Saturday, February 08, 2014

Troubled Times: Steins, New Mexico



Steins (pronounced STEENS), New Mexico is a ghost town whose recent history is as violent and troubled as its distant past. Philip Varney starts the tale in 1873 with Captain Steens, a member of the US Cavalry, who fought a battle against Apaches in Doubtful Canyon. The canyon’s sobriquet reflected the view of most settlers on their odds of traveling through that particular gap in the Peloncillo Mountains without getting killed. The story goes that Captain Steens couldn’t do it either and the site of his supposed death was thereafter known as Steens Pass. However, Linda Harris says that MAJOR Enoch Steens merely camped in the area in 1856, rumors of his death being greatly exaggerated as he lived until 1880. I think Ms. Harris has it right.

(Incidentally, Steens is referred to as Samuel Chamberlain's captain--Company E, First U.S. Dragoons--in Chamberlain's somewhat exaggerated autobiography, "My Confession: The Recollections of a Rogue," the main source material for Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian." This would be 1846, a decade before Steens camped near the pass.)



Doubtful Canyon’s post office was established in 1888. In 1905, it was moved near the Southern Pacific Railroad’s rock crushing operation in an area already known as Steins but misspelled thanks to the Butterfield Overland Mail Route, which had christened their Doubtful Canyon stagecoach stop Steins Peak Station in 1858. However, Steins was still pronounced like the Major’s name.

The town’s population hit 100 and all modern conveniences were available, except water, which came only from Doubtful Canyon or, even more rarely, the sky. There was a dance hall, a two-story hotel, a saloon, and a two-room brothel. That’s one demimondaine for every 50 residents. I honestly don’t know if that’s a better or worse ratio than would be expected.



The Southern Pacific was crushing gravel for 300 miles of rail bed but the Chinese who did the work weren’t allowed to live in Steins; they had to stay out by the quarry itself. The ground of the cemetery, now to the south of Interstate 10, was reportedly so hard that graves had to be blasted out of the earth. Yeah, maybe things were kind of tough. Even now, if you go to Steins in the summer, it can feel like the sun is trying to incinerate you.

The quarry was shuttered in the 1920’s and that would be Steins peak, population 200. (Not to be confused with nearby Steins Peak, elevation 5715’.) From there it was downhill, although the railroad station operated until 1950, when it was moved to Cottonwood City, just to the south. The post office had left six years earlier. Then Steins languished for years, many of its buildings burning down in a 1962 fire. Philip Varney’s photo from the 1970’s makes it look like by then hardly anything remained besides some crumbling adobes. For awhile, a mysterious fellow lived there alone, his family having bought the town site for him.



In 1988, Steins was purchased by Larry and Linda Link, who cleaned up the “10-acre junkyard,” restored some buildings, and gathered artifacts out of the piles of debris and from the surrounding community. They then opened Steins as a tourist attraction. At one point the town attracted 90,000 visitors a year. But vandalism and theft had gotten so bad by 2008 that the Links were forced to turn Steins into a bona fide ghost town for the second time.

The following year, when I first saw Steins, the little ghost town was entirely closed-off. Very un-Western semi-trailers were parked around the perimeter, “FUMIGATION” painted in big, red letters on their sides. Signs warning of methyl bromide fumigation hung on the fences. This was interesting as the use of methyl bromide, an ozone-depleting pesticide, was phased out in 2005. It was unclear what was going on, but it seemed that I wouldn’t be seeing Steins up close.



Then, on June 7, 2011, the story took a more tragic turn. Steins is only a few yards from I-10 and very early that morning someone probably exited off the interstate for reasons still unknown. It’s likely that Larry Link, suffering from insomnia, went to have a look. He was shot five times. Presumably the shooter then drove away, leaving an untraceable gun behind. Early reports portrayed Link as a rancher and his assailant as an illegal immigrant coming up from the Mexican border, less than 40 miles away. Such inaccuracy and politicized speculation angered the Link family.

In spring 2013, Linda Link and her granddaughter re-opened Steins, but before I could get down to have a look this December, it was closed again. The Steins Facebook page indicates that the town might be open by appointment, but my attempts to contact the family have not been successful.



So, what about those fumigation trucks? It seems that at one time the Link family applied pesticide to produce coming through on I-10. Whether they were still using methyl bromide or just got a deal on outdated signs, I can’t say. As for Larry Link’s killer, that mystery has been harder to solve. So far, police have confirmed just a single lead on the case. There have been no arrests.



I dug up various facts and figures on Steins from wherever I could find them. Varney and Harris, of course, but there is also a touching post from Larry and Linda Link's granddaughter at ghosttowns.com. The forum there has additional information. The most comprehensive piece on Larry Link's murder seems to be at NM Capitol Report.

We’re only three miles down the tracks from Arizona right now. Might as well go have a look next time.


3 comments:

CoastConFan said...

I have driven by Steins many times in the 1990s and on a couple of occasions stopped in, but it was at times that Steins was closed, so I thank you for the blog post of this oft seen, but seldom visited site along I-10. I’m so sorry to hear of Mr Link’s death and the hard times at Steins. I never got to have a full visit and it looks like I never will. I was unaware of the crusher facility and the Chinese connection.

Dried caliche is indeed like sandstone so the story of blasting out graves doesn’t sound out of true with local conditions. It will also form a bond against water and make huge lakes in the desert after a (rare) rainfall.

CoastConFan said...

I forgot to add there is a pretty good article about LtCol Steen on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enoch_Steen

Also a small one on Doubtful Canyon: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doubtful_Canyon and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skirmish_in_Doubtful_Canyon

A much larger article on Doubtful Canyon: http://www.wyattearpexplorers.com/doubtful-canyon.html



jmhouse said...

Thanks for your comments and kind words, CoastConFan. Thanks also for the links. The longer piece at wyattearpexplorers.com was particularly intriguing. Since I can't get into Steins, I just might have to go back and take a look AROUND Steins (i.e., Doubtful Canyon).

Best, JM