Carrizozo, New Mexico is a small town near the geographic center of the state. It is located at the crossroads of Highways 54 and 380, about 50 miles north of Alamogordo, and is the county seat of Lincoln County.
The Foundation of Carrizozo; a boom town dies, another is born
The town of White Oaks was one of a thousand boom towns scattered throughout New Mexico that sprang up to exploit the territory’s rich natural resources. White Oaks sat at the foot of the Jicarilla Mountains, a small range north of the larger Sacramento Mountains. It was built to support mining operations when prospectors discovered gold deposits in 1879. Like many such towns throughout the west, property values soared as speculators and entrepreneurs jostled to make their fortune. Eventually, the town became so expensive that people started moving elsewhere, including the the nearby Tularosa basin.
Carrizozo was one such place. Carrizo is Spanish for reed grass, and the northern edge of the Tularosa basin had an abundance of it at the end of the nineteenth century. Some ranchers, businessmen, and miners not successful enough to live in White Oaks moved to land about 12 miles southwest of town, and formed a new settlement. The area was named Carrizozo in honor of its main resource by a local ranch foreman, who added the extra zo to emphasize its bounty. The lower property values and increasing population led to Carrizozo’s survival and White Oaks’ eventual demise, as it did for many such boom towns in the territory.
When the railroads came, they had to buy land from local owners; railroads were private, and there was no eminent domain. So the railroad companies selected land that was not only useful for a railway, but cheap. Carrizozo was cheap, and White Oaks was most definitely not. The El Paso and Northeastern Railroad built a depot on Carrizozo Flats, and the town was born. Though EP&N has long since ceased to exist, Carrizozo remains. In 1913 it was made the county seat for Lincoln County, just as New Mexico was admitted to the Union. White Oaks is now a ghost town — the Jicarillas were mined out around the turn of the century, and nothing remains but elegant, crumbling skeletons of mansions and schools.
The Other Lincoln County War
The town of Carrizozo had its share of growing pains. Even the establishment of the county seat there was a matter of contention. The Lincoln County seat was originally in the town of Lincoln, about 15 miles east of Carrizozo. When the railroads came and Carrizozo was founded, Lincoln County commissioners Robert Taylor, Charles Wingfield, and Rumaldo Duran decided to move the county seat from Lincoln to the new town. In 1909 they held a successful county-wide referendum on the matter, and prepared to construct a court house and jail in Carrizozo. That’s when the trouble started. S.T. Gray and Robert Brady fought the change of seat, claiming the county commission had violated laws and procedures regarding the movement of county seats to locations nearer railways. There were laws on the books at that time covering the relocation of county seats to railroad centers; there were no cars or real roads to speak of at this time, so railroads were of supreme importance. Gray and Brady took their suit all the way to the United States Supreme Court, who decided in favor of the defendants (Gray v. Taylor, 227 U.S. 51) in 1913, in a short opinion written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. The town of Lincoln has since gone the way of history, with only 150 residents and more museums than businesses.
The Railroad and the Highway
Like modern businesses, the railroads of the turn of the century went through their own economic cycles and speculative periods. EP&N thrived at first, was bought by the Phelps Dodge mining company in 1905, and continued to thrive for nearly two decades afterwards. But a railroad strike in 1923 was a major blow to the railroad from which it never fully recovered — what remained of EP&N was dissolved in 1937, though the tracks were still used by other railroads. The great depression also hurt Carrizozo, though as the local seat of government it was better-off than other towns. Carrizozo got by with government money from the Works Projects Administration supplementing what agriculture, mining and railroad work the town could do on its own. Many people left in search of greener pastures, but the town itself survived.
The rise of the highway and the automobile in the 1930’s further damaged the Carrizozo’s railroad economy, as local farmers and ranchers started moving their goods by truck along newly-constructed Highways 54 and 380. The rise of the diesel locomotive in the 1950s was the last straw, since diesels required far less maintenance than earlier coal-fired engines. After the highways came through, the railroads no longer even bothered to stop in Carrizozo — after 60 years, all that remained of the industry that made the town was a Union Pacific thru-way and a museum. But the highways brought their own economy, including gas stations and motels, businesses which not only thrived, but were often the new lifeblood of many former railroad towns.
An Oasis in the Desert; life among ghosts
Driving north on Highway 54, you’ve left behind the dusty, sun-baked concrete of Alamogordo and the quiet, tree-lined streets of Tularosa for the stark, deadly dry beauty of sandstone, creosote, and yucca. You catch a glimpse of signs for the Three Rivers Petroglyphs Site, perhaps you stop out of curiosity if you have time. Beyond that, there is little but the open desert to the west, and sandstone ridges on the east, looming over the road. A freight train struggles to keep pace with you, or a tractor trailer overtakes you, but then you are alone. Just before you are lulled to sleep by the hum of your engine and the desolate sameness of everything, you begin to see relics of faded civilization: an abandoned ranch house here, a junkyard there, a boarded up motel. And then you’re there.
Modern Carrizozo is a scenic small town of about one thousand people — half the population it had at its peak — nestled at the crossroads of Highways 54 and 380. It rests on the northern lip of the Tularosa basin, in a region where the ecology changes very rapidly. The town lies at an elevation of 5400 feet (1.6 km), and as you head north the transition from desert basin to high plains grassland is very fast.
Carrizozo is a friendly town, but there isn’t much in the way of modern amenities; no hospital, just a medical center; no movie theaters or shopping malls, just a small bowling alley in the community recreation center. But there’s a 9-hole golf course, and a recreation area for fishing and picnics. And you have a few local points of pride — markets with mountain apples in autumn, an old-fashioned ice-cream soda fountain, and a yearly festival of luminarias during the Christmas season.
In addition to the practical traveler and tourist necessities of gas stations, restaurants, gift shops and motels, there are other sights to see. You might as well stop at the visitor center, where they have a single caboose in memory of Carrizozo’s former industry. There’s a small memorial in McDonald park, named for New Mexico’s first governor William C. McDonald. (McDonald isn’t buried there, he was appropriately buried in the ghost town of White Oaks.) Carrizozo even advertizes a self-guided a walking tour of the town though I never had the chance to take it — it’s hard to make time when you’re impatient to get somewhere.
Beyond the scarce man-made entertainment, there is Carrizozo’s most famous attraction, The Valley of Fires. It is the youngest lava flow in the continental United States (only one or two thousand years old), and is also the youngest example of frequent volcanism that occurred along the Rio Grande rift. Most of the “fresh” lava flowed from a small (85 foot) cinder cone named Little Black Peak. It is visible from space as a miles-long, sinuous black scar on the landscape, narrow in the middle where the lava originated, spreading out north and south as it flowed into the valley. Despite being El Malpais — Spanish for “badlands” — there is abundant wildlife. Yucca is nearly everywhere in New Mexico, and the valley is no exception. There are also junipers reported to be over 400 years old. And there is a lot of smaller wildlife — sparrows, roadrunners, and other small birds thrive here, and colonies of bats live in lava caves deeper in the park. You can camp and hike here, but if you’re just passing through, you can pull into the parking lot off Highway 380 about 4 miles west of Carrizozo and scramble around the dark basalt for a half an hour or so, enjoying the sound of your heartbeat in the magnificent desolation.
Finally, Carrizozo is the closest living community to several ghost towns, some of which are being restored and converted to museums. White Oaks is being preserved and partially restored, not as a viable town but as a monument to the history of the region. Other ghost towns like Jicarilla and Ancho are nearby, as is the dormant community of Lincoln. Capitan is also nearby, though it isn’t a ghost town and is actually larger than Carrizozo — it is modestly famous as the birthplace of the first Smokey the Bear, and hosts both his grave and a museum about him.
And then there’s the McDonald Ranch and the Trinity Site. The first atomic bomb was tested in the northern extension of the White Sands military reservation in July of 1945. Ground Zero was about 50 miles west of Carrizozo, just over the Oscura Mountains west of town. Light from the blast was observed in town, accompanied by a spike in radiation from the fallout about ten hours later (the radiation reportedly faded quickly). Carrizozo is now a convenient stopping point for tourists making the annual pilgrimage to the Trinity site — including me, on my first visit in July of 1995.
Every state, every nation has them. Little towns, tucked away in far-flung corners of obscurity, tenuously connected to the outside world by asphalt and power lines, by telephones and radio waves. New Mexico is full of such places; many of its towns were created to serve the burgeoning railway system across the continent, as depots for cattle, wheat, alfalfa, produce, and minerals. Many towns faded into history. A few grew into flourishing cities in their own right, like Las Cruces and Alamogordo. Others remain much as they were, surviving on the fringes of civilization, struggling to create new roles for themselves as times change, and continuing as living reminders of New Mexico’s frontier days.
That is Carrizozo — dusty desert, high plains, and ancient lava flows, ranching and mining and railroads. It is a place with a short-but-colorful history that continues, as it tries to survive in the modern world much as it did in the old one. Stop by if you’re in the area.
And a few visits of my own.