Along the Camino Real Settling the Valley The City Begins Soldiers, Ranchers, and Outlaws The Railroad Era Water and Hard Times War, Rockets, and Renewal

The Railroad Era: 1881 to 1912

Coming of the Railroad

New Mexico's first railcar steamed through Raton Pass on December 7, 1878. Mesilla Valley business leaders were eager for the railroad to reach the area. Troubled by political problems, floods and a weakening commercial base, Mesilla declined the railroad's offer to buy a right-of-way. Las Cruces did not decline the offer. The New Mexico Town Company, a group of merchants and developers, donated land to the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad for both a depot and the right-of-way. The first train arrived in April 1881. Las Crucens celebrated with garlands and wagonloads of "native wine." The railroad influenced nearly every aspect of life in Las Cruces. The first paved street in town, Depot Street (today's Las Cruces Avenue), led from the railroad tracks to town.
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The railroad brought new building materials and styles to Las Cruces. When the county seat moved from Mesilla to Las Cruces, a new, two-story brick Italianate courthouse was built in 1883. (It was demolished in 1938.) New building materials arriving by train allowed for frame construction. Hip-roofed houses on broad lawns set the new neighborhood apart from the traditional one-story adobe and territorial style homes in the original town site. These new styles were most apparent in the varied architecture of the Alameda Depot Historic District. Architect Henry Trost designed some of the finer homes in the Alameda district in the early 1900s.

A Community Grows

Prosperity was evident in the 1890s as newcomers filled Las Cruces’ six hotels and eighteen saloons "to overflowing." The newspaper credited the railroad with making Las Cruces "the best point in the country for retail merchants to purchase their goods." Hispanic and Anglo merchants belonged to the same civic organizations. They socialized together at parties and balls. Many residents participated in the Community Band and in the Las Cruces Dramatic and Musical Club. Through the efforts of the Women's Improvement Association, the town soon had a park, a library, a hearse, and a water-sprinkling wagon for the dusty streets.
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Although the Catholic Church continued its dominance, new settlers brought their religious beliefs to the community. By the turn of the century, Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, and Presbyterian congregations had established churches in town. Phillips Chapel, a CME Church established in 1911, was the first Black church in Las Cruces. Early Jewish settlers either held services in their homes or attended holy day services in El Paso. After meeting for many years at the original Branigan Library, the Jewish community built a synagogue in 1961.

Shalam Colony

In 1884, John Newbrough established a utopian colony a few miles north of Las Cruces. He claimed an angel guided his hands to write Oahspe: A New Bible. The book inspired the founding of Shalam Colony. The colony included farmland and thirty-five buildings. The primary purpose of the colony was to raise orphan children in a strictly controlled environment "to become sinless leaders of the world." After Newbrough died in 1891, the colony declined financially. In 1907, the farm was sold and Shalam was abandoned.



Loretto Academy, founded in 1870 by the Sisters of Loretto, was the first school established in Southern New Mexico. Initially an all girl's school, it occupied fifteen acres of land in the heart of Las Cruces. Tuition and board was $200 a year, with non-boarders paying $5 a month. Poor students were admitted free.

Public schools in Las Cruces had an erratic start in 1881. In 1882, the Las Cruces School Association raised enough money to open the two-room South Ward School. Different precincts sponsored public schools but none succeeded. Territorial law required the creation of public schools in all communities, but lawmakers failed to fund them until 1912.

In 1914, Central School was built as a high school. The name changed to Las Cruces Union High School in 1925 when it moved to a new building on Alameda Avenue. While Las Cruces schools were fully integrated from the beginning, students were prohibited from speaking Spanish on school grounds. In 1926, Black students attended school at Phillips Chapel. In 1935, Booker T. Washington School was completed for the Black students. Las Cruces schools remained segregated until 1954.

Las Cruces College

Las Cruces College opened in the fall of 1888 in a two-room adobe building. It combined elementary, college preparatory and business schools. Indiana educator Hiram Hadley was its first President.

In 1889, the New Mexico territorial legislature created a land grant college - the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts. The new school merged with Las Cruces College and opened in January 1890. In June 1894, Hadley presented diplomas to four men and one woman in the college's first graduating class. In 1960, the name was changed to New Mexico State University.


Health seekers migrated to Las Cruces at the turn of the century. They believed that New Mexico's mountain air and "altitude therapy" would cure tuberculosis. In 1897, Eugene Van Patten's Dripping Springs camp became the first sanatorium in southern New Mexico. High in the Organ Mountains, it featured a thirty-two room hotel.

Las Cruces benefited from the influx of physicians who came to treat tubercular patients. Dr. Robert E. McBride, who came to Las Cruces in 1904 for his wife's health, opened a sanatorium in town and, in 1935, he also established the first community hospital. By World War II, new treatments, including drug therapy, eliminated the need for expensive altitude cures. Dripping Springs was abandoned. Today Dripping Springs is a recreation area jointly managed by the Nature Conservancy and the Bureau of Land Management.


By the time New Mexico became a state on January 6, 1912, it had been bypassed for statehood fifteen times. In the 1850s, New Mexico fell victim to the national debate that tied statehood to slavery. New Mexico also suffered from a perception in Washington that its largely Spanish-speaking, Catholic population was too "foreign." New Mexicans themselves contributed to delays, failing to ratify a state constitution. New Mexico finally approved a constitution in 1911. It protected Hispanic New Mexicans' right to vote and their right to an education. After sixty-two years as a territory, the new state elected William C. McDonald as its first governor. Albert B. Fall and Thomas B. Catron were elected U.S. Senators.

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