River Steamboats / Steamboat Natchez

They Were Celebrities

Exactly who we consider celebrities within our social structure depends on what era you choose. There was a time before television, radio and Hollywood when celebrity status could depend on your chosen profession. The profession didn’t necessarily have to be show business.

Believe it or not, many steamboat captains during the mid to late 1800’s were considered every bit a celebrity, very similar to the celebrities we know today in the era of mass media. The big difference was that news traveled slower. It would take longer than a nanosecond to become famous.

Steamboats Natchez and Robert E. Lee

Steamboats were a major part of U.S. commerce during the 1800’s and rivers like the Mississippi were literally crowded with steamboats. In addition to river waterways like the Ohio and Missouri Rivers, steamboats were active all over the Great Lakes region. Whether on rivers, lakes or oceans, the speed of steamboats and steamships was very important to many people. If you were shipping supplies or traveling , you generally preferred a faster vessel. If you happened to be the master of a faster steamboat you had greater respect and probably greater business. That’s pretty much how it worked. If you were the winner of a steamboat race people knew your name. If you won several races and/or were known to beat speed records, you could be famous. Having the ability to push a vessel to it’s maximum was considered a talent.

Why Race a Steamboat?

Why does anyone race anything? Boats, horses, motorcycles, cars and airplanes. If it moves we race it. If you can race it you also may want to gamble on it. To win a race is to gain prestige. When it came to steamboats, faster was considered better and the winner was celebrated. If you won many races you gained a reputation. The age of steamboat racing was also an era where entertainment choices were limited. Very limited compared to today. This might also be one reason why throngs of spectators would line up the shores to watch the great race. As opposed to horse racing, steamboat racing was a race with machinery, moving parts and steam pressure.

A steamboat would race and overtax it’s boilers for business purposes as stated above. Passengers also liked faster river travel and shippers liked it as well. A captain who could figure out a way to get more from his steamboat was a man in demand of the boat owners. It was something a steamboat operator could brag about.

Captain Grant Marsh who piloted the Far West during the Sioux War of 1876

There was the story of one steamboat captain who they say attached an anvil to the steam boiler pressure outlet so that the pressure would continue to rise and deliver more power to the paddle wheels. Why let pressure escape? The problem was that nobody really understood the physics of steam boiler operation. What they did understand was that more pressure meant a faster vessel. It would be decades later that boiler physics were fully understood. Racing a steamboat is the same as racing a boiler and whether it was a race between two vessels or a racing of the boilers to simply go faster than before, the results often were generally the same…exploding boilers and fire destruction.

The Great Race of 1870

What was chronicled as the Great Race of it’s time was the New Orleans to St. Louis steamboat race in June of 1870. The race was between the steamboats Natchez and the Robert E. Lee. This was quite an event, covered not only by the newspapers but also by the nationally popular Harper’s Weekly. Harper’s was known to cover many events in the frontier region and the important Mississippi River was part of it. The winner of the three day race was the Robert E. Lee who arrived in St. Louis about six hours before the Natchez. Newspapers stories of the time indicated that many passengers did recognize the inherent dangers of steamboat racing but overall found the event exciting. There is no question that steamboat captains put their passengers in harms way when racing.

The Far West Breaks Speed Records

The steamboat Far West operated on the Missouri River during 1976 and took part in the Sioux campaign of that year involving Colonel George Armstrong Custer. The captain of the Far West was one of the most distinguished and admired steamboat captains of the era. Captain Grant Marsh was master of the Far West and during the 1876 Sioux War steered his vessel upriver on the Yellowstone to the very mouth of the Little Bighorn River. That in itself was a feat and one many others wouldn’t be capable of. Grant Marsh was a well known steamboat captain.

Explosion of steamboat Lucy Walker

On June 30, Marsh and General Terry received news of the Indian victory over Custer. It loaded wounded soldiers from another battle and traveled 710 miles down the Missouri River in only 54 hours to bring the wounded soldiers and the news of Custer’s defeat to Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory. Captain Grant Marsh and the Far West steamed back upriver nine days later with horses and supplies for the troops still there. The 54 hour and 710 mile distance set a record for average steamboat speed at that time. It’s quite interesting that such a speed record was attained in a real life and death situation and involving day and dangerous night running rather than during a staged race event. The Far West lasted another seven years until her sinking in 1883. Steamboats had a very short life span in those days.

A Fatal Hudson River Race

The Hudson River in New York state was a popular steamboat racing venue. In the year 1852 there were plenty of steamboats and plenty of passenger traffic. The book Death Passage on the Hudson by author Kris A. Hansen, gives a detailed account of what took place during this incident, the deaths involved and the aftermath. The 198 foot side wheeler steamboat Henry Clay appeared to be racing the steamboat Armenia between Albany and New York City. The two steamboats had been regulars on that Hudson River run and were in big competition for passengers. The faster you could reach a stop and pick up passengers before the other vessel the more money you would make. What occurred in July of 1852 was not considered a one time event. The two vessels apparently raced each other often. Racing was both a prestige and business goal. Passenger safety concerns in 1852 were secondary.

During this race down the Hudson, it was obvious to all aboard the Henry Clay that her boilers were going to the maximum. The noise and shaking was evident to everyone. Some passengers reportedly disembarked at stops simply because of what was going on. They would find alternate transportation. It was reported that some protested to the crew that they were placing the vessel in jeopardy. Apparently, the protestations had little effect.

Disaster struck when the overheated boiler on the Henry Clay caused the adjacent woodwork to catch fire. The fire spread fast trapping many of the passengers. What’s a bit surprising is that the boilers didn’t actually explode which you would have expected under the circumstances. With the boat on fire, the Henry Clay turned toward the shore and at full speed ran up the river bank just south of Yonkers but not before the fire in the boat’s midsection trapped passengers in the stern area.

Explosion of steamboat Sultana off Memphis Tennessee in April 1865

The Henry Clay slid way up on the river bank allowing most of the people in the front section of the boat to escape, but those trapped on the stern were still about 140 feet off shore in deep water. Dozens of people lost their lives by fire or drowning. The public was shocked and outraged as were the newspapers accounts. Some of the dead were prominent citizens which made the newspaper outcry even louder. The newspapers blamed the disaster on racing. The book, Death Passage on the Hudson, tells a very personal story of the tragedy and a detailed description of the racing.

Apparently, after the fact, there were some conflicting opinions as to whether an actual race did take place. The description of events seem to confirm that a race did indeed take place on that fatal day. When speaking of the Henry Clay officers, one newspaper story stated, ” They are liable, as common carriers, for the property entrusted to them, unless the loss is caused by act of God”. Also, “Let them reap what they have sown. Let them bear the responsibility they have assumed”. Hearings were held and the newspapers condemned the officers of the Henry Clay. Congressional hearings resulted and laws were passed prohibiting steamboat racing. To give you an idea of how dangerous steamboat travel could be,the Scientific American magazine reported that deaths aboard American steamboats totaled 487 in the first eleven months of 1860. This is a huge number even today, and based on the population of 1860, it’s even larger.

Disasters by Intentionally Overtaxing Boilers

Articles written during the steamboat era placed high value on speed. A steamboat race didn’t need to be a side by side event. A steamboat captain knew how long it generally took to travel between ports. Beating that time was considered a good thing. It was considered a noteworthy accomplishment. A captain would be publicly awarded for this type of feat. For a steamboat to travel faster, considering equal loads, it’s boiler pressure would have to be raised. When boiler pressure was raised, and in boilers of the era with their less advanced technology, explosions were a distinct possibility. In these early days, the physics and mechanics of boiler explosions was not well understood. Many lives were lost to boiler explosions caused by captains who intentionally pushed them to the limit and obviously beyond. The Saluda explosion in 1852 just off the docks in Lexington Missouri was such a case. Because of strong river currents, the Saluda was behind schedule going upriver on the Missouri River. The vessel departed the dock with orders to put boilers to the maximum in an effort to get around a bend of swift moving water that the captain had been unable to do for two days. The overtaxed boilers exploded after the paddle wheel barely made one turn. It was still essentially at the dock. Over one-hundred people were killed in the explosion including the captain and several people on shore. Parts of bodies and of the steamboat were found in the town itself. It was a tremendous disaster even during the exploding steamboat era. Today, there is a memorial in Lexington Kansas regarding this tragic event. As a side note, many of the passengers were Mormon pilgrims from England traveling west to Utah. There were similar explosions while vessels were departing and departure was then considered a dangerous part of the voyage. High boiler pressure at departure was the cause of many steamboat disasters.

The 144 foot long steamboat Lucy Walker exploded her three boilers on the Ohio River near New Albany Indiana in October of 1844 resulted in the deaths of thirty-six passengers and twenty crew members. The passenger manifest and records were lost and there was no way to know if the death toll actually may have been higher. There was newspaper speculation that the boilers had construction flaws and there was some speculation that the vessel was racing. Nothing definitive was ever decided on the cause.

The biggest steamboat disaster occurred in April 1865 when the Sultana exploded just after leaving Memphis Tennessee. This vessel was grossly overloaded with passengers including Union soldiers returning to the North at the end of the Civil War. Many of these soldiers had been in Confederate prison camps. Witnesses confirmed that the steamboat was extremely overcrowded with some deciding to disembark. The steamboat would be paid by the government per passenger carried therefore the more passengers the more it’s profit. The heavy load required the boilers to be at maximum pressure as the boat was leaving the dock and heading upriver against the strong current. Just after the Sultana rounded a bend north of Memphis it’s boilers exploded with the result of thousands of deaths. Theses numbers then were staggering. They’re staggering for today. It was by far the worst disaster on an American inland waterway. All investigations later concluded that the overloaded conditions made it necessary for the boilers to be overtaxed in order to move the vessel against the current. There was also a question about the boilers maintenance. The fault was placed on the boats owners and master for allowing the extreme overcrowding. The effort to make more money caused a disaster like no other.

The prohibiting of steamboat racing, whether competitively or for cutting time off the run, was seen as a step forward in passenger safety. It was always assumed that some racing did continue and I think that was a fair assumption. It certainly occured in 1870 during the Great Race. Little by little, laws were enacted, licenses required, training enforced, inspections were made mandatory and technology advanced. All of this together helped to prevent future disasters of the scale that occurred when steamboating was an anything goes proposition.

Additional related articles that you will find interesting are the Day of the Saluda Explosion, the Columbia River and the King of the Steamboatmen and High Piracy on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

(Photos are in the public domain)


The General Slocum / Little Germany

There is a memorial in Tompkins Park in Manhattan Island, New York City, which is there as a reminder of what was, prior to September 11, 2001, the worst disaster in terms of loss of life in New York. The disaster was the burning of the General Slocum steamboat on the East River of New York City. The boat fire disaster occurred in the year 1904 and there are reasons why this event somehow was shadowed by other events which may have contributed to the fading of it’s memory.

There has been a lot written about steamboat safety in general, particularly during the mid 1800’s. Because steam power was the power of choice, it was employed extensively. Steamboats plied rivers all over the country including even in the far west. Knowledge of the technology of steam power was another matter.

steamboat general slocum

Steamboat General Slocum

Steamboat boiler explosions were happening much too often and in some cases with hundreds of fatalities. The most deadly steamboat boiler explosion recognized by many historians was the Sultana explosion in April 1865 just north of Memphis Tennessee on the Mississippi River. The Sultana was packed, even overly packed, with Union soldiers heading back to the north at the end of the American Civil War. In the book Sultana: Surviving the Civil War, Prison and the Worst Maritime Disaster in American History, author Alan Huffman describes how the steamboat operators were paid by head count thus encouraging them to grossly overload many vessels. The boat was so overloaded that it was difficult to even find room to lay down.

The sidewheel steamboat General Slocum, launched in 1891, was named after Henry Warner Slocum, a Civil War General of some fame who was also a congressman from the state of New York. The vessel was owned and operated by the Knickerbocker Steamship Company and generally worked carrying passengers around the New York City waterways. The boat was captained by William H. Van Schaik who was 68 years of age.

The Disaster

It so happened that the General Slocum was chartered by a Lutheran Church in New York, St. Marks Evangelical Lutheran Church, to take a group of St Marks New York church members on a picnic to Eatons Neck Long Island. The vessel was chartered for a cost of $350 for the date of June 15, 1904. Most of those who be making the trip were women and children. As the church band played while the General Slocum departed at 9:30 am everyone onboard was looking ahead for a fine ride and a day away from the big bustling city. Trouble started relatively soon on the voyage. About forty minutes after pulling away from the dock and heading north on the East River a fire erupted onboard the boat.

burned wreckage of steamboat general slocum

Burned wreckage of the General Slocum

Afterwards, some would say the fire started in the Lamp Room and some others would point to a storage room. Some would also go on to say that the boat fire was caused, whether in either room, by a carelessly discarded cigarette. Many eyewitnesses even claimed the fire started in several different locations. Nevertheless, the blaze spread very rapidly.

Upon learning of the fire, Captain Schaik, with 1,358 passengers from St. Marks Church, headed for land at full steam. He was steering for Randalls Island but the blaze was engulfing the entire vessel aided by a strong breeze and the wind caused by the boat moving at full power. Heading at full steam to Randalls Island would later be a major criticism of Schaik’s handling of the emergency. It was suggested that he would have been wiser just heading to a nearby landing or just grounding the vessel. His speeding of the boat was felt to have added to the fires rapid spread. The vessel eventually beached at North brother Island.

The Aftermath

As with many large disasters and especially one that occurred around the beginning of the 20th century, statistics differ slightly. Officially, it was thought that 1,021 people were lost.  The cause was either burning in the fire or drowning in the river. In the book, Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum, author Edward T. O’Donnell points out that there were not many among the church group who were experienced swimmers. The trip was to be a short hop and the fact that most people couldn’t swim didn’t seem to matter. Obviously, this was an enormous loss of life. For comparison, the much publicized Triangle Shirtwaist Building fire of 1911 in New York City claimed 146 mostly young immigrant women.

Investigations after the General Slocum burning turned up a host of safety violations. The violations were so serious that one might wonder why a vessel in this condition was carrying paid passengers in the first place. Among the safety violations were rotting fire hoses incapable of holding any water pressure, oily rags and straw on the floor of several rooms and inferior life preservers that some reports stated were manufactured incorrectly. Also, the boat fire extinguishers were inoperable. All of this combined to cause New York City’s second most deadly disaster.

The public outrage was predictable. A Federal Grand Jury indicted eight individuals. In addition to Captain Schaik, two safety inspectors and officers of the Knickerbocker Steamship Company were indicted.

triangle shirtwaist fire

Fire crews racing to the Triangle Fire in 1911

The only one convicted was Captain Schaik of the charges of criminal negligence, failure to conduct fire drills and not maintaining workable fire extinguishers. Incredibly, the steamship company received rather modest fines regarding the altering of inspection reports. Schaik’s sentence was ten years at Sing Sing Prison but Schaik was paroled after just three and one-half years. Just as with the exploding boiler problems on steamboats, after the General Slocum disaster, the federal government passed many new regulations regarding passenger ship emergency equipment.

There are several opinions why a disaster of this magnitude did not really receive it’s deserved place in history. The sheer number of fatalities in a single tragedy guaranteed worldwide shock. The question that remains is why was the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911, with many less deaths, perceived as the worst disaster in New York at the beginning of the 20th century? By the 1920s the Triangle disaster stayed more strongly in the public consciousness. What was remembered of the General Slocum fire was a small, annual commemoration at the Lutheran cemetery in Queens. One theory is that the Slocum fire involved German immigrants. There was quite a bit of German hostility leading up to, through and after World War One causing the public legacy of the tragedy to fade from memory. There was simply less sympathy for Germans as opposed to the young immigrants killed in the Triangle Fire. Also, with the Triangle Fire it came to be found that the factory owners had purposely locked the exits as a matter of policy to keep the workers at their sewing machines. While many of the General Slocum Fire deaths resulted from the failure to maintain safety devices like boat fire extinguishers and life jackets, there wasn’t perceived criminal action by the owners which could still certainly be debated.

Two additional stories we have on Trips Into History which you will find interesting are the Explosion of the Steamboat Pennsylvania and the Storms of Lake Michigan and the sinking of the lake freighter Carl D. Bradley.

The General Slocum Fire spelled the beginning of the end for the closely knit “Little Germany” section of Manhattan’s lower east side. St Marks New York eventually was sold and became a synagogue. While the disaster claimed only about one percent of the city’s German population, the continual immigration of people from other European countries, mainly eastern Europe, splintered the population more and Little Germany residents scattered to other New York City locales.

(All photos are from the public domain)




History of Old Hollywood

The Hollywood Cowboys

There are two interesting stories about two old Hollywood cowboys who enjoyed a good measure of success but had unexpected endings. This covered the era of both the silents and what were referred to as the talkies.

The two names in this story are Buck Jones and Tom Mix. Interestingly enough, both of these future cowboy celebrities had quite a lot in common. For one thing, both had served in the army and both at one time worked with the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Western Show which was based in Oklahoma. The 101 was a type of takeoff from Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West. The 101 Ranch ranch site in Oklahoma is today a National Historic Landmark.

Buck Jones

Buck Jones was loved by kids all over America because of his thrilling adventures. Jones was born in Indiana in 1891. His birth name was Charles Frederick Gebhard. The talents Buck had as a natural cowboy no doubt were learned in Oklahoma after his father moved there and purchased a 3,000 acre ranch. Actually, Buck Jones was thinking of making the U.S. Army a career. He served along the Mexican border in 1907 and then was sent out to the Philippines. A lot changed in the Philippines for Jones. It was there where a gunshot from a group of insurgents caught him in the thigh.

Tom Mix

After much back and forth with the army, Buck found himself as a mechanic with the 1st Aviation Squadron. This literally was the very first military air squadron. It was during this stint of duty that Buck Jones learned to fly airplanes. At the same time he learned how to be pretty good with a rifle. Eventually Buck Jones would join the 101 Wild West as a trick rider and roper. This wasn’t all new since he actually worked for the 101 a bit as a youth. All in all, Buck Jones worked with the famous 101 Ranch Wild West Show, the Ringling Brothers Circus and the Golmer Brothers Wild West Show. Not too bad of a resume for an aspiring Hollywood cowboy.

The adventure loving Buck Jones also put in some time as a test driver for Indianapolis style racing cars. Needing to earn more money, Buck heard from friends that there was money to be made in Hollywood. Moving to Los Angeles and hanging around the movie studios did indeed turn into employment. Buck Jones found a good amount of work as a stuntman in many film scenes where a good deal physical action was required. Jones also worked as a double for the box office star William S. Hart. It’s interesting how many cowboy actors actually got their start working as doubles and stuntmen. Jone’s wife Odelle was also doing some studio work in L.A. as a movie double but being pregnant she had to give it up because of the strain.

Tom Mix

Tom Mix was born in Pennsylvania in 1880. As a young man he learned just about everything you needed to know about horses and riding. Attending a Wild West performance was about all it took to set him on a career path as a cowboy. In the meanwhile Mix served some time in the army but never had a desire to make it a career like Buck Jones once did. Tom Mix’s army stint is a bit controversial in as much as it wasn’t quite what the studio brass in their publicity releases made it out to be. What is true is that Mix did serve in the Spanish American War.

Rough Riders film starring Buck Jones

His publicity bio had him charging up San Juan Hill in Cuba and leaving the army as a hero. In reality, Mix saw no combat and deserted from the army in 1902 to marry the first of his five wives.That certainly wouldn’t have been Hollywood image building fodder.

Like Jones, Tom Mix worked for the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Show beginning in 1905. Mix was so good at riding and roping and in anything physical, he was known to do all of his own stunts while in Hollywood. He actually did do all of his stunts until the studio persuaded him to use a double in a few of the rougher scenes so as to protect their investment if something went wrong. Tom Mix left Hollywood for the first time at about the time the talkies hit the screens in 1929. Mix joined John Ringling’s circus for a reportedly $20,000 per week. He was the circus’ star attraction for two years. At that 1929 salary he would,need to be the star. By 1931 however, Mix was lured back to Hollywood with all types of promises from the studios. From 1931 to 1935, Tom Mix turned out seven westerns and all were box office hits. In 1935 and at the age of 55, Tom Mix went back to the less taxing circus business. He started his own circus but it flopped after a few years.

Two Careers Intersect

It was around the time of 1919-1920 that Buck Jones officially took his stage name. For obvious reasons it worked better on the Hollywood screen than Charles Frederick Gebhard. Easier to spell and didn’t take up as much space on the list of credits. Jones actually starred in his first movie in 1920 titled “The last Straw“. Curiously enough, it wasn’t a western.

At about this same time an opportunity of sorts occurred. William Fox of the Fox Studios was going around in circles with his western star, Tom Mix, over Mix’s salary. Reportedly, Mix was at the time trying to get a contract for $10,000 per week. An absolutely incredible amount of money in the 1920’s. While all of this was going on, Fox was looking at Buck Jones as a replacement for Tom Mix. Fox figured that he could get Jones for perhaps $150 per week. Even though it was doubtful that Jones would have contracted in at $150 per week after whatever Mix was currently earning, Fox apparently was able to use the threat of Buck Jones to get Mix’s number down.

Buck Jones

It apparently worked. This was the incident that would cause a rift between these two Hollywood cowboy stars that would last a lifetime. After that episode there were never any good feelings between the two on the movie lot.

As it turned out, both Hollywood cowboy stars earned huge amounts of money. By the year 1929, Buck Jones was a very wealthy man. Buck Jones, being eleven years younger than Tom Mix was able to put out films a few years longer into the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. Both Buck Jones and Tom Mix had an extraordinary number of film credits to their name. Buck Jones had 106 film credits and Tom Mix had a total of 307.

Sudden Endings

Tom Mix had spent a lot of time in Arizona where he maintained a ranch. The old action star also had a habit, and liking, for living a bit on the edge. On October 12, 1940, Tom Mix found himself reportedly speeding down a road near Florence Arizona in his custom made Cord roadster. Apparently due to the speed, he wasn’t able to negotiate a curve and was killed in the subsequent crash. Today, as a memorial to one of Hollywood’s most successful old cowboys, there is a marker at the spot in Arizona where the crash occurred. Tom Mix was 60 years old when he was killed.

The end for Buck Jones also came rather sudden and unexpected. Buck Jones was dining with a group of friends in Boston Massachusetts on November 28, 1942. The problem was, Jones was dining at the old Cocoanut Grove night club when the famous venue rapidly went up in flames and resulted in the deaths of 492 people. Hundreds more were injured. The Cocoanut Grove disaster was the second worst building fire in America behind Chicago’s Iroquois Theater fire of 1903 that killed more than 600 people. The Cocoanut Grove tragedy would usher in another new round of fire codes. The story is that Jones did initially flee the fire safely but went back inside to find a lost friend. As it turned out, the friend wasn’t lost and did escape the fire but Buck Jones was badly burned when he reentered the club. He passed away two days later on November 30th at the age of fifty one.

Two excellent books for further research are Wild West Show!, edited by Thomas W. Knowles and Joe R. Lansdale and Fire in the Grove by author John C. Esposito.

One of the very best places in the U.S. to learn about the cowboy is in Oklahoma City, OK. The National Cowboy and Western Heritage center is one of the best places to learn about real cowboys, the celebrity cowboy and life in the frontier west. One of the most interesting sites where many a western film was shot is just outside Tucson Arizona. Old Tucson Studios was and is still used for both motion picture and television productions. The Old Tucson Studios is located about 16 miles west of downtown Tucson and is a big tourist attraction for the area.

(Photos are from the public domain)

New Mexico History / Plaza Hotel

Famous hotels are a real part of New Mexico history. Some of the most noteworthy were the string of Fred Harvey, Harvey House, hotels spread throughout the state.

plaza hotel in las vegas new mexico

Plaza Hotel, Las Vegas New Mexico

In Las Vegas New Mexico, the Harvey Company along with the AT & SF Railroad operated the very popular La Castaneda right alongside the Las Vegas train depot.

According to the book, The Trains Stop Here: New Mexico’s Railroad Lagacy, by author Marci L. Riskin, a Harvey House lunchroom was built in 1882 and the La Castaneda Hotel opened in 1899 at a cost of $110,000. The La Castaneda was furnished for $30,000 and was 25,000 square feet in size. Another very famous hotel in Las Vegas which is still in operation today and remains enormously popular is the Plaza Hotel on the north side of the Las Vegas New Mexico plaza.

Las Vegas Plaza and the Plaza Hotel

The Plaza Hotel was originally constructed in 1882 by a company headed by Benigno Romero. The structure was made of brick. The hotel was built as a three story three story in an  Italianate design. When the hotel opened up it was referred to by many as the Belle of the Southwest.

The Las Vegas plaza which was generally used as a place to park wagons would be converted into a park such as it is today. The impetus for the remaking of the plaza area was the local newspaper the “Optic”. The publication basically cajoled the public into making the plaza something other than a large dusty lot. Donations were received from the citizenry and in the year 1880, trees were planted and the building of a bandstand and a picket fence occurred. The center of Las Vegas New Mexico would change forever.

An Historic Hotel

las vegas new mexico plaza

Looking east from the Las Vegas plaza

It’s interesting to note that many famous people of the time utilized the Plaza Hotel. Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders held their first reunion at the Plaza hotel in 1899.

Years later, Las Vegas New Mexico would be the site of Hollywood western movie sets. In fact, many scenes from some of Tom Mix’s westerns included the Plaza Hotel. Today, the Plaza Hotel is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The hotel holds the same high place in 1800’s history as the Driskill Hotel in Austin Texas and the National Hotel in Nevada City California. All of these hotels opened in the 1800’s and continue in operation today.

A Very Historic Plaza

One of the things that makes the Plaza Hotel so historic is the ground it sits on. So many historically noteworthy events occurred on the Las Vegas plaza prior to the hotel’s construction that the mere fact that this hotel resides there is a treat for tourists staying at the hotel.

In the year 1846 during the Mexican American War, Stephen W. Kearny gave a speech on the plaza declaring that New Mexico was now a part of the United States. Some decades later the Las Vegas plaza would be where Billy the Kid was marched off to the Las Vegas jail by Sheriff Pat Garrett. There’s much more about Pat Garrett and the Las Vegas jail and it’s early occupants in the excellent book, Gateway to Glorieta; A History of Las Vegas New Mexico, by author Lynn Erwin Perrigo, PhD.

Two related articles connected with Las Vegas that you should find interesting are the La Castaneda Hotel in the railroad district and a Visit to Fort Sumner New Mexico.

Also see our articles about a Visit to Fiesta Santa Fe and Navajo Rug Auctions

first national bank building in las vegas new mexico

First National Bank Building constructed in 1880

There was quite a disturbance when Billy the Kid and a few other prisoners were being transferred the next morning from the Las Vegas jail to Santa Fe via the railroad.

Garrett and his deputies averted a mob lynching of the prisoners in an armed standoff at the Las Vegas train station.

The photo right is the historic First National Bank Building directly on the plaza which now houses the offices of the West Las Vegas School District.

The Plaza Hotel was restored in 1982, one hundred years after it’s original construction and is now considered by many travelers as being the premier hotel in Las Vegas New Mexico. The hotel expanded into the building next door and now offers seventy-one guest rooms.

Visiting Las Vegas New Mexico is a trip into history and the elegant and historic Plaza Hotel is a great stop on your western road trip travel planner. Lots of history and some great photo opportunities await you in Las Vegas, New Mexico.

Las Vegas is about 55 miles east of Santa Fe New Mexico.

(Article and photos copyright Trips Into History)

The Mountain Howitzer


Mountain Howitzer at Sutter's Fort, Sacramento California

The Mountain Howitzer was one of the most effective weapons employed by the U.S. Army Cavalry during the latter part of the 1800’s. The Mountain Howitzer was essentially a compact cannon that could easily be taken along by cavalry units on the field. Ironically, it was the Mountain Howitzer that was not taken along by George Armstrong Custer during the Sioux War of 1876. If he had not declined bringing along this weapon the history books may have been written differently. The Mountain Howitzer’s compact size and portability was ideal for such cavalry expeditions.

The Mountain Howitzer was built in several styles, with the 12 pound gun probably the most used in the frontier west. Being first designed in Sweden during the latter 17th century, the practical utility of this weapon goes back to Europe and the Peninsular War when the Spaniards used these weapons against Napoleon. That war began in 1808 and ened with Napoleon’s defeat in 1814.

You’ll also enjoy our article and photos of Military Cannons used at our old west coast forts.

Mountain Howitzer at Fort Union New Mexico

In America, the Mountain Howitzer saw action in the Mexican-American War, the Civil War and during the various western Indian wars. The Mountain Howitzer got it’s name because the original cannons were taken apart for transport into the mountains and then reassembled when needed. The weapons were designed to be portable. The twelve pound designation means that the cannon shot a twelve pound cannon ball.The Mountain Howitzers were often referred to as “Bull Pups”. The barrel was 38 inches long with a 4.62 bore. These small yet powerful cannons had a range of from about 900 to 1,000 yards.The first models were made in bronze. The later models of the howitzer were affixed to small carriages and these could be pulled along by horse or mule with little trouble.

An interesting story comes from the two Mountain Howitzers on display in Old Town Albuquerque’s plaza. The howitzer’s made there way to Albuquerque during the Civil War when the confederates made a push north into New Mexico. At one time, the Confederates occupied Albuquerque on their way further north. Their advance was stopped at the historic Battle of Glorieta Pass just to the east of Santa Fe. There are two Mountain Howitzers located on the plaza in Old Town Albuquerque just a few miles west of the modern downtown location. These are exact replicas of the cannons that were in place there during the Confederate occupation in 1862.

Mountain Howitzer exact replicas in Old Town Albuquerque

The Howitzer barrels were buried when the Confederates retreated. In 1889 all eight barrels that were buried were unearthed when an officer returned to the site and showed where they had been buried. Because of the great historical value of these eight barrels they were eventually place in the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History which is located only three blocks northeast of the Old Town plaza. The museum is a great addition to a trip planner for anyone visiting or vacationing in Albuquerque. The exact replica Mountain Howitzers on the plaza today are mounted on “Prairie” gun carriages which were thought to be the type utilized by the Confederate troops.

You may be interested in these related articles…The California State Military Museum and a Tour of Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento.

When you travel around the United States you’ll have plenty of opportunities to see these historic Mountain Howitzer cannons at many locations. In addition to the cannons located on the Albuquerque Old Town plaza is an authentic Mountain Howitzer on the grounds of the Fort Union National Monument in northern New Mexico between Raton and Las Vegas. You’ll also see a Mountain Howitzer on display at the Fort George G. Meade Museum in Maryland, Sutters Fort in Sacramento California, Fort Sill Oklahoma, the Sheldon Prairie Museum in Sheldon Iowa, Fort Laramie in Wyoming, Fort Concho in San Angelo Texas and at many other historic sites and old military forts.