Thursday, July 03, 2014

Hard Roads: Engle, New Mexico

There’s not been much written about Engle, New Mexico over the years. The usual ghost town books I consult only mention the town in the context of its stage and rail connections to other places. But Engle, now not much more than a handful of buildings persisting in the relentless heat of a dusty former rail stop 20 miles east of Truth or Consequences, sits within an area that has played a major role in the histories of Spain, Mexico, and the U.S. Currently, it is the home base for an enterprise owned by a well-known cable television magnate and, in the future, may be passed through by some very wealthy people on their way to…orbit.

It makes sense to start the story of Engle with the Jornada del Muerto, the “Journey of Death,” which runs through the town. Or, perhaps, a couple hundred feet west, if you want to get technical. Considered the most treacherous part of El Camino Real, this stretch, beginning slightly north of Las Cruces, traversed a desolate wasteland devoid of water, firewood, or shelter. So, if the Apache didn’t get you, the desert itself might. Just imagine traveling over an ancient lava bed by horse in the early 1600’s without a Wal-Mart or 7-11 in sight. It might sound like heaven now, but let’s not romanticize too much. The closest city to the north, a long 90 miles away, was named Socorro (i.e., succor, relief, aid, etc.) for a reason. But, all that aside, plenty of travelers did survive the journey and thus, for many years, one of the most important trade routes in the history of the world passed right outside what would become Engle’s front door.

Founded in 1879, Engle was, like so many other towns in the West, born of the railroad. Named for R.L. Engle, the railroad engineer who supervised construction of the line through town, due to a paperwork error Engle was officially known as "Angle" for its first six months. An attempt to rename the town "Engel" in the 1920's, in honor of Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe (AT&SF) vice-president Edward J. Engel, was halted in the 11th hour when "cowboy chronicler" Eugene Manlove Rhodes asked Senator Bronson Cutting to pull some strings.

The railroad soon built a station and Engle thrived as a shipping point for cattle from surrounding ranches. Horses, mules, stagecoaches, and eventually trains transported ore east from the more remote mining towns on the edge of the Black Range, including Cuchillo, Chloride, and Winston (then known as Fairview), and from Engle it all moved on to larger cities, such as El Paso. A post office opened in 1881 and the place was off and running.

From 1911-1916, the construction of Elephant Butte Dam, about 10 miles west, increased the population greatly. Housing in Engle was convenient and the town was the switching point for the AT&SF spur that carried materials to the dam. The peak at that time was about 500 residents, but with completion of the dam workers left immediately and Engle began its decline. By 1919, 300 people, over half the peak population, had left. Seven years later, only 75 souls remained. In 1945, much of the land to the east and south of town was claimed by the federal government for White Sands Missile Range, snuffing out most of Engle’s remaining light. But not quite all of it.

While the post office closed in 1955, a few people live in Engle yet. The train still rumbles by, however, it doesn’t stop. Not many original buildings stand, but one, the old schoolhouse, occupies what would seem to be the spiritual center of town. That’s not just on account of it being the most prominent building you see as you cross the railroad tracks, but because it’s now the Engle Country Church featuring “bible preaching and gospel singing” at 10 AM on the third Sunday of every month. Conveniently, there are some vineyards being tended nearby, too, in case the supply of wine runs low.

Engle has also become the headquarters of the Armendaris Ranch, a massive 362,885-acre spread owned by Ted Turner of CNN and Jane Fonda fame. Word is that when he comes to town, his entourage lays the necessary groundwork a few days in advance and then Ted blows in, checks on his buffalo, maybe does a little hunting, and is off again. Turner owns two other huge ranches in New Mexico and is the second-largest private landowner in the state.

Moving into the totally surreal, Engle is poised to be a way station for those heading to Spaceport America. Anyone not flying directly into and out of the spaceport or coming up from Las Cruces would be obliged to go through Engle. It is strange to imagine that some of the richest, most famous people on the planet might see Engle shortly before they are launched into orbit for a few seconds. On the other hand, those who traveled the Jornada del Muerto hundreds of years ago might well appreciate the irony. For the dusty little patch of Chihuahuan Desert on which Engle persists has a habit of being a quiet witness to great journeys.

It’s not easy finding information on Engle. The usual physical sources overlook it, but on-line you can find most of what seems to exist at Even Legends of America won’t tell you anything about the town. But they will tell you that, in the 1880’s, Bill Hardin, famous gunfighter John Wesley Hardin’s first cousin, was lynched by a mob after killing a man near Engle. Oddly, the “Ghost Towns of Sierra County New Mexico” promotional card is one of the better resources, even at all of five sentences. NM Place Names recounts how Engle came to be called Engle (and then almost wasn't). Otherwise, Wikipedia will tell you about the Jornada del Muerto and Spaceport America will tell you about Spaceport America.

Next time we’ll cross I-25 and move nearer the Black Range to visit the relatively well-known partial ghost town of Hillsboro, NM. Until then, have a happy 4th of July and safe travels, everyone.

JULY 2014 UPDATE: Mr. William M., former resident and continued aficionado of the wide-open spaces of New Mexico, has contributed a very interesting photo postcard. Postmarked from Engle to Mrs. Anna Martin of Cuchillo, NM, William guesses the card is from about 1910. Note the sparse address and even sparser message, which reads, "Hello Anna Dady (sic)." The few words speak volumes about this time and place. We can only assume that the stoic desert fellow pictured is indeed Anna's father, probably captured by a photographer traveling through Engle. William adds, "It was sent from one ghost town to another ghost town – only in New Mexico."

Thanks for the great addition, William!