Alamogordo: The Town the Rail Road Built

July 5, 2019 Carlos Arreola

Remember the childhood story, The Little Engine That Could? It was written by Arnold Monk to teach children the value of optimism and hard work. You might think that story — even though it was published in 1930 — was written especially for Charles and John Eddy, who founded Alamogordo in 1898. They had to be constantly repeating to themselves, “I—think—I—can, I—think—I—can.” That is, after all, the story behind the town of Big Cottonwoods — Alamogordo.

At the turn of the century, the Eddys were building the El Paso & Northeastern Railroad north through Tularosa Basin. Their line connected to others as part of the network of transcontinental railroads serving the nation. At intervals, steam locomotives needed wood for fuel (until coal replaced wood) and water. Refueling required about 30 minutes to an hour, and the Eddys felt passengers would not want to stand around in the desert heat. Instead, they planned the town of Alamogordo, producing a plat of the entire town before the first building was constructed. They allocated land west of the railroad for industry and land to the east for commercial business. Residential neighborhoods were farther east in the foothills of the Sacramento Mountains.

The town was incorporated in 1912. The Eddys also determined no alcohol would be sold in town. When reminded railroad men liked to drink, they relented and allowed the Plaza Bar to be built, along with a cafe. The bar and cafe were there until 1939, when the city built the adobe structure that today houses the Tularosa Basin Museum of History. So passengers had a place to rest and relax, but that wasn’t near enough encouragement to travel. Consequently, the Eddys established cottonwood-shaded Alameda Park and included a zoo, housing both animals native to the Southwest and exotics from afar sure to interest people during layovers. The Alameda Park Zoo, founded in 1898, is one the oldest zoos west of the Mississippi.

The roundhouse and maintenance yard kept the town going into the 20th century. Timber was an important industry, there being several sawmills cutting railroad ties, lumber, and other wood products. The Great Depression impactedAlamogordo’s economy, as it did nationwide. In the depths of the depression, the Works Progress Administration constructed several buildings, including a Pueblo-style building on New York Avenue. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places and features an entrance portico with frescoes painted in 1942 by Peter Hurd.

Today that building houses the Otero CountyAdministration offices. The town’s economy recovered with the establishment of Holloman Air Force Base and White Sands Missile Range, both of which brought military personnel to the area. Those two military entities are still the towns principal economic force. In the post-World War II era, tourism became an important contributor to Alamogordo’s continued success. WhiteSands National Monument was created in1934 and is comprised of 275 square miles of gypsum crystals, the largest gypsum dune field on earth.

More than 600,000 visitors tramp the dunes each year, many of them finding accommodations in Alamogordo.Among the first rockets launched atWhite Sands Missile Range were Germany-2s, captured during WWII. This was the opening phase of America’s venture into space. The Redstone and Atlas rockets tested here eventually carried Mercury and Gemini astronauts into orbit. Many of the components of the Apollo rocket and its spaceship were also tested here. Today, you can explore America’s space endeavors at the New Mexico Museum of Space History. Learn about rocket pioneer Robert Goddard’s early experiments near Roswell as well as Col. John Stapp’s rocket-sled rides, one to 632 mile per hour, making him, at that time, the fastest man alive. There are replicas of the first satellites — theSoviet’s Sputnik and America’s Explorer I. There’s one of the rocks Apollo astronauts returned from the moon. Learn about working and living in space and tour the InternationalSpace Hall of Famer — from BuzzAldrin, the second man on the moon, to Fritz Zwicky, the astrophysicist who first identified supernovae, neutron stars, and cosmic rays.

The Tularosa Basin Museum of History takes you on a journey back to the early1900s. There’s cookie preparing dinner for cowboys at his chuckwagon, mannequins dressed in period clothing from formal wear to nightgowns, a teacher and pupil seated at an early 20th-century piano, and other exhibits. There are also artifacts of original native residents, the lumber industry, railroad, and La Luz pottery factory. If Western history is your preference, you can travel south to Oliver Lee State Park, which documents the rough-and-tumble history of New Mexico’s Territorial period. You can tour Lee’s ranch house outfitted with period furnishings and artifacts. Hear the story of the tunnel from his bedroom to his corral, where he kept a horse saddled just in case. Lee was suspected of murdering the Frenchman Francois Rochas, who homesteaded at the mouth of Dog Canyon, where water flows year around.

The shooting was never proved. He was also tried for the murder of Albert Fountain and acquitted of that, too. You can hike the Dog Canyon Trail, gaining some 5,000 feet in elevation from trailhead to trail’s end atop the Sacramento mountains — not a journey for the faint of heart. At the north end of Alameda Park, the Toy Train Depot lets you enjoy railroads from a standard-gauge red caboose toa Z-gauge layout, with engines no taller than a dime. The depot once served the town of Cordova, New Mexico, until founder JohnKoval had it moved to Alamogordo.

Today, it houses his collection of model railroads, including a 1,000-square-foot HO layout depicting the local region. After you’ve watched the model trains course their tracks and studied the railroad memorabilia in the depot, you can take a ride on a vintage, narrow-gauge railway running more than a mile through Alameda Park. North of town are two must-visit stops: the pistachio ranches and wineries of Heart of the desert and McGinn’s. Both offer a selection of flavored nuts, locally crafted wines, and other gifts. Looking back over Alamogordo’s colorful160-year history, the Eddy brothers could proudly say, “I—knew—I—could, I—knew—I-could.”

Written and photography by Bud Russo

The post Alamogordo: The Town the Rail Road Built appeared first on Neighbors magazine.

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