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 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.


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:

Also a small one on Doubtful Canyon: and

A much larger article on Doubtful Canyon:

jmhouse said...

Thanks for your comments and kind words, CoastConFan. Thanks also for the links. The longer piece at 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

Apache WarDance said...

I'm investigating the murder of Mr. Larry Link. Would you be so kind as to provide some information? 1. What calibre was the handgun and bullets used to murder Mr. Link? 2. What make and model was the gun? 3. What parts of Mr. Links body were shot? 4. What about the gun makes it untraceable? I believe the police are not doing all that they should be doing to solve Mr. Link's murder. For example, two Vietnam Special Forces Veterans told me that sometimes when they wanted to bring back a Viet Cong or N.V.A. prisoner they would shoot them in the shoulder because they could still walk, but, they wound prevented them from resisting. One of the Vets who lives in Lordsburg said that when they were shot in the shoulder they would spin around before going down. I read somewhere but can't remember where that Mr. Link had bullet wounds consistent with someone shooting him in an arm in an attempt to abduct him rather than murder him. Thank you for any help. My involvement with Mr. Link is cited at:

jmhouse said...

Hi Apache WarDance,

Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, I don't have any direct knowledge of the circumstances surrounding Mr. Link's murder. Everything I put together for this post was from on-line information, the main source being the NM Capitol Report article, which, based on your Facebook page, I believe you've seen:

However, maybe someone with more knowledge about the case than I will read this and want to contact you. Can they send you a message through the Facebook link you provided above?

Best, JM

ML said...

My father was born here in 1920. My grandfather worked for SP there.

jmhouse said...

Wow, ML, that is something. I can tell you that I don't hear from many people with family members born in Steins, NM. I wish someone knew a way to open the place up again.

Thanks for your comment! JM

Warren said...

First of all, if I'm rude, then I have a great reason to be, and you would be too IF that is you were fair, if you had settled into a place with $9 in your pocket and the clothes on your back, AND THEN made the horrible mistake of selling that property to as ungrateful an asshole as could be found, Larry Link.

I would suggest you do a little more back ground work before you write another story like this because as the person who actually saved Steins, and brought it back to life, I resent especially the one comment "n 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". It is a damn junkyard now but it damn sure was not when I sold it to Link in 88. In fact, I remember a tourist saying to me, "I'm not sure where to step, I might make tracks, you have this place so clean". BUT to see story after story after story and they ONLY get worse as they give Link all credit FOR MY WORK AT STEINS!! It has only been recently that a dude with Legends of America finally got the story correct, and even though it's a small mention of me, still my name finally got out there. So again, do your home work. Larry Link, before his death told stories about the history of Steins that were nothing but pure lies concocted in his mind to make it sound interesting to those who visited. He completely altered history in many ways with some of his outlandish stories. When I was there I NEVER ever ever told the visitors ANYTHING except what those who lived there had shared with me, and they were just anecdotes of how they lived, worked and died. NOTHING MORE.

Warren said...

that's because most of them are dead Mr. House. Even when I went there in 76, there was ONLY a hand full, Jakie McCants, a twin whose brother had been killed when he was about 10 in a horse incident, Jakie was already in his 80's. John Guess whose daughter was extremely generous when she came down to close out her father's ranch a few miles north of me, JOHN had died just a bit earlier that year so I never got to talk with him. Frank Reyes was the last person at Steins. His children came down from Morenci Az in 56 or 57, basically said Dad get some things, you're going home with us. It was his home I was able to fix up and live in, again, something I get no credit for as the Links have made sure of that.

Warren said...

you know Mr. House, a commendable idea to reopen Steins. Personally even though it was the dream of a life time to end up there in 76 as I said with the clothes on my back, a sleeping bag, my little dog Spooky and $9 in my pocket, I've said many times just lately I don't think I'd go back if they offered it to me for $1. There's just been too much damage, more so than when I first went there and treasure hunters had dug up the floors looking for treasure, there were truck loads of garbage left by passer by's, the place had been horribly vandalized but still I took the job on because I had envisioned being there since I was 14, and I was then 33. My philosophy while there was to live old, Mexican, and poor. I had to kind of fake the old part, wasn't quite there yet, and for sure the Mexican part but I had a God given knack for recreating something that I felt people back in the day would have created based on the fact they couldn't get to a hardware store all the time, and if they could, they surely didn't have the money to buy fancy stuff. Actually later on once the town began to thrive, the 14 rooms in the Hotel Steins that were upstairs and lasted until 1964 when vagrants burned it, had a very nice Hardware Store downstairs.

jmhouse said...

Warren, I don't particularly care if you're rude or not. But I wouldn't take the fact that you believe you made a mistake by selling Steins to the Link's out on anyone but yourself. I agree that you get little-to-no credit in the history of Steins. However, that's because there is virtually no mention of you to be found in connection with the town, no matter how much "background work" anyone does. The reference to you in the Legends of America piece can be summarized as, "Warren says he bought Steins in 1976, did some rebuilding, and sold to the Link's in 1988." The research done by Legends of America also turned up descriptions of "a mysterious fellow who lived there alone," which was apparently you. This is hardly sufficient information if you wish to be recognized for your work at Steins. Leaving "rude" comments on a blog post written almost two years ago (well before your name appeared on the Legends of America Steins page, I might add) isn't going to help either.

That said, I found your references to the characters you encountered around Steins to be intriguing and, if you're serious about wanting to have your side of the story known, I'm willing to let you write a piece for City of Dust. That is not an offer I make very often. I'm not interested in any remarks as far as what the Link's did or didn't do after you sold Steins, but, if you wish to write a piece on your time in Steins between 1976 and 1988, including why you were there, the people you met, things that happened, and the various buildings and artifacts still present, here's an opportunity. If you could supply photos from that time that would be fantastic, but not necessary. I'd suggest around 1,000 words because people wander away from their computer screens if they're asked to read anything much longer.

So, if you're interested, please leave another response below and we can get the ball rolling from there. JM