Friday, June 14, 2013

Cross Road Blues: Vaughn, New Mexico

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.

In fact, Vaughn used to rattle and clack quite a bit. That's because by 1905 it was where the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe (ATSF) and El Paso & Southern Railroads intersected, the only place in New Mexico where two major railways crossed. It was also a division point for the railroad, with a roundhouse, multiple tracks, and a railroad office. After the arrival of the automobile, it became the town where three US Highways--54, 60, and 285--met.

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.

In 1910, the Los Chavez Harvey House opened, named after the Chavez family, who arrived in the area with Don Juan de Onate and the first European settlers in the late 1500’s. The Harvey House in Vaughn served as kind of a minor league team for newly recruited Harvey Girls who were just learning the proper way to look nice and be good. The hotel itself never saw many guests and closed in 1936.

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.”

And it might be for you, too. But if, like many, you’re just passing through, try to make a stop at Penny’s Diner. Look for the restaurant at the crossroads that appears to be inside a large aluminum Airstream trailer. Once you enter, it’ll be 1955 all over again and you’ll swear you can hear that clickity-clack as the iron horses rumble through.

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.


Julie said...

I never hear of Vaughn so it was great to read about the history. I love photos of old worn out signs.

jmhouse said...

Yeah, Vaughn isn't talked about too much. Without Dixie Boyle's book, I wouldn't have been able to say much about the place. There's very little on the web.

As always, thanks for stopping by! JM

Jerry Harrison said...

JM. I was born in Vaughn then moved to the little brown house in Encino that you took pics of. I believe I was 2 days old then. Great pics in Vaughn JM. Godd work.

jmhouse said...

You were born in Vaughn and then arrived at the little brown house two days later, eh? That's very interesting!

Along with a return visit to Encino, I think I also need to get back to Vaughn and photograph the old downtown area. I might even have to do another post on the town since I feel like I missed a lot. Let me know if you have any stories to contribute! JM

Anonymous said...

You should join Vaughnians on Facebook... lots of comments there !!

jmhouse said...

Thanks for the heads up, Anonymous! I've done as you suggested. I have a few questions about places in Vaughn that I might ask the folks on Facebook about somewhere down the road. Thanks again, JM.

Dan W. said...

I have Jeff Brouws' book Approaching Nowhere, and he has a couple of nice photos from Vaughn in it. Hopefully I won't forget to check this place out next time I'm around there.

As always, thanks for the write-ups.

jmhouse said...

I'd never heard of Jeff Brouws, but he's got some great stuff, eh? I found a Vimeo video of every page of Approaching Nowhere. I saw the shot of the Ranch House Cafe (in better days). Are there more of Vaughn? And where was the Western Motel off I-40 shot? That looks familiar. Flagstaff?

As always, thanks for the kind words. JM

Stewart said...

Thanks for the great read on this and Encino. My grandmother was born in Encino so we spent a great deal of time in this area when I was a kid. I especially liked the picture of the old "Ranch House Cafe" sign. It was a real treat when my parents would take us there, probably closed ~1995 or so after the new diner opened up on the southern end of town. Thanks again for all the memories!

jmhouse said...

Thanks for the kind words, Stewart. I love to get comments like yours that offer a uniquely personal perspective on these places.

Thanks again, JM

Pintada Kid said...

Ive lived in Vaughn over 50 years and it has nice people and it could be a thriving place if the SF railroad would move further north and straightened towards Vaughn at Yeso in which the SF could meet further north of Vaughn and allow the town to grow further north and to not worry about noise or toxic spills. We need to get rid of the Old buildings use as bathrooms and homes for hitchikers. and Across from the Allsups get rid of those Giant Bombs of Propane tanks and gas tanks and put a Family Dollar there. A warehouse for Walmart and other big companies to come and pick up their Trailers in the center of N.M. where the 2 railroads meet also open the Weigh Station 24 hours would create jobs and revenue from the big rigs that tear up our roads and from the the merging of 2 railroads and remember I 40 is only about 18 or 20 miles north of Vaughn for these big Rigs to get back on I 40 without even going into Vaughn. el pintada kid

jmhouse said...

Thanks for your perspective on Vaughn after having lived there for 50 years. So many small towns around America seem to be having trouble these days, mostly stemming from economics. I guess we shall see what the future holds.

And let me just say that your name precedes you, El Pintada Kid! Thanks for stopping by. JM

Jefferson Adams said...

Two friends and I stayed in a Vaughn motel in 1982, en route from Texas to Colo. The next morning, 3 miles out of town, the thermostat housing on my 1974 AMC Hornet cracked and we lost all coolant. We hitchhiked back to Vaughn, expecting to wait days for a replacement part (AMCs were becoming rare even then). To our surprise (and to the surprise of the clerk in the tiny auto parts store), there was one in stock! We hitchhiked back and quickly did a roadside repair.

My second visit to Vaughn was two days ago, my wife and I detoured through from I-40. Contrary to what some of this blog might suggest, there is very heavy freight train traffic passing Vaughn on both lines, and there are maintenance personnel at the BNSF station. But automobiles and locomotives today are not like my Hornet; there's much less breaking down in Vaughn and more passing through without stopping.

jmhouse said...

Thanks for the story, Jefferson Adams. It seems like Vaughn certainly used to be a popular place to break down. My friend at Viva New Mexico! has a similar tale in which the good people of Vaughn also got him back on the road in short order. You can't say they didn't know how to get a vehicle running again.

I guess I did make it sound as if the trains didn't roll through Vaughn at all anymore. I meant to imply only that they don't STOP, but kinda got carried away. The trains still pass near places like Yeso and Taiban, too, but it was really the loss of the depot and that scheduled stop that hurt.

Thanks again for stopping by. JM

Lynette Butler said...

Im trying to find information about a WF Cassidy that lived in Vaughn around 1953. Are there any Cassidys still around there? If so, could you give me a phone number? I found an old photo with this name on the back. I think the photo is of my great grandmother. So, I'm wondering who WF Cassidy is and why he had my grandmas picture.

jmhouse said...

Hi Lynette,

I'm not going to be able to help you with your query, but I can send you to the best place to get it answered. There is a Facebook page called VAUGHNIANS that is a forum for current and past residents of the city to talk about all things Vaughn-related. I bet someone there could help you out. If you're on Facebook, you can join the group and ask directly. They're very friendly folks. The page is HERE. Tell them City of Dust sent you!

Best of Luck! JM

jmhouse said...

Lynette Butler, I don't know if you're receiving updates on this post, but recently I was sent this message:

"I am reading your blog and saw a post from Lynette Butler wanting information about WF Cassidy. Was that posted prior to 2009? Anyway I knew a Lynette and her Grandmother worked at the El Corral Bar for about 30 years owned by Bill Cassidy. If you have a phone number or her email I would to talk to her. Vyvyane Rogers was a great friend of mine and I am still in touch with all of her descendents. I am the one that told you about Vaughnians."

Lynette, if you would like to get in contact with this person, drop me a line at the e-mail address associated with my profile and I'll put you two in touch.

Best, JM

greg hansen said...

What a great blog. We drove thru Vaughn last week and I was like "WTF"? Fortunately a friend told me to be sure to fill up on gas in Roswell because we were headed to Santa Fe and there was no gas in between, none that I saw anyway. I have to read all your posts because they are so interesting.

jmhouse said...

Thanks for the kind words, Greg! They're much appreciated. You know, I *think* Vaughn might have a functioning gas station just down from Penny's Diner. But I could be misremembering. Better safe than sorry, anyway!

Let me know if you make it through all the posts! That would be worth of a trophy. Or at least a nice certificate. I'm not sure anyone but me has made it through every one. And I'm not even 100% sure about me.

Thanks again, JM

Dona Wells said...

Oh wow Dana Tumey McElyea. This has brought back so many memories I had in Vaughn NM! Even though there wasn't much to do there, we still had fun. Lol I remember playing on the train tracks with my brother and sister. My brother always said he was going to tie me down to the tracks. Haha
My grandparents loved running that hotel! They treated every customer like they were family...and they didn't mind staying a few extra days because the hospitality was so great! �� I remember my Grandmother changing the sheets and cleaning the rooms and making them just right! I remember her always carrying tissue in her pocket to wipe the sweat off her face because she worked so hard. I miss her dearly.i remember my grandpa loved to go camping in the Big Silver Stream Line camper! He loved that!
Now that clinic they bought after the motel sold was great! I remember the little dolls Nanaw had in all those rooms. I remember the big room they had behind the clinic they lived in and Nanaw never threw anything away.. LOL Aawwww the memories of traveling to Vaughn NM were some of the best! Might have been a "pass through town" and not much going on but it was a lot for all of us! I miss them and the times we had there. Thank you Dana for sending this story in and sharing the memories. ❤️ Thank you John for the article!

jmhouse said...

Thank you very much for your comment, Dona. I'm thrilled to have such wonderful memories recorded here. I think we can safely say that City of Dust has the most complete history of the Sands Motel, Vaughn, NM available on-line!

I wonder if that house/clinic is still standing. Do you know? I may have to have a look for it next time I'm in Vaughn.

Thanks again! JM

Royce Dressel said...

Interesting town .Peggy feeds a lot of meal for the money. Plus she has the only all night commode in town or for 40 miles in any direction.

Shelia Hayden-Wilson said...

I attended Vaughn Grade School in 1963/64 and unable to loacte the address for the school...can anyone help me?

jmhouse said...

Thanks for stopping by, Shelia Hayden-Wilson! Someone here might well have the address of Vaughn Grade School. Another resource, if you have Facebook, would be the VAUGHNIANS group, which discusses Vaughn-related matters and includes many people with connections to the town. I'm certain someone there would know the address. They might even know you, too!

Good luck, and let us know if you get that address! JM

Tom Vaughan said...

I LOVE your blog approach to local history! You're bringing stuff out of the woodwork and getting stories told that would never see the light of day otherwise! We went through Vaughn last Monday and took some pictures, which are posted in an album at We also stopped in Duran and took pictures there, which are also posted on my Facebook page. In both cases, finding your blog and reading it and all the comments helped greatly to understand what we had seen.

As you point out in the lede to the Duran posting, the story of being built by the railroad and killed by the highway bypass is all too common across the Southwest!

In Vaughn, was that two-story brick building with the Kelvinator sign near the tracks the Harvey House?

Keep up the good work!


jmhouse said...

Tom Vaughan, thanks for your comment! I really appreciate your kind words for City of Dust! I'm glad you enjoy the site. I tried to have a look at your photos, but was unfortunately confronted by that Facebook page featuring a bandaged thumb, which I guess means something went wrong. Alas.

However, if you liked Vaughan and Duran, I'd also highly recommend visiting nearby ENCINO, as well.

As for that brick building in Vaughan near the tracks, that actually wasn't the Harvey House. I can't really say what it was. I'm having a hard time picturing it right this second, which distresses me! But you can see a picture of the now-gone Vaughan Harvey House at the bottom of THIS PAGE. It looks like it was a beauty and I sure wish I would've seen it.

Thanks again! JM

Mike Huber said...

I noticed on the page for the Harvey Houses that there was a listing for Carlsbad NM and no picture or description....I'm from Carlsbad and was wanting some info on it.....BTW....I love your blog and facebook page....Ghost-towning is one of my hobbies and you've got a great resource here....Thanx....Mike Huber

jmhouse said...

Glad you enjoy City of Dust, Mike Huber. Thanks for stopping by!

As for the Harvey House in Carlsbad, NM, that is an interesting case, isn't it? I see that blank entry for Carlsbad, too, but there aren't any photos to be found anywhere on-line as far as I can tell. I've never heard anything about that Harvey House myself. The Palace of Governors digital NM photo collection didn't turn up anything either. It's a bit of a mystery.

Well, let us know if you turn anything up. I'll also keep my eyes open and report back if I come across any info on the phantom Carlsbad Harvey House.

Thanks again! JM

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jmhouse said...

Thank you for the info on Carlsbad, teddflinstone123. Do you know of any abandoned buildings in the area? Actually, I happen to know of a few in Whites City, NM, as well as this AWESOME ROAD.

Thanks for stopping by! JM

Kirk Hansen said...

FYI... Just filled up at a Phillips (Allsup?) on the west side of Vaughn. Thanks for the interesting post.

jmhouse said...

Thanks for checking-in, Kirk Hansen! Hmm, Allsup's on the west side? Any chance you meant east side? That one I know quite well! I've even been known to get one of those fruit pies there now and then.

Safe travels! JM

Thom Edwards said...

Took pic of the liquor store/beer joint cpl years ago and posted this week on Facebook. Friends asked where was it? Had to go back and look. I studied it closer and noticed faint sign painted it had live music. Hum since I grew up West TX playing music and live here in Tn, my curiosity got flowing..anybody know who might have played there in days gone by?. Since Vaughn is just a waystop across USA, might have been fav pickup gig for traveling bands? Any help out there?

jmhouse said...

Thom Edwards, that is a great question! I haven't come across any mention of who played at the Spurs Saloon. However, it struck me as the kind of place that might've seen some great gigs, too. So much so that I photographed the band Spindrift out front. Bob Christensen took a nice photo of it in 2000 in which you can see more of the signage.

But there is another former beer joint to the southeast, near Kenna, NM, on the Roosevelt-Chaves County line, that I've been able to dig up some information on. It was called the Pioneer Tavern and was close to Clovis, where folks like Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison recorded. Also, Chaves County was not dry while the surrounding counties were, which I'm sure was a draw. The list of performers did include Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison, as well as Waylon Jennings (although perhaps when he was with the Crickets?), among others. Hank Thompson apparently said it was one of his favorite places to play. It's mostly a ruin now, but you can see it HERE.

Anyway, thanks very much for your comment. Maybe someday somebody will be able to give us some names for the Spurs Saloon. And say hello to TN for me (I used to live in Knoxville). JM

Rita Selgado said...

My father and his family grew up in Vaughn. Thank you for this story. Now his grandkids can read about his hometown. He talks about it often especially when his sisters came to visit us.

jmhouse said...

Thanks for your message, Rita Selgado. I'm glad your father's grandchildren will be able to learn about Vaughn via City of Dust! JM