption. Yeso translates as "gypsum" or "chalk" in Spanish and you can't really drink a glass of dissolved gypsum without running into problems. But Yeso also had readily accessible groundwater which could be pumped for livestock and locomotive engines traveling the brand new Belen Cutoff. The cutoff re-routed trains through east-central New Mexico, away from the steep grades toward Colorado. One of the first frame train depots was built in Yeso, which was officially established in 1906, a year before completion of the Belen Cutoff.

The town did alright for awhile. A post office was constructed in 1909 and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe (ATSF) railroad kept things going despite a lingering regional drought. Yeso quickly became a gathering place for the ranchers and handful of farmers in the area. Things got rough after WWII, when diesel locomotives were introduced and trains no longer had to stop in town to take on water. That was also about the time it finally became clear that the land around Yeso was really not very good for farming and might not be suited for much beyond grazing sheep. It had been an awfully dry few decades, too.

By the mid-1960’s, the school, which was built by the Works Progress Administration in 1940, closed as the last steam locomotives were retired. The old frame train depot now became one of the last of its kind to fold, shutting its doors for good in 1968. Most everyone packed up and moved to Fort Sumner, 22 miles to the east. Apparently four families opted to stay in Yeso and I have to wonder if their descendents occupy the few well-maintained homes abutting U.S. 60. Incidentally, Billy the Kid was killed in Fort Sumner and I'll eventually do a post on that infamous town, as well.

While much remains of Yeso, including the still-decaying remains of several houses--an entire abandoned neighborhood, more or less--and the Frontier "Musem" (once known as the Hotel Mesa, pictured at left), as well as the shell of the Super Service Drive In garage, there have been some casualties. What Varney describes as a possible gas station/garage/motel/residence complex on the east end of town has largely collapsed. This is unfortunate as he mentions that in the sidewalk in front of this structure was the date of construction, June 8, 1929, set in the cement in bottle caps. As far as I can tell, this bit of concrete is now buried under the collapsed walls of the large rock building. Too bad. Several other structures are also showing their years, so, if you’re going to visit, I still wouldn’t recommend waiting very long.

Finally (and oddly), the spelling of Yeso was changed to a misspelling--Yesso--between 1912 and 1913. Anyone know why?

Info for this post came from Philip Varney (of course) and this little write-up on Ghosttowns.com. I also grabbed one fact from Dixie Boyle’s cool book on U.S. Highway 60.

Happy holidays! There’s plenty of ground to cover in 2012.


Colleen said...

When you hear about things like the date in cement with bottle caps, I always wish *someone* would pack up the equipment and go on an excavation trip.

jmhouse said...

Well, maybe *we* should do that. Uh, do you have any excavating equipment?!

Trevor David Betts BA (Hons.) said...

Good to see that someone documents, what most see has an eyesore. Keep up the good work. All the best for 2012.


Trevor David Betts.

jmhouse said...

Thanks for the comment, Trevor. It's much appreciated. Best wishes for 2012 to you, too. JM

Patrick Strei said...

Hi there,

I stumbled across your blog as I wrote up a three day trip, a good part on 60, From Phoenix to Indiana.

I wish I'd had three weeks! I'm an expatriate, living in Bali Indonesia, and now I just want to get back to Lost American highways.

Did a short photo shoot in Yeso. So evocative, with the locos framed through the ruins.

I'll refer to your blog for future trips, and to keep me in touch with back roads America, as varied and exotic place asone couldhope for.

jmhouse said...

Patrick, thanks for the message. I know Highway 60 pretty well from Taiban through to Phoenix but you probably saw more than I have. I'm quite fond of that road (I work just south of it for some of the year) and I kinda think it's as interesting as Route 66, being more intact, even if less commercially important.

Bali, eh? I wouldn't mind having a look around there some time!

Thanks again,


Anonymous said...

"What Varney describes as a possible gas station/garage/motel/residence complex on the east end of town". This was, at one time, the grocery store my dad and mother ran and the remainder of the structure was where the family lived. The east end structure was the house of my sister's mother-in-law. I stopped by in Oct of 2010 to visit "the old home place".

jmhouse said...

Ah, so that complex was a grocery store and residence for the family. Was it ever a gas station/hotel/etc.? Also, do you remember the bottle caps spelling "June 8, 1929" in the sidewalk? I'm curious about that.

Thanks for your recollections. They're much appreciated. Yeso must have been quite a place to grow up. JM

Anonymous said...

My mother who is now 92, just told me that she stayed in a hotel called the Pecos Valley Hotel around 1944. My father was stationed at Fort Sumner. She said that several army wives lived in the hotel, too and they took a bus to visit Fort Sumner... about a 20 minute ride. I've been searching for information about where this hotel was located. She said the hotel was two-story and white and looked like a big box. Anybody know if the hotel in Yeso was ever called the Pecos Valley Hotel? The photo sure looks like what she described and it seems to be the right distance from Fort Sumner.

jmhouse said...

I honestly don't know much about the Pecos Valley Hotel, but I think it might have been in Fort Sumner itself. Is it possible your mother was describing a bus ride from the town of Fort Sumner to the actual fort, where military personnel would've been stationed? The fort is now part of the Bosque Redondo Memorial. However, the distance from town to the fort is only about 7 miles. Maybe the road was dirt then and took longer to travel.

Anyway, perhaps someone that knows more will be able to provide some insight. It's certainly not out of the question that the Hotel Mesa was once the Pecos Valley Hotel.

Thanks for your comment and providing some interesting history regarding the area. It's much appreciated and hopefully someone out there can tell us more. JM

laduque said...

I just stumbled upon your blog. My grandmother was born and raised in Yeso and I grew up listening to her stories of this magical place.
Sadly she has passed over and I still have yet to visit this place. You have inspired me to do just that@!@

jmhouse said...

Thanks for sharing some of your family history, laduque! Yeso remains a very evocative place, not quite forgotten in its isolation way out on the eastern plains of NM. I'm certain that if you can make a visit you'll find it to be enriching. Remember though, there's nothing left in terms of services! Nearby Fort Sumner is a good base to work from.

Thanks again! JM

rex hopson said...

Thoroughly enjoyed your Yeso story. I drove through there a couple of weeks ago from Clovis to Clines Corners. Whatimpressd me was all those stone buildings. Where did all those rocks come from, what was the mortar, who were the skilled laborers, when were they built? Thanks, Rex Hopson

jmhouse said...

Thanks for your comment, Rex. The craftsmanship that went into some of these buildings is incredible, isn't it? In some cases, it looks like stones were just gathered from the area and then expertly fit together to build homes. I wonder who these skilled laborers were, too. Unfortunately, since I'd guess most were built around the turn of the 20th century, we'll probably never know.

Thanks again! JM

Anonymous said...

My family and I are going to locate the ranch my grandfather grew up in. His name was Catarino Garza. If anyone has advice on how I can locate where he lived please let me know.

jmhouse said...

Hi Anonymous,

Did your grandfather grow up in Yeso or nearby? Was the ranch known as the Garza Ranch? Often people remember old ranches and the families that ran them longer than specific homesteads, it seems. So, you might get lucky.

You can leave a contact e-mail if you like or just keep checking back here occasionally.

Incidentally, your grandfather wasn't related to the Catarino Garza who revolted against Mexican president Porfirio Diaz in the early 1890's, was he??

Thanks for stopping by! JM

Anonymous said...

Thanks for you great post. Wish there was more published on the areas of ghost towns in New Mexico as we spent the summer searching for so many.

jmhouse said...

Thanks for the kind words, Anonymous. Much appreciated! If you ever want to know more about ghost towns in New Mexico, feel free to send me an e-mail at the address associated with my profile and let me know what regions interest you. I'd be happy to pass along anything I know. I've published a lot on City of Dust, but there are a number of places I've visited that I haven't had a chance to post on yet.

Thanks again! JM

Anonymous said...

My grandfather grew up in Yeso as well. His father's name was Faustin Garza. Seems like our families might be related.

jmhouse said...

Anonymous, given the small size of the community surrounding Yeso many years ago, it does seem quite possible that your great-grandfather, Faustin Garza, would be related to Catarino Garza, whose ranch the "Anonymous" five comments up was going to attempt to locate. Perhaps they will read this and provide a way for you to get in touch with them.

Thanks very much for your comment! JM

Anonymous said...

I grew up just southwest of Yeso and my family still lives there. It's a place quite dear to our hearts. Thanks for your post, even though it's several years old at this point!

jmhouse said...

Does your family live in Yeso itself, Anonymous, or to the southwest, where you grew up? In any case, might you know a cowboy poet named Jimmy Joe Jester? Someone in the UK was looking for an American ghost town and an interesting person that lived in one to do a documentary on, so I directed them to Yeso and Jimmy Joe Jester, but I don't know if they ever made contact. I've never met Jimmy Joe Jester myself.

Anyway, Yeso is one of my favorite *places* in New Mexico, and perhaps the most charming semi-ghost town I know of. It must've been quite a place to grow up!

Thanks for your comment! The post might be a few years old, but City of Dust and Yeso persist! JM

Richard Hayner said...

My sister, Joyce, was living with her partner on a quarter horse ranch outside Yeso, in the early sixties, while studying Russian at the University of NM, in Las Cruces. In late November, 1964, she died in a car crash, on her way home from El Paso. I'm about to retire overseas, and I'll be passing that way by car, on my way to L.A. to fly out. I wish I could somehow determine where that ranch was or who the owner was. I met her partner, but never knew her name of what happened to her. I just feel a sort of connection to Yeso. I wonder where the nearest newspaper would have been at the time, and where I might find archives.

jmhouse said...

Thank you for your comment, Richard Hayner. I am sorry to hear about your sister. A City of Dust associate is very good with tracking stories in archived newspapers, but wasn't able to find any mention of Joyce Hayner following a quick search. They'll continue looking, but mentioned that the Hobbs Daily News Sun seemed to have the most stories about Yeso, oddly enough. I would also think the Clovis News Journal might have information. Yeso is so small that stories originating thereabouts may be attributed to neighboring Fort Sumner, so that's worth including in searches.

Did the accident occur near Yeso on Highway 60? There was an awful collision between a bus and a cattle truck just to the west of town on December 27, 1972, which killed 19 people. My understanding is that the truck driver, who survived with minor injuries, was later killed himself in an accident close to Yeso when he failed to make a corner. So, that stretch has a tragic history.

Anyway, if you would like to be in touch with the person who is able to search newspaper archives please let me know. She said she'd be happy to keep looking. Also, while it's a long shot, I do know a ranch hand out that way that may be able to ask around. You can contact me at jmhouse(at)cityofdust(dot)(com) or through the City of Dust Facebook page.

I hope that you're able to learn something. By the way, if your sister was attending school in Las Cruces she was likely at New Mexico State University and not UNM, although UNM does have branches of its law and medical schools there.

Best Regards, JM

Karin Olson said...

Heading to Yeso tomorrow, my mom was born there and the family still owns lots there as well. I use to go every summer with my grandmother for a month at a time, we use to camp out in the old church!

jmhouse said...

I'm jealous, Karin Olson! I haven't been to Yeso in quite a while now! I'm also jealous of your having camped out in the church! That sounds pretty awesome.

Well, have a great trip and feel free to report back if you have anything to pass along. JM

Eli Lucero said...

Any pictures of the old church?

jmhouse said...

Hi Eli,

Thanks for your question! You can find a City of Dust Facebook post about the church in Yeso RIGHT HERE.

Best, JM

Frederico said...

I have a grandfather named Catarina who grew up in Yeso. My dad showed me the house a long time ago but I don't remember it being on a ranch.

stephanie said...

The collapsed structure referred to as a gas station, garage, hotel, residence belonged to Lewis and Julia Hatcher. Probably 30s and 40s. Julia was my great great aunt. My mother remembers spending the night there. He was also postmaster and she says they ran a general store. He was deaf and died when he deliberately parked his car on the railroad tracks after delivering food baskets to needy families. They had no children. Julia sold everything and moved to Lubbock and ran a boarding house for boys.

jmhouse said...

Thank you very much for the information on the crumbling structure on the east side of Yeso and the Hatcher's, stephanie. I had never come across any of that before. On a return visit I did find the words and dates spelled out in bottle caps that I refer to above. Perhaps I should post some of those photos here. That is very tragic about Lewis Hatcher and makes the ruins even sadder.

Again, thank you. JM