Forget about the sweet smell of pinon smoke, picturesque adobes, or a Val Kilmer sighting; this is southwest New Mexico— a wide, arid landscape known for its cattle, chile, border culture and relentless heat.
Despite its relatively flat topography, southern New Mexico displays one of the most complicated routing chronologies of the Old Spanish Trail. Harry Locke’s 1916 routing had the OST shooting directly west from El Paso across the sand hills to follow the right-of-way of the Southern Pacific Railway to Deming. An early 1920s alignment headed north from El Paso, taking future US 80 to Mesilla Park, and then crossing the Rio Grande on a narrow diversion dam. By 1926 the OST had shifted north, beginning its trek across the desert at Las Cruces, on the same route as Interstate 10.
By our count, there are more than four alignments of the Old Spanish Trail in New Mexico. Though many are still traceable in a high clearance vehicle, we recommend following the frontage roads north and south of I-10. These, for the most part, incorporate sections of the 1930-31 realignment of US 80 and the Old Spanish Trail.
The 1929 Old Spanish Trail took US 80 north from El Paso to Las Cruces over a new concrete road on what is today’s NM 478. Aside from a few roadside fruit and chile stands, beyond Anthony there are few diversions. We recommend instead taking NM 478 to Berino, then heading west on NM 226 to pick up NM 28, an older highway following roughly the path of the historic El Camino Real. This road passes through the historic villages of La Mesa and San Miguel as well as a beautiful stretch of highway shaded by mature pecan trees, courtesy of Stahmann’s Farm, one of the largest pecan orchards in the world. At Mesilla is a historic plaza town settled after the Treaty of Guadalupe in 1848. Historic buildings along the plaza include the 1906 San Albino Church, a ca. 1860 house containing the Gadsden Museum and the famous La Posta Restaurant, the site of a Butterfield Stage Line stop.
Las Cruces, a swelling sunboom community, has demolished much of its history. Its Main Street, once lined with handsome brick commercial buildings, experienced an unfortunate 1970s Urban Renewal project, turning the once vibrant street into a doomed pedestrian mall. Nearly 30 years later, the street — faced with boarded-up shops — is being reconsidered for vehicular use. In August 2005 tractors tore down the 1970s mall entrance, a symbolic gesture toward reopening Main Street. The two-story, adobe Rio Grande Theatre, one of the few historic buildings to survive the ill-fated renewal, is currently undergoing restoration and will be turned into a state-of-the art performance center. At Alameda Boulevard, the 1930’s alignment of the OST headed west on Picacho Boulevard, a busy road offering a good sampling of tourist courts and pre-chain motels.
Because of the Border Control checkpoint, all east-west traffic must use Interstate 10, curtailing much opportunity to follow the 1930s alignment immediately west of Las Cruces. Before getting on the interstate, stop at Bowlin's Old West Trading Post, one of three Bowlin operations along Interstate 10. Here one can still buy a pair of moccasins, a rubber tomahawk, and a rattlesnake rattle encased in Lucite. The familiar Bowlin Travel Centers, many sporting the trademark "Running Indian" logo, started on Route 66 in Bluewater, New Mexico. Despite their modern veneers, the three Bowlin trading posts date to the late 1940s.
At Cambray is a chance to experience a 1930s alignment of US 80. Take Exit 116 and head west on NM 549. Near Cambray the old road begins to ascend the approach of a timber bridge over the Southern Pacific. Constructed in 1930 as part of the realignment of US 80, the Cambray Overpass is one of the last vintage grade separations along the Old Spanish Trail. Its steep approach and limited sight distance give a sense of road design inthe 1930s. Several miles to the west are an abandoned Shamrock Oil & Gas service station and cabins.
Deming, a crossroads town with an up-and-coming historic downtown, offers two alignments of the Old Spanish Trail.
The older alignment used Spruce Street. Highway artifacts along Spruce include Joe Perk Coffee Shop (a former Conoco outlet), the Coronado Apartments (once the Duncan Hines-recommended Coronado Motor Court), and the hidden and subtly streamlined Casa Linda Apartments (formerly the Casa Linda Courts and Evans Motor Company Service Station).
The newer alignment to the north followed Pine Street, a modern thoroughfare lined with 1950s and ‘60s motels with names playing upon the heritage of the area: the Wagon Wheel, Western, Westway and Butterfield Stage. Intersecting the two alignments at Silver and Gold streets is the historic downtown area, boasting a fine collection of brick commercial buildings dating from the early 20th century.
The 1930’s alignment of US 80 and the Old Spanish Trail left Deming on NM 418. This road cuts across level desert with the imposing Red Mountain to the south forming the only landmark in the vicinity. Aside from an abandoned Texaco station, little evidence of the road’s role as a transcontinental highway remains. Using I-10 to access Lordsburg, you will pass exits for Gage and Separ, each once stops along the Southern Pacific and critical service points on the Old Spanish Trail. Gage, historically the principal shipping point for area mines, is now an archaeological ruin. Old US 80 and the foundations of a service station and general merchandise are located just north of the interstate. Separ, along the historic Janos Trail — a route established by the Spanish to connect the Santa Rita copper mines near Silver City to northern Mexico — is the site of the last Bowlin’s store on the OST. First called the Continental Divide Trading Post, the current Continental Divide Store is graced by two oversized steel and foam board teepees, and offers the same kitschy merchandise as the other Bowlin outlets.
“No person with a lick of sense would ever pass up Lordsburg, as it would be a reflection on his good judgment,” cheered the Lordsburg Chamber of Commerce in 1929 anticipating the arrival of the OST Motorcade. Though Lordsburg today looks as though it is on deathwatch, during the 1920s and ‘30s, it was a “livewire” town and a big booster of the Old Spanish Trail and Broadway of America highways.
To accommodate transcontinental travelers, local entrepreneurs built the grand Trost-&-Trost-designed Hidalgo Hotel in 1928. The Pueblo Revival edifice, host to a number of Broadway of America meetings, boasted a lobby with a beamed ceiling and rich red leather chairs, giving the impression “of entering the living room of one of the haciendas of Spanish days.” The construction of Interstate 10 dealt a strong blow to the hotel and Lordsburg. Today, only half of the hotel exists.
Completely gone is the Hidalgo Court, one of the most fanciful courts along the OST. What remains are a few vintage courts, including Hawkins Camp, and a string of lifeless motels from the 1950s and '60s. The C&B Auto Camp, one of the last true auto camps in New Mexico, was razed in November 2004.
Lordsburg’s condition is so dire that the New Mexico Heritage Preservation Alliance designated Motel Boulevard one of the state’s most eleven endangered properties in 2003. Despite the bleak prognosis, Lordsburg has a historic downtown commercial block poised for revitalization, and serves as gateway to Shakespeare, a former mining boomtown with a reputation for lawlessness.
Locke’s pioneer routing directed the Old Spanish Trail south from Lordsburg through mining country in the Pyramid Mountains, site of a small silver boom and later a diamond hoax. Unconfirmed rumor has it that Charles Manson camped in these hills before heading to Los Angeles. Little trace of this early route remains. From the 1920’s onwards the OST followed the ATSF to Steins, now a ghost town open for tours, then headed south to cut through Granite Gap on its way to Arizona.
New Mexico 80 follows the trace of the Granite Gap-San Simon Cienega route, a stagecoach and wagon road that replaced the narrow pass at Steins Peak. Today, NM 80 from Interstate 10 to Rodeo faithfully follows the 1930s alignment of US 80. What was a seemingly a monotonous landscape along I-10 takes on new interest as the dramatic Chiricahua Mountains emerge to the west. The Chiricahua Apache once roamed these mountains, with Anglos following, mining for copper and gold. Granite Gap, first mined in 1879, became a prosperous mining district. Though the Great Depression ended large-scale mining, seasonal tours are available through Granite Gap Mines. Beyond, the highways descends into a wide arid valley leading to Rodeo, the last OST town in New Mexico and historically an important livestock shipping point on the El Paso & Southwestern Railway.
Between New Mexico and California, the Old Spanish Trail traverses a diverse geography, contrasting long stretches of stark Sonoran desert scenery with slow crawls through each of Arizona’s five largest cities. Despite the predominantly desert landscape, the OST in Arizona boasts an impressive collection of historic highway bridges.
The OST begins in the east on a scenic section of road passing through low volcanic hills with the majestic Chiricahua Mountains looming to the west. Bisbee, a rejuvenated mining town, provides memorable accommodations with its grand old Copper Queen Hotel and the nearby Shady Dell RV Park, offering lodging in a campy collection of restored Airstream and Spartan travel trailers.
Both Tucson and Phoenix have plenty of vintage roadside architecture in the form of relic motels, gas stations and gaudy neon signs lining old US 80.
Beyond Phoenix, the OST follows the curve of the Gila River through the Salt River Valley, where irrigation has turned the harsh desert into fields of cotton and deep green alfalfa. Yuma, a sprawling city, doubles in size every winter with snowbirds arriving in search of warmer weather and inexpensive prescription drugs across the border. Unlike the states to the east, Arizona never became an Old Spanish Trail booster. Evidence of the OST name is confined to a decaying motel in Tucson and the ersatz named section of the road east of the same city.
Hailed by the Old Spanish Trail Association as “a thoroughly modern city,” this border town boasts two landmark buildings along G Avenue, its historic main thoroughfare. The Gadsden Hotel, constructed in 1907, features a grand lobby with a white Italian marble staircase and large marble columns topped with gold leaf capitals. At the mezzanine is a 42-foot-long Tiffany art glass mural depicting a desert scene. Original neon over the hotel’s bar — the Saddle & Spur — lends to the atmosphere. The hotel became the hangout for Hollywood elite during the filming of “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.” Across the street is the Grand Theatre. When opened in 1919, it was claimed to be the “largest movie theatre between Los Angeles and Texas,” and hosted the likes of Ginger Rogers and John Philip Sousa. The theater struggled during the Depression, and finally closed its doors in 1958. In 1980, a group of prominent Douglas citizens purchased the theater for $1.00, and plan to restore it to its former glory.
Leaving Benson, one is forced to take Interstate 8 west. But don’t despair, ahead lies one of the best sections of the Old Spanish Trail/US 80 in Arizona. Exit at Marsh Station Road (Ex. 289) to experience an up-and-down roller coaster ride along a vintage two-lane highway. (Watch out, there are no shoulders.)
The highlight of the road is the spectacular Cienega Creek Bridge. Constructed in 1921, the three-hinged, open-spandrel concrete arch bridge soars above tiny Cienega Creek, and at its south end gives passage to the Southern Pacific Railroad. Stopping on the northwest embankment provides an interesting photo opportunity. Every 20 minutes or so the approaching train appears as if it is going to smash into the bridge. Fortunately, this has never happened, but the bridge did lose its original decorative railing due to safety codes several years ago.
Constructed in 1915 as a joint effort between the Office of Indian Affairs and the states of California, Arizona and New Mexico to promote traffic along the Ocean-to-Ocean Highway, the bridge became the only highway span over the Colorado River for 1,200 miles. Because of the often unpredictable behavior of the Colorado River, the bridge was erected without a center pier; instead the builders slid the deck on a barge to meet the embankment on the California side. Briefly during the 1930s, California erected a checkpoint on the west side to prevent jobless Oakies and Arkies from entering the state. The venerable bridge carried transcontinental traffic until 1988, when it was deemed structurally unsound and restricted to foot traffic. More recently it received a $2 million dollar upgrade, and reopened in 2002 to limited one-way traffic. The “Ocean-to-Ocean Highway Yuma” sign was restored and now illuminates with a gentle white light every night at dusk.