Sunday, August 11, 2013

Getting Less Kicks: Newkirk, New Mexico

Newkirk, New Mexico is a bit of an enigma. It doesn’t show up in ghost town guides--probably because a handful of people still live there--but this old stopover on Route 66 consists mostly of abandoned gas stations and stores from the days when the Mother Road kept a steady flow of paying customers coming through. In fact, the only going concern in Newkirk now, as far as I can tell, is the Phillips 66 station where old Route 66 meets the I-40 off-ramp. Strangely, Newkirk does have a Facebook page with 0 “likes” and “0 people talking about this.” Well, I like Newkirk and we’re going to talk about it right now. The shot above is actually from the south side of I-40, before you cross over the highway to Newkirk.

Founded in 1901 with the construction of the nearby railroad, Newkirk was originally known as Conant, the name of a rancher in the area. The name was later changed to Newkirk, in honor of a town in Oklahoma from which a resident hailed. Route 66 began to bring people to Newkirk in the 1930’s, when the population reached 240 residents. But, by the 1940’s, despite having four gas stations, two restaurants, De Baca’s Trading Post, a post office, and some rental cabins for travelers, the population was back down to 115. Here is the church, on the ground is the steeple. Have a look inside--no people.

Wilkerson’s Store (pictured above) survived for many years after the decimation of Route 66 by Interstate 40 in the 1960's. Of course, interstate bypasses, such as those that cut-off Newkirk and nearby Cuervo, led to the collapse of the economies of many small towns that depended on travelers. The store was open until 1989, when the Wilkerson family finally had to walk away. It was a Gulf Station, though you couldn’t tell that now. Collapsing adobe is slowly bringing the building back to earth.

Reportedly not open nearly as long but now holding up better is the old post office/gas station/store shown below. Built in 1910 with large stones, it must’ve been fairly bustling for decades. Kinda hard to imagine now. It still retains a good bit of its dignity though and is my favorite building in Newkirk.

I’ve seen references to an old bar and restaurant called Carlo’s Place and an ancient Shamrock Gas Station, but either they’ve fallen down or I missed them. Either way, no photos. There are also the remains of a store which sold, “figural bottles.” Apparently these were bottles made into the shapes of…figures.

These days Newkirk seems to have largely returned to its ranching roots. But perhaps things aren’t as pastoral as they seem. A photographer I know was standing on the side of old Route 66 with her camera earlier this year when a NM state trooper raced up and told her she was “in danger.” “People around here shoot first and ask questions later,” he said, before speeding away again.

My visit was much less dramatic and included a stop at the Phillips 66 to buy an iced tea, ask a question of the owner, and pet his massive German Shepherd. However, with the NM State Police recently calling I-40 a “River of Crime,” with an astounding 1-in-7 vehicles possibly involved in criminal activity, not to mention whatever the hell is going on in Cuervo, perhaps the residents of Newkirk are right to be on edge. If you’re planning to visit, best be prudent.

There used to really be only one source for information on Newkirk, The Road Wanderer, a Route 66 aficionado who did a nice piece on Newkirk in the early 2000’s. But last month Legends of America added a page on Newkirk, too. Historically-speaking, they both kinda say the same things. So, yeah, I just regurgitated that info here. If you want to "like" Newkirk’s Facebook page, go HERE.

Next time we’ll head a few more miles east down old Route 66, across flooded roads and under narrow bridges, to Montoya, NM, where there are even fewer kicks.


Julie said...

Thanks for the photos and story about this small forgotten town. I would love to visit and take photos of the abandoned structures.

jmhouse said...

As always, thanks for stopping by, Julie! Newkirk is a fascinating place, but, as I mentioned, the vibe is a little heavy sometimes.

Hope all is well in AZ! JM

Summer E. Watson said...

Hello! I stumbled across your blog by accident and I just want to say, it's fantastic! I have a soft spot for ghost towns/historic architecture, and everything on here is absolutely fascinating. Thank you for sharing, I'll definitely stopping by again.

jmhouse said...

Thanks for the kind words, Summer! They're much appreciated.

Good luck with the job hunt. I've been a plant ecologist (mostly) for 17 years and know the temp job/soft money lifestyle very well! JM

Terrell said...

This is great!

Anni Higgins said...

As a kid I spent a lot of time there. That's where we would get gas or a snack before a long day of horse back riding and gathering cattle. I can still remember buying cokes in a bottle and having to pull it out of the machine. It seemed like they had everything in that store. My dad used have the guy who ran the shop next to the store fix his truck. There was a bar down the road from the post office called the Red Mesa it's where I learned to play pool. There's only a couple of the old timers families there anymore. It's mostly people who came from far away that live their now and they aren't all that nice. Almost like they have something to hide but out want like that when I was growing up

jmhouse said...

Thanks for your comment, Anni! We haven't heard from many people with connections to Newkirk, so your comment is doubly appreciated.

I wish I'd had a chance to photograph the Red Mesa, but I suspect it's long gone. You wouldn't know anything about the ruins of the bar just down the road in Montoya, would you? The one with "COLD BEER" on the side and the bullet holes? I'm very curious about the history of that establishment.

Thanks again! JM

Tom Gauss said...

I stopped there for gas while on a motorcycle trip. It is like you stepped off the earth. I will go back when I have time.

jmhouse said...

It is kind of like stepping off the earth, Tom Gauss! Oddly enough, I sort of enjoy that feeling.

Thanks for the comment! JM

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad I accidentally stumbled upon your site. We road trip every year and usually breeze through NM. This year will be different, and we will be spending some time there exploring and being touristy. That being said, the Newkirk 66 gas station was my favorite pit stop because of the dog. I can't even tell you the lengths I went to try to figure out where in the world this gas station was when I was planning our 2nd trip. We're about to head on our 3rd trip and will make it a point to stop there again. This time, I will have more time to take in the forgotten towns along the way. :-)

jmhouse said...

Glad you are finding inspiration on City of Dust, Anonymous! There are some interesting things to see along that stretch of old Route 66, to say the least. Please let us know what you find out there! And give the dog a pat on the head for me.

Have a great trip and thanks for your comment! JM

Anonymous said...

No, thank YOU for all the great posts. Gives me some ideas on where to go. New Mexico is really beautiful and I don't think it gets enough credit. I'm only spending 2 days there, but that's better than the quick drive through we normally do. :-)

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. I am now 84 years old. I lived in Newkirk when I was 5. My dad built and operated a Rio Pecos service station facing north against Hiway 66, then just a graveled road. It was during the height of the migration from Oklahoma to California- dust bowl times. I recall the people coming through with as many as 10 people in a car, with all manner of things--chicken coops, mattress, etc--tied atop the cars. My dad kept the station open 24 hours a day, as many drove through the night when it was cooler. Some of them traded possessions for gasoline. The railroad was fairly close behind the station, and hoboes came by, too, asking to chop wood, etc., in exchange for biscuits my mother made. My uncles worked for my dad. There was a great deal of activity then, with the Conchas Dam under construction not far to the north. I can remember going into Santa Rosa two or three times to the movies. I hadn't started to school. We only stayed there three or four months, then my dad took us to Encino, where he built a new Rio Pecos station facing onto Hiway 60. That was where I started to school.

jmhouse said...

What an incredible scene you depict, Anonymous. It's almost hard to imagine all the worldly possessions tied to the car roofs and then traded for gas and food as the migrants went west. It had never occurred to me that it would've made sense to travel at night in those days before A/C because it was cooler. Of course, then it would've also made sense to keep gas stations open 24 hours a day.

Those are astonishing recollections of Newkirk and Route 66 during the Dust Bowl. Thank you for posting them here at City of Dust. JM