Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Life (and Death) by Railroad: Yeso, New Mexico

Most of the ghost towns I visit have been written about by Philip Varney in his New Mexico's Best Ghost Towns: A Practical Guide. The problem is that this guide was first published in 1981 and thus many of his photographs and descriptions date from the late 1970's. When I go to check out one of these towns I usually find MUCH LESS than he did. Well, what do I expect? We're talking at least an additional three decades of exposure to elements both natural and manmade. One exception to this rule might be Chloride, currently pop. 11, which, after nearly disappearing totally, has been resurrected as a charming slice of history wwaaayy out in southwestern New Mexico. At some point I'll do a post on Chloride. On the other end of the spectrum is Yeso, a ghost town which actually looks pretty similar to how it must have when Varney stopped by. Although Yeso is not entirely a ghost town; a few people do live there and a functioning post office sits right across the street from the abandoned one.

Yeso sprang up along Yeso Creek, but the water was not fit for consumption. Yeso translates as "gypsum" or "chalk" in Spanish and you can't really drink a glass of dissolved gypsum without running into problems. But Yeso also had readily accessible groundwater which could be pumped for livestock and locomotive engines traveling the brand new Belen Cutoff. The cutoff re-routed trains through east-central New Mexico, away from the steep grades toward Colorado. One of the first frame train depots was built in Yeso, which was officially established in 1906, a year before completion of the Belen Cutoff.

The town did alright for awhile. A post office was constructed in 1909 and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe (ATSF) railroad kept things going despite a lingering regional drought. Yeso quickly became a gathering place for the ranchers and handful of farmers in the area. Things got rough after WWII, when diesel locomotives were introduced and trains no longer had to stop in town to take on water. That was also about the time it finally became clear that the land around Yeso was really not very good for farming and might not be suited for much beyond grazing sheep. It had been an awfully dry few decades, too.

By the mid-1960’s, the school, which was built by the Works Progress Administration in 1940, closed as the last steam locomotives were retired. The old frame train depot now became one of the last of its kind to fold, shutting its doors for good in 1968. Most everyone packed up and moved to Fort Sumner, 22 miles to the east. Apparently four families opted to stay in Yeso and I have to wonder if their descendents occupy the few well-maintained homes abutting U.S. 60. Incidentally, Billy the Kid was killed in Fort Sumner and I'll eventually do a post on that infamous town, as well.

While much remains of Yeso, including the still-decaying remains of several houses--an entire abandoned neighborhood, more or less--and the Frontier "Musem" (once known as the Hotel Mesa, pictured at left), as well as the shell of the Super Service Drive In garage, there have been some casualties. What Varney describes as a possible gas station/garage/motel/residence complex on the east end of town has largely collapsed. This is unfortunate as he mentions that in the sidewalk in front of this structure was the date of construction, June 8, 1929, set in the cement in bottle caps. As far as I can tell, this bit of concrete is now buried under the collapsed walls of the large rock building. Too bad. Several other structures are also showing their years, so, if you’re going to visit, I still wouldn’t recommend waiting very long.

Finally (and oddly), the spelling of Yeso was changed to a misspelling--Yesso--between 1912 and 1913. Anyone know why?

Info for this post came from Philip Varney (of course) and this little write-up on Ghosttowns.com. I also grabbed one fact from Dixie Boyle’s cool (and now hilariously expensive) book on U.S. Highway 60.

Happy holidays! There’s plenty of ground to cover in 2012.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

This Old, Dead House: The Sad End of the Werner-Gilchrist Home

Last month the Alibi, Albuquerque's free weekly paper, did a story on the Werner-Gilchrist house, the oldest structure east of Yale Boulevard. They showed a vintage photograph alongside a contemporary one and it was clear the house was badly deteriorated. So, I made a visit as soon as I got a chance and was dismayed to find the place in even worse shape than it had been in the Alibi photo, which turned out to be a year old. I'd hoped to get inside but the house was boarded up tight. Apparently it had often been wide open, but when I got there thick plywood covered every entrance. All I could do was walk around the outside and take in some of the remaining architectural features. The back shed was accessible but uninteresting and a homeless person had recently taken up residence. After awhile I laid a hand on the 103-year-old house to pay my last respects and then headed home. On Monday, following a whim, I decided to stop by once again and saw that there would now be no problem getting inside. The house was already dark due to the boarded-up windows and the sun was setting, so I didn't have much time, but I tried to get a few decent shots. By the time you read this, the Werner-Gilchrist house will be no more, living on in a few photos and, of course, that episode of Breaking Bad in which it appeared as a drug den. So, here's its story.

The tale of the Werner-Gilchrist house begins with Colonel D.K.B. Sellers. Apparently a bit of a character, he was not actually a colonel. In the very early 1900's, it was Colonel Sellers that petitioned to give Railroad Avenue, which he believed to be a poor name for a street that extended beyond the rail line, a new name, Central, as he began to sell commercial lots in Albuquerque. Quickly successful in his name-change bid, the Colonel continued developing, moving into what is now the University Heights Addition, a square-shaped collection of streets just south of the University of New Mexico campus. In Nob Hill, he would go on to build a rather nice log cabin and a gravity-based water tank that is now a house. In 1912, the Colonel was even elected Mayor of Albuquerque, but, a few years earlier, in lieu of financial compensation, Colonel Sellers had paid his secretary, Laura Werner, by giving her half of an undeveloped block on what is now Cornell Drive.

Ms. Werner and Ralph Gilchrist, her son-in-law, built the house in 1908 on the corner of what is now Cornell and Silver. Based on a layout used for officer's homes in Territorial forts following the Civil War, the design, known as "hipped box," incorporated a wood-framed hip roof with dormer windows on each side. The load-bearing walls were made of 16" thick adobe bricks and the foundation was stacked stone. The doors, window frames, and trim were all wood and a wide entrance hall ran the full length of the first floor. The second floor was a single large room. At the time, this style of construction was in favor among the upper classes. I was impressed to see that every room aside from the kitchen had a fireplace.

Ms. Werner's reclusive daughter, Nora, occupied the house until she died in 1981, having lived into her nineties. The house had been vacant since about that time. In 1982, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places, but, as we've seen, that designation does not necessarily confer any real protection. In 2006, in response to a blocked attempt at demolition the year before, the house was officially named an Albuquerque landmark, a title which also could not save it.

Much as with the recently demolished Aztec Motel (it's been a tough year for historic buildings in ABQ), no one ever said they wanted the Werner-Gilchrist house torn down. There was an effort to preserve and restore the house which spanned 30 years, but continued neglect caused extensive damage and the current owner of the property was eventually cited for housing code violations. That owner, Jim Trump, executive director of Build New Mexico, stated that he had initially hoped to restore the home. But times are tough and money is tight and the house was too far gone. Thus, the Werner-Gilchrist house is no more.

Meanwhile, across town, Albuquerque is finally getting a Chipotle Grill.

I grabbed the information for this post from the aforementioned Alibi article and the house’s short Wikipedia entry. The photo of the house just after construction in 1908 comes courtesy of the City of Albuquerque, although they don’t know it.

I've got a ton of stuff lined-up for the future, from Billy the Kid's (controversial) grave to the haunted Shaffer Hotel and beyond. There’s plenty to keep busy for awhile.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Ghost Trains: The Lost Railyard of ABQ, NM

The Albuquerque Railyard, which I did a LONG POST on in early 2010, is one of my favorite places in the country to visit and photograph. Recently, here in town, an ENTIRE EXHIBIT was dedicated to this industrial wonderland and, in that spirit, I decided to put together a short ABQ Railyard photo book. You can flip through it virtually at Shutterfly RIGHT HERE. Like all these vanity books, it's kinda spendy, but if you decide you want one let me know and maybe I can scrounge up a discounted rate.

The next post will be on the historic Werner-Gilchrist House, built in 1908, which is probably not long for this world.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Wrong Place, Wrong Time

I hear people singing. I think it’s coming from the church near his place. I went to see him today, to tell him something. Say it face-to-face. But as I walked up the gravel drive toward his house he stepped off the porch and drew back the hammer on his gun. That’s why I’m here. Because I know what he’s going to do. Sometimes a thing happens and there is no one to tell how it really happened besides you. And you can’t convince anyone that it happened like it did. That it isn’t your fault. That’s just life, I guess. I can hear the singing more clearly. It makes me less afraid of what’s going to happen now.

Photo of "The Swallow" taken in Albuquerque, NM. Photo of "Turquoise Trail Market" taken in Cedar Crest, NM.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The End of the Aztec Motel, Part 2

Let’s go back to the recently-deceased Aztec Motel for part two in a two-part series on the place. In my LAST POST, I laid out the physical history of what, until this past summer, was one of Albuquerque’s most historic motels along old Route 66, its early 1930’s construction actually pre-dating the designation of that famous cross-country highway by a few years. If all the Aztec Motel had going for it was its architectural history, it would still be more than worthy of attention. But the Aztec was easily the most unique motel in Albuquerque and this post will shine what might be one last light on its more unusual aspects.

The source of much of the Aztec’s latter-day fame was the hard-to-miss fact that it was decorated from top to bottom, back to front with found objects. Sometimes these objects were actual art, like framed pictures and ornamental sculptures, and sometimes the art was created out of tires or bottles or whatever came to hand. By the time I first saw the Aztec in late 2009, some of this art was already gone. In the photo below, taken just before demolition, most of the objects have been removed. The Aztec’s last owner said that a few people asked for individual pieces when the end was nigh, but most of the art was very damaged and just thrown away. I wish I’d taken my one opportunity to crawl in a back window and rescue the large painting of a Spanish woman that hung just above where the front desk used to be. Alas.

Anyway, the decorating of the Aztec can be traced back to one woman, Phyllis Evans, a retired professor of social work at Michigan State University. In “History Takes a Lick,” an article by Leslie Linthicum on the demise of the Aztec Motel which was published in the Albuquerque Journal, Evans is quoted in a 1999 interview as saying that she never planned to live in a motel and only came to the Aztec by “some miracle.” She moved into the motel in 1994 and almost immediately started decorating.

From the ABQ Journal piece: “Several days into Evans’ stay, she found an empty whiskey bottle outside her door in the morning and stuck a flower in it. The whiskey bottles kept showing up. And Evans kept filling them with plastic flowers and setting them around the motel. Street people started dropping off bottles, flowers and other objects they had found on the street — broken plates, statues, a hobby horse, a Buddha — and Evans continued to build on her outdoor artwork.”

Here's further description from a Daily Lobo article written by Marcella Ortega in late 2006: “Evans covered the building with multicolored Mexican tiles, perforated metal crosses and plates, Mexican and American Indian paintings and wood-carved musical instruments. There are tables with candles outside each unit, too.”

Evans moved out of the motel just after its most recent owner, the Nob Hill Development Corp., bought the property in 2006. She went to Hawaii but stayed in touch, sending desserts to the partners in the development corporation while, outside the motel, her influence lived on.

Jae Whitehorse, who had been living at the motel for three months when interviewed for the Daily Lobo piece, mentioned that he was particularly fond of a mannequin in a 1920's flapper costume and brown fur shawl.

"She's gorgeous, only she's missing one hand," he said, and, describing the motel, added, "It's not all prim and proper. It sort of has a wildness look to it. I don't like things all prim, proper and preppy. The place is funky and quirky and accepting of the weird, which I am, and I fit right in. I love it here." Whitehorse said that the motel's residents and staff were like a family.

On my first visit to the Aztec Motel, my attention was immediately drawn from the decorations on the motel itself to the decorating that had recently been undertaken in the back parking lot. This was not the work of Phyllis Evans, but of someone with a somewhat darker, yet no-less individual, vision. First, two ornately decorated pigeons, one blue and one red, were laid out on mirrors atop a wooden cable spool. Next, a few feet to the west, numerous stuffed animals were tied to a tree at the base of which a doll laid face-down. Against the tree trunk was propped a pair of dress shoes. And high up in the branches, above the other toys, swung a lone stuffed gorilla. The overall effect was incredible. This was like no place I had ever visited. I looked at the old motel rooms and noticed lights on outside one or two. Had someone squatting in the motel created this?

I returned several times over the following weeks and months. The pigeons began to decay and eventually disappeared. They were replaced by hand-written notes, one of which said, “Practice random acts of public humiliation.” The stuffed toys began to lose their stuffing, with the gorilla bleeding badly out of a large hole in its side. Once I found a collection of CD’s stacked in a corner of the concrete fence. They were not in cases, but were carefully tucked away beside some beer bottles. The music wasn’t what I would have expected, but was better, more obscure, and included the likes of Captain Beefheart, which seemed perfect. In the end, all that remained were some last weather-beaten stuffed animals tied to the tree. The demolition team took down not just those ragged creatures, but the entire tree as well. I wonder what their thoughts were as they considered the last hours of the Aztec Motel.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

The End of the Aztec Motel, Part 1

The Aztec Motel, which was until recently located along old Route 66, just east of Nob Hill, deserves two posts. This first will be a synopsis of the physical history of the motel. In the next, I’ll try to say a few words about what made the Aztec (and its back parking lot) one of the strangest and most interesting places I’ve ever photographed. That will be more of a metaphysical history, I guess, with the photographs saying more than words ever could. So, without further ado, the late, great Aztec Motel…

Back in the heyday of Route 66 nearly 100 motels lined the stretch through Albuquerque, also known as Central Ave., running from just west of downtown nearly to the Sandia Mountains. The vast majority of those motels are now gone, the occasional vintage sign left standing as a kind of grave marker. Before it was demolished, the Aztec Motel was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, spotlighted in the National Park Service’s Route 66 travel itinerary, and considered to be among the five most historically important motels left standing on Central Ave. But, as we know, the economics of decay trumps history nearly every time.

The Aztec Motel was actually the first motel built on East Central Ave. There seems to be some disagreement as to whether it was built in 1931, 1932, or 1933, but it certainly pre-dated Route 66, which was not designated until 1937. Built in a style known as “Southwest Vernacular” and originally called the Aztec Auto Court, the motel had 13 units and three carports. The carports were walled-in sometime in the 1950’s and turned into four additional rooms. This is also when the original neon sign was replaced with the one that can still be seen beside the now-empty lot.

Like so many old motels, the construction of the interstate (I-40, in this case) pulled the rug out from under the Aztec and it declined for many years until it was frequented mostly by drug users, prostitutes, and the down-and-out. Looking at this area now, adjacent as it is to trendy Nob Hill, it’s hard to believe things were ever that seedy. In any case, in 1991, Mohamed Natha bought the motel and worked to bring it back from the brink. In an effort to cut down on visits by hookers and their clients, as well as drug addicts and petty criminals, Natha began to rent only to long-term residents. A short time later the Aztec began to be extravagantly decorated with found items (of which I’ll say more next time) and underwent a kind of renaissance. The long-term residents were chiefly artists, free spirits, and assorted characters-about-town whose personalities became reflected in the motel itself as a genuine community developed.

Thus the Aztec Motel soldiered on for some years, becoming the longest continuously-operated motel in New Mexico. Then, in 2006, a development company bought the motel with the stated aim of renovating it. What they found was that more was being spent on maintenance than was coming in as revenue and structural problems brought the cost of fully rehabilitating the property to a million dollars. And with that, the decision to demolish the Aztec Motel was made. It finally came down in June of this year, somewhere around its 80th birthday.

Having only been in Albuquerque two years at this point, I don’t recall ever seeing the Aztec Motel actually open. In fact, a lot of the found art had already been removed by the time I got to the place. On my first visit it did appear that people were still living in some of the units. There were a couple lights on and it seemed that a few of the rooms were being maintained in an interesting kind of way (see photo at top of post), but I assumed these folks were squatters. I regret that I ended up taking only a few photos of the Aztec itself that day as my attention was almost immediately drawn to the back parking lot, which we’ll get to next time. Until then, keep on keeping on.

I got some of the information for this post from the National Park Service, KRQE News, and a cool little website on roadside architecture called "Agility Nut," now long gone.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Albuquerque Railyard Exhibit - Opening September 15, 2011

My favorite place to visit and photograph in all of Albuquerque is the old railyard complex just south of downtown. I did a VERY LONG POST on the history of the place, with plenty of photos, in early 2010. Since then it's become VERY difficult to get a close look at the railyard due to movie shoots and drastically increased security once the city became liable for the property. But lots of people love the railyard and this Thursday, September 15, 2011, a mostly-photographic exhibit dedicated to raising public awareness of this stunning (and imperiled) collection of industrial architecture will open at the Kimo Theatre Gallery, 423 Central Ave. NW. Most--if not all--of the photographers will be present (yes, including me) and the show is free, so come on down Thursday between 6 and 8 PM if you can. All the works will be for sale, as well. The show runs through mid-November, so there's plenty of time to stop by if you can't make the opening. Hope to see you there!

Lots more information on the exhibit, including photos, recollections, and history can be found at the ALBUQUERQUE RAIL YARDS website. In addition to the above-mentioned City of Dust POST, a couple more of my rail yard photos can be found HERE and about, uh, 80 more HERE.

The great photo used for the postcard above was taken by local urban explorer KILLBOX. The photo below is yet another by yours truly.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Goodbye, Silver Moon Lodge

Two venerable old motels in Albuquerque bit the dust this summer. Both were along Route 66 and had long histories serving weary travelers in the city. The Aztec Motel, which was built in the early 1930’s and located near Nob Hill, was one of the quirkiest (and downright strangest) places I’ve ever visited. Its demise has elicited some response around town, including a memorial art show that wrapped up last week. I’ll do a post on the Aztec soon. But I’m going to start with a motel on the other side of town that went down without much of a whimper, the Silver Moon Lodge.

The Silver Moon Lodge, built in 1953, was at 918 Central Ave. SW., not too far from Old Town. The Silver Moon and the Central Park Deli, which was also located on the premises, closed for good on October 15, 2007 after a 54-year run. Then, in the absence of a development plan, the entire complex sat vacant until July of this year. Originally, the place was known as the Desert Skies Motor Hotel. After that, it became the Desert Inn Motor Hotel. Here is (UPDATE: was) a cool POSTCARD from that era. By the 1980’s, a third name change found the hotel billed as the Grand Western Motor Inn. Clyde and Goldie Taylor, who ran the Desert Inn in Santa Fe, owned the business around this time. Here’s one POSTCARD from that period. And here is (UPDATE: was) ANOTHER. I don’t know when the official name switch to the Silver Moon Lodge occurred, but the hotel appears to have sometimes been referred to as the Grand Western Motor Lodge up until it closed.

Peak Hospitality eventually acquired the Silver Moon and, when asked in 2007 if it might be renovated rather than torn down, stated, “We spent $1 million renovating it when we bought it seven years ago. The plumbing and water systems were starting to go. The numbers didn’t work out (on a renovation).”

You know, I understand that economic concerns trump all other considerations when it comes to business. It’s a shame to lose a piece of history, but it’s hard to compete with the Best Western’s and Super 8’s. Of course, once a motel starts to decline, it’s hard to get it back on track. I’ll finish this post with a review from Yelp, posted about nine months before the Silver Moon’s doors were locked:

“You can't expect very much from cheap motels, but this place was pretty bad (and not super inexpensive). Everything in our room seemed like it was broken -- the bathroom lights, locks, closet hanger rod, toilet, and curtain rod. On top of that, our towels and all the chairs in the room had mysterious stains on it. The only reason why this place gets two stars instead of one is because the staff was so nice and responded quickly when we phoned about broken lights and busted locks. They also provide free shuttling to and from the airport.”

If anyone has other recollections of the Silver Moon to share, please send them in. I’d love to hear ‘em.

Information for this post came from Route 66 News, a great site called Motel Fan done by a motel enthusiast from the Netherlands, and, of course YELP. The postcards were found on 66 Postcards and Card Cow.

Monday, August 29, 2011

City of Dust at The Printmakers' Studio

I've got a new post just about ready to go, but right now I'm off to South Dakota for the Labor Day weekend. I hope to get some good photos out there on the lone prairie. It's been a solid decade since I've been to South Dakota. In the meantime, for those of you in the Albuquerque area, The Printmakers' Studio is opening a show this First Friday, September 2, featuring work by local photographers. There will be great food, great folks, and great art. I managed to sneak in a couple shots, too. So, even though I can't attend the opening, I'd highly encourage anyone that is interested to stop by. The show will run through the month of September, so if you can't make it down on Friday you'll still have some time to get a look.

(UPDATE: This show has been extended through October.)

The Printmakers' Studio is located at 423-425 San Mateo Blvd NE, ABQ, NM. The open house will run from 5PM-8PM.

The photo above was taken off Central Ave., not far from The Printmakers' Studio and just down the block from the subject of an upcoming post.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Colfax, New Mexico

My stated intention awhile back was to produce new posts on a more regular basis but, as seems to always be the case, other things have gotten in the way. This time it was a move which has taken up most of my time over the last month. This was a move just down the street, not halfway across the country as has kinda been my modus operandi to this point. Nevertheless, everything had to be boxed-up, loaded-up, and then dumped into empty rooms to be unpacked. The unpacking is still to come, but I wanted to get something new posted before I lost any more time. With that in mind, we’ll take a short trip to Dawson's neighbor in northeastern New Mexico, Colfax, which, as of a few months ago, is just a ghost of a ghost town.

Originally known as Vermejo Junction, Colfax was established in 1869 and took its name from Schuyler Colfax, Jr., the 17th Vice President of the United States. Colfax served under President Ulysses S. Grant. It’s anybody’s guess as to why the town was named after Schuyler, but what is known is that, unlike other mid-nineteenth century towns in New Mexico, Colfax was promoted not for its mineral resources, but as an ideal place for agriculture. It was largely the St. Louis, Rocky Mountain, and Pacific Railroad, which ran nearby, doing the promoting. Two thousand 25' x 140' lots were laid out and sold for $140 a pop, with discounts for anyone buying more than one. Given the importance of the railroad in those days, there was every reason to expect that people would come to Colfax. But, in the end, not many did. Some would-be residents were even cheated by crooks who did not actually own the plots they sold.

By 1908 Colfax had a post office but it closed in 1921. A school, hotel, mercantile store, and even a gas station survived into the Great Depression. The school, which also functioned as a church, remained open until 1939. But most people coming into the area simply opted to go up the road a couple miles to Dawson to work in the mines or they set up shop in Cimarron. Thus, Colfax seems to have never really gotten off the ground.

The two-story Colfax Hotel (originally known as the Dickman Hotel) was the major structure in the town, but it eventually went out-of-business and has been gone many, many years. Philip Varney’s guide to New Mexico’s ghost towns contains photos of both the old school and a panorama of what remained of the town about 30 years ago. In the panorama a passenger coach railroad car can be seen, along with some other intriguing structures. I really wanted to have a look at the railcar, in particular. There are great photos of it (and Colfax in general) taken in early 2009 at Rocky Mountain Profiles. And an old car shot through with bullet holes? There was every reason to be excited. But, in the end, it turned out there was almost nothing of Colfax left to be seen except for char marks on the ground where something had stood just weeks, if not days, prior to our visit.

So, what happened? Did someone set the old buildings of Colfax on fire? That’s a likely guess. Most of Colfax's structures were just feet from U.S. 64 and being only 13 miles from Cimarron did leave the place open to mischief. In a way, it's surprising the wooden buildings lasted as long as they did. I tried to recreate Varney’s panorama and, while he was a bit upslope from me, you can still match up the blackened ground with the structures in his photo. Did the railcar burn? What about the assorted outbuildings? The caption of Varney's shot says, "Colfax townsite, looking from schoolyard." I sure didn't see any school. The stone wall at the top of this post is really the only thing left. If only we’d gotten to Colfax just a few weeks earlier in its quiet 142-year history we might’ve caught its last gasp before it finally sank below the roiling waters of time for good.

Almost no information on Colfax exists that isn't taken from Philip Varney’s book, although Rocky Mountain Profile's write-up contained a few tidbits, in addition to the excellent photos. I scanned Varney's panorama and posted it here to depict Colfax's almost complete disappearance. Thanks, Mr. Varney, wherever you may be.

Recently a couple historic motels along old Route 66 in Albuquerque were sadly torn down. Posts documenting the last days of these majestic buildings will be coming soon.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

"Got My Walkin' Boots On..."

Last year I wrote a POST on Willis Earl Beal, the most talented singer/songwriter I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing music with. Willis had to leave Albuquerque before our little 3-piece band was able to record any material or even play a show, but this week the Chicago Reader published a piece on Willis and his music and I think it’s well worth having a look at it. Just check out this quote: “If all goes well, sometime this Thursday evening he'll perform at the Jackson el stop, either on the Red Line, on the Blue Line, or in the tunnel between them.” There may even be one or two quotes from yours truly. CLICK HERE for the story.

Of course, reading about Willis is interesting, but it’s his music that really speaks volumes. The article mentions a 200-copy "Willis Earl Beal Special Collection" box set + 17-song CD that will be available through FOUND MAGAZINE and, since I don’t know the track listing myself (all Willis told me was “don’t worry, all your favorite stuff is on there”), I’m hesitant to post more music here in case it’s on the disc. So, what I’m going to do is post the lyrics to a song we worked-up and that, as far as I know, Willis has never recorded. Just imagine some Steve Cropper guitar, Booker T. Jones on organ, maybe the Memphis Horns adding a little brass, all over a sweet soul voice. Alright, maybe OUR musical accompaniment wasn’t that good, but Willis deserves that kind of treatment. Seriously.

Same Ol’ Tears

Got my walking boots on, destination in mind;
Said I’m goin’ back east, while I follow the signs;
Hooked into a woman, ‘cause she treats me well;
I come a-runnin’ when she rings the bell.

Hangin’ onto her dress, and I can’t release;
Tryin’ to go to sleep, but I can’t get no peace;
Well, I’m a-gazin’ at the moon while I pedal the bike;
I got a caffeine high but I don’t feel right.

Well, everybody knows somethin’ I don’t know;
That old idiot wind, everywhere it blows;
I feel a change comin’ on, coursin’ through my veins;
Won’t be long ‘til I’m gone and they all know my name.

I shed the same ol’ tears;
I shed the same ol’ tears;
‘Til my eyes don’t cry no more.

Two o’clock in the morning, up the hill I rode;
To shack up on the sly in my woman’s abode;
She goes back to bed but I’m still awake;
I’ve got this feeling of dread that I just can’t shake.

My brain is floating in a tank, being poked with a stick;
All this travelin’ back and forth, y’know, it’s makin’ me sick;
I hope the light don’t come, I hope the sun don’t rise;
I hope the shadow of death will leave and cover the skies.

But if it don’t then I’ll wander ‘til I walk with a cane;
Then I’ll go right insane, ‘cause I will never be tamed.

Shed the same ol’ tears;
I shed the same ol’ tears;
I shed the same ol’ tears;
I shed the same ol’ tears;
‘Til my eyes don’t cry no more;
‘Til my eyes don’t cry no more.

The photograph at the top is of the Aztec Motel, which was built in 1931. That's the Silver Moon Lodge in the middle shot; it was built in the 1950's. Both these motels were along old Route 66 in Albuquerque and now both, like Willis Earl Beal himself (bottom), can't be found in Albuquerque anymore.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Way Home

My thoughts are getting slow and strange. I can feel my heart pounding in my ears. It’s the heat. You can't fight it. I’ve put my trust in this old truck for more than 20 years and now, like everything else I’ve ever trusted, it’s finally let me down. No one drives these old dirt roads anymore but I’ve always thought it was pretty here on the backside of the mountains. Desolate. I do love this desert but I guess it’s never cared too much about me. High up in the sun-bleached sky I can see a plane. Southwest Airlines. I can tell by the markings. I wonder who’s on that plane. Where are they going? It doesn’t matter. They’re not going where I’m going.

The shot at the top is facing west over central New Mexico after a failed attempt to crest Ladrone Peak. County Road 12, which runs just west of the Ladrone's between Bernardo and Magdalena, would make an appropriate setting for the trouble described above. The bottom photo was taken near the Ojito Wilderness. I might do posts on both these places some day as they're wild and remote even if not exactly abandoned. In the meantime, if anyone knows a good route up Ladrone Peak please let me know. A western approach didn't work and I'm curious as to whether anyone has tried a more southerly route, which appears somewhat promising. I do know there is SOME way up. This is rugged territory.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Way Down in the Mines: Dawson, New Mexico

It's dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew;
Where the dangers are double and the pleasures are few;
Where the rain never falls and the sun never shines;
It's dark as a dungeon way down in the mines.

Dark as a Dungeon, Merle Travis, 1946.

Many towns across the United States have lived and died on mining. In New Mexico, the landscape is pocked with abandoned mine shafts and it seems that countless towns and the lives that were lived in them have come and gone with the minerals. Most of us might be able to think of one or two mining disasters. Twenty-nine people were killed in West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch Mine less than 2 years ago, for example. But not many people have heard of Dawson, New Mexico, of which so little remains that it can barely be called a ghost town now. The disappearance of Dawson, both in the collective memory and literally, is unfortunate because what happened there in the early part of last century was of some importance.

In 1867, J.B. Dawson decided to purchase about 1,000 acres of land northeast of Cimarron for $3,700. In one of those rare errors that actually put the mistaken party ahead it turned out that Mr. Dawson had really purchased 20,000+ acres with a large coal seam to boot. When Mr. Dawson finally sold his property to the Dawson Fuel Company in 1901, it went for $400,000. The Dawson Fuel Company started mining coal in earnest, but sold out in 1906 to the Phelps Dodge Corporation, who built a town with everything a person of the day could want: a bowling alley, schools, theaters, a hospital, an opera house, and a golf course. At its peak, about 9,000 people called Dawson home and men came from all around the world to work in the ten surrounding mines.

Then, on October 22, 1913, an explosion in Stag Canon Mine No. 2 sent fire spitting 100 feet out of the mouth of the mine. A dynamite charge had been mistakenly set, in breach of safety protocol, and ignited airborne coal dust. A massive rescue effort was undertaken with crews arriving from as far as El Paso, Texas, but only 23 miners survived. The final death toll numbered 263, making the Stag Canon Mine No. 2 disaster the 2nd worst in U.S. history. Two rescue workers were also killed in their efforts. Special white crosses were erected in the Dawson cemetery to mark the graves of those that lost their lives.

But when mining is all a town knows, it’s not long before the work resumes. And, in a mine shaft, with a return to work comes a return of risk. So it was that on February 8, 1923 a train jumped the track and hit timbers which were supporting Stag Canon Mine No. 1. The impact once again ignited coal dust and 122 more miners were suddenly dead. Many of those killed were sons whose fathers had died in the Mine No. 2 disaster less than 10 years prior. Now many of Dawson’s women had lost both their husbands and their sons to the mines. More white crosses were erected in the cemetery.

Yet the mines operated until 1950, when a 25-year coal contract with the Southern Pacific Railroad ended and extracting the remaining coal was not profitable. In April of that year, residents were suddenly given 30 days to leave their homes and Dawson was then quickly dismantled and sold. Most of Dawson is now lost to the ages, although the big Phelps Dodge Corporation safe reportedly resides in a museum in Bisbee, AZ. When Philip Varney visited over 30 years ago, he walked down the old dirt road to talk with the then-owners of Dawson and have a look at the very few remaining homes and structures, which included a gas station and some coke ovens (since demolished). In that time things have changed a bit and I was not about to climb the gate, heavily posted with “No Trespassing” signs, and possibly try my luck with a ranch hand. But the cemetery, which was once just outside of town, is open to the public and is now the only visible remnant of Dawson. Family members still gather at the cemetery to reminisce and remember their loved ones. A number of the graves are well-kept with recently-placed flowers. But other graves are broken and forgotten. There are row upon row of names. Polish, Czech, Italian; many written in the native tongue. One lonely grave is of Marck Zamponi, a member of the “Wagoner 9 Engrs.” The stone simply says “Minnesota” (my home state) and there is an accompanying date of death: June 11, 1927. Did this man leave his family up north behind? Did they even know he was dead, let alone buried below a hill in a sooty coal town in northern New Mexico? After all these years, his story, like so many others, is forgotten and will never be told again.

As usual, I’ve relied heavily on Philip Varney’s New Mexico ghost town guide for this post. The wikipedia entry for Dawson is also quite good.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

We'll Shoot the Lights Out For You: The St. James Hotel, Cimarron, New Mexico

I’ve been trying to get back to the St. James Hotel in Cimarron, New Mexico for over five years now. In the fall of 2005 I was driving from Oklahoma to Taos via U.S. 64 and, on a whim, stopped for a few minutes at the old hotel. I immediately knew I wanted to spend some time there, but the road was calling and soon I had to get going. I bid the place adieu and vowed to return. Back then, I didn’t know that the St. James is considered one of the most haunted hotels in the United States. All I knew was what I’d just read in an article tacked to a wall; that the hotel was built in 1872, that 26 people had been killed in the saloon alone, and that everyone from Jesse James and Buffalo Bill to Clay Allison and Zane Grey had spent the night. As it turns out, not all of those claims are necessarily true, but there’s still more than enough verifiable history in the St. James Hotel to satisfy me.

When I posted about the ghost town of ELIZABETHTOWN, New Mexico awhile back, I mentioned Henri Lambert. Lambert, a Frenchman, had moved from Washington, D.C. to Elizabethtown in 1864 to try his luck at mining. Eventually he gave up on gold, however, and returned to his previous occupation as a chef. It’s been said that Lambert was Abraham Lincoln’s personal chef, but there is no hard evidence of this. On the other hand, it probably is true that, while living in Elizabethtown, Lambert was presented with a severed head. More on that grim tale can be found HERE. Lambert left Elizabethtown in 1871, moved to Cimarron (Spanish for “feral,” but also meaning “wild” or “fugitive”) and, in 1872, opened a saloon, which became known as Lambert’s Place. Not surprisingly, the saloon did a brisk business and, by 1880, Lambert had made additions, including hotel rooms and a restaurant. Lambert’s Place became the Lambert Inn and, eventually, was re-named the St. James Hotel.

Cimarron was indeed a wild place and the names of most of the people killed in or around the hotel between 1872 and 1884 are known, as are the names of the killers. Henri Lambert himself shot two people and, in the mid 1870’s, it was apparently not uncommon to be asked, "Who was killed at Lambert's last night?" But it is worth considering that the notorious Texas gunfighter, rancher, and outlaw Clay Allison is credited with killing 11 people at the St. James Hotel, which means that, without Mr. Allison, the place would’ve been much less violent. Still, numerous bullet holes remain in the saloon’s tin ceiling to bear witness to the rough times.

If you believe what’s been written, you’d think that many (if not most!) of the major figures of the Wild West stayed at the St. James Hotel. Here it’s often difficult to separate fact from fiction, but I’ll try my best and, if anyone can further verify or deny these claims, please do so. First, it’s said that Jesse James stayed at the hotel, but that’s probably not true as there is no evidence that Jesse James ever came through northern New Mexico. Annie Oakley, also reported to have spent time at the St. James, never visited New Mexico at all. The story is that Annie Oakley was passing through with Buffalo Bill Cody while they worked on putting together a Wild West Show, and thus there’s reason to suspect that Buffalo Bill never stayed at the hotel either. On the other hand, Buffalo Bill was said to be a personal friend of the Lambert’s, so the jury might still be out on that one. Legend has it that the Earp brothers and their wives spent three nights at the St James on their way to Tombstone and, you know, that just might be true. Clay Allison most certainly stayed many times, leaving the bodies behind to prove it. Bob Ford, the guy who shot Jesse James? Maybe. Ford is credited with shooting a man named Bob Curren in the St. James in 1882, the same year he shot Jesse. But I wouldn’t doubt that he actually came through later, on his move to Las Vegas, NM in 1884. In the early 20th century, Zane Grey definitely spent time at the hotel, writing some of Fighting Caravans in room 22. Other figures like Black Jack Ketchum and Doc Holliday? They were at times nearby, but your guess is as good as mine as to whether they really visited the St. James.

It’s useful to know who really stayed at the St. James Hotel so that, in the event of a haunting, you can better guess whose ghost you’re dealing with. Jesse James? Not likely. Henri’s wife, Mary Lambert? Quite possibly, especially if you’re in room 17 and there’s an overpowering odor of rose perfume. Perhaps the most interesting spectral figure at the St. James is Thomas James (T.J.) Wright. T.J. Wright was reportedly killed upstairs in the card room, following an evening of gambling. One story has Lambert himself shooting Wright in the back as Wright walked away after Lambert had gambled (and lost) his entire hotel to T.J. I doubt that’s accurate, but, whatever the case, Wright was dead at the age of 22. Now, Wright’s violent spirit is said to occupy his old room, number 18. So many guests have reported being tormented by Wright’s ghost, some being physically hurt, that room 18 is now padlocked and guests are not allowed in. Our bartender said that he sometimes goes up to the room and has a glass of whiskey, leaving one behind for Mr. Wright.

We spent the night in the Mary Lambert room, but I didn’t notice any essence of rose. Right across the hall was room 18, and my girlfriend reported hearing creaking floorboards from that direction that kept her up some of the night. She was pretty spooked, actually. Myself? I slept very well, thank you. In the morning I peaked through a crack in the door to get a look at room 18. I could see some torn wallpaper with holes showing through the plaster and plenty of dust. Whatever is going on, that room hasn’t been used for awhile.

Finally, to wrap up this epic post, the St. James hit hard times when the railroad cut off traffic along the adjacent Santa Fe Trail and the mines began to close. The hotel was bought and sold many times and, by 1985, had fallen into disrepair. But, in 1985, the St. James Hotel was fully restored and now, with a modern wing (those hoping to be haunted shouldn’t stay in this section) and a large restaurant and bar, the place is once again the liveliest thing going in Cimarron. I’ll get back again sometime, I swear.

Wanna stay at the St. James Hotel? Go HERE. But note that they don’t take reservations on-line; you gotta call ‘em. Information from this post came from wherever I could dig it up; pamphlets, fliers, wikipedia, etc. But NOT Philip Varney’s ghost town guide. We’ll get back to that next time.