These days Vaughn, New Mexico is probably best known for its police force, which consists of a single drug-sniffing dog named Nikka. Last year there was a police chief, but he owes tens of thousands of dollars in child support and was accused of selling one of the town's rifles and keeping the proceeds. A second officer recently pleaded guilty to assault and battery, but he was never officially certified anyway. That leaves Nikka and the Guadalupe County Sheriff’s Department to keep the peace in Vaughn which, despite it being considered a stopover for drug smugglers, probably isn’t that difficult. But Vaughn, with a population of 438 (down from 539 in 2000), wasn’t always as quiet as it is today.
But before Vaughn even had a name it was a favored resting place during drives on the Stinson Cattle Trail. Jim Stinson worked for the New Mexico Land and Livestock Company and, beginning in 1882, would bring up to 20,000 head of cattle at a time from Texas to homesteads and forts in the Estancia Valley of east-central New Mexico.
Vaughn got its name from Major G.W. Vaughn, who was a civil engineer for the ATSF. Right off the bat there was a water shortage and, in 1908, the ATSF built a water tank and two underground cisterns to try to collect as much of the precious liquid as they could. Drinking water was brought in by tanker from nearby Willard and Negra. The El Paso & Southern did a little better, having their water transported via wooden pipe from Bonito Lake, 100 miles to the southwest. In 1909, the ATSF figured it would just be easier to pay the El Paso & Southern 24 cents per thousand gallons than try to collect their own water any longer.
Charles Lindbergh even stopped in Vaughn, but not because he particularly wanted to. In 1928, engine failure forced him to land his plane and wait in town a few days for a replacement part to arrive. He stayed at the Harvey House and, apparently, despite the best efforts of the girls, was not interested in socializing with them in the slightest. To read about another stranded traveler who felt an initial distaste for Vaughn, yet eventually came around, I recommend a stop at Viva New Mexico.
Vaughn wasn’t incorporated until 1919, but by 1920 it had a relatively healthy population of about 1000. However, the number of residents may never have climbed much higher than that. One Harvey Girl, Alice Garnas, said in 1926, “Vaughn was a shocking place. There was no place to go, nothing to do. Just Vaughn and those wide plains on all sides--cattle country. But it was for me.”
Like the previous post, on the town of Encino, most of the hard-to-find information and quotes included here came from Dixie Boyle’s excellent book, “Highway 60 & the Belen Cutoff: A Brief History.” Ms. Garnas' quote came from "The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West," by Lesley Poling-Kempes. I also grabbed a bit from Wikipedia, the aforementioned Viva New Mexico, and the LA Times, believe it or not.
Next time we’re going to one of the best ghost towns I know, Cuervo, NM.
NOVEMBER 2014 UPDATE: A reader recently sent in some postcards and stories about the Sands Motel, which their grandfather built and owned. This history was so extensive that I wanted to present it here. Happily, I was given the go-ahead. So, here's the story of the Sands Motel:
"My name is Dana McElyea and I live in Texas. These pictures are of the Sands Motel in Vaughn that my grandfather Jack Cormany built in the early 1960's. The motel was just as you came into town from the west. We spent every Christmas and summer traveling there when we were young.
"My grandfather was an incredible man that could do anything. He had several inventions and had Dr. Pepper bottling companies at one time before the motel. He moved to Vaughn for the climate and built the motel there due to the intersection of highways. I still have linens and dishes from the motel and the cafe.
"He sold the motel and moved to a 17-room house there in Vaughn that used to be a clinic from what I understand. That was farther down the street, right next to a church that was on the corner. It was a really nice house. They had named each of the 17 rooms, some according to what they had been when it was a clinic; baby room, waiting room, blue room, book room. The house had a beautiful rock fireplace that covered a wall. It really was beautiful inside for Vaughn. ;)
"Me and my two older brothers used to play in the glass enclosed check-in office at night. We would turn out all the lights and when a car drove past on the highway we would see who could 'hit the deck' the fastest before it saw us. Ha! If you look close on the far right side of the motel there’s a cement pad. That is where my brother shot me in my little toe with a BB gun because I wouldn't 'dance' like he told me to. Haha! Many good childhood memories in Vaughn. ;)
"I especially remember how wonderful my grandparents were to anyone staying in the motel. It was more like a bed and breakfast. Sometimes people stayed for days if they were snowed in. I have pictures of the snow up to the roof line and my grandfather having to use his tractor to clear it away.
"My grandfather passed away in the late 1970s. My grandmother continued to live in Vaughn until we moved her to Texas around 2000. She has passed as well.
"I read in the comments where someone inquired about the Cassidy family. My grandparents were very good friends with the Cassidy's and I believe they even traveled together some in my grandfather’s trailer.
"I just thought you might like some history on the motel. It was always so nice when my grandfather had it. I have many fond memories of Vaughn. It's heartbreaking to see the condition of it now."
Many thanks to Dana McElyea for sharing her postcards and memories.