Gold Country in California


sierra nevada mountains

Sierra Nevada north of Nevada City california

California Gold Country is a destination for many travelers to the Golden State. The area in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains just east of Sacramento was the hub of activity during that crucial period when the region was taken over by the U.S, during the late 1840’s. Gold Country in California today is filled with reminders of the time that the gold fields were the destination of gold prospectors from all over the globe. People flocked there by any means possible. The fact that a journey to California usually meant either an ocean voyage around Cape Horn or through the Isthmus of Panama, neither an easy journey.

One reminder of the gold rush days are some of the very historic hotels, some of which are still operating, each with it’s own unique stories to tell.

Gold Country in California is all about nineteenth century history and we have highlighted a few of the historic hotels which would make great additions to your California vacation planner.

holbrooke hotel grass valley ca

Holbrooke Hotel, Grass Valley CA

Holbrooke Hotel

The Holbrooke Hotel is located in beautiful Grass Valley California. This very historic Victorian hotel’s early visitors included U.S. Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison. Others notables who spent some time there included none other than Mark Twain, Jim Corbett, the theatrical star Lotta Crabtree and many more. The hotel burned down in the huge fire of 1855 but was rebuilt in 1862. Today, the Holbrooke Hotel  features an elegant dining room, an interesting and historic bar and an antique elevator that still operates. The hotel has twenty-seven rooms and is a California Historic Landmark. Grass Valley,  located on CA Hwy 49, is a 60 mile drive east of Sacramento California.


national hotel nevada city ca

National Hotel, Nevada City CA

National Hotel

The National Hotel is located in Nevada City California, not far up the road from Grass Valley. The National Hotel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The National Hotel is the most historic of all old Nevada City California. Before being named the National Hotel, the structure opened in August of 1856 under the name of “Bicknell Block“. The Bicknell Block housed just about everything of major importance during the early days. The stagecoach stop, post office and telegraph office. Nevada City’s National Hotel is considered one of the oldest hotels west of the Rocky Mountains that has been in continuous operation. When you step inside it’s like a trip back to the Victorian era. The hotel is the site of California Historic Landmark No. 899 and is the most well known of the old hotels in the California gold country.

A link to another interesting story you’ll enjoy about Nevada City California and the National Hotel is our article about the notorious female gambling hall operator, Madame Mustache. Nevada City is located on CA Hwy 49 about 64 miles east of Sacramento California.

angels camp hotel

Undated early photo of Angels Hotel in Angels Camp CA

The Angels Hotel

The Angels Hotel, which actually started out as a canvas tent, is located in Angels Camp California, one of the many very historic old gold mining towns. The most famous story that came out the The Angels Hotel involved Mark Twain. It seems that Twain overheard a story while staying at the hotel which he later turned into the hugely popular story of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County“. In fact, this short story, also eventually made into an opera, is what catapulted Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) into the national spotlight.

Angels Camp California today has the motto of “Home of the Jumping Frog“. The Angels Hotel no longer operates but is a California Historic Landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Angels Camp is located on CA Hwy 49 about 80 miles southeast of Sacramento California.

old town sacramento hotels

Restored Clarendon House in Old Town Sacramento CA

The Clarendon House

Old Town Sacramento came about as a direct result of the booming mining operations in the nearby California gold fields. Sacramento California served as a hub for steamboat traffic which ferried passengers between San Francisco and the gold fields. Sacramento was the jumping off point for prospectors and served as the commerce center for supplies, mail and entertainment.

The Clarendon House, once a Sacramento hotel, and now a National Historic Landmark, has now been turned into a residential building offering laundry facilities onsite, garage parking and controlled access entry. The bottom level of the building now houses eight commercial spaces. The structure located in Old Town Sacramento is among the fifty-three historic buildings still in existence. The present three-story building was constructed in 1977 to replicate the authentic 1852 exterior.

california steam navigation company

Steamers sign at Old Town Sacramento

Two links to articles you’ll also enjoy on our Trips Into History site include the Story of the Eagle Theater in Old Town Sacramento which was actually washed away by a flood during the middle of a performance.

Another interesting article is about the Leland Stanford Mansion in downtown Sacramento CA.

Old Town Sacramento itself makes a great addition to your northern California vacation planner. In addition to the historic structures like The Clarendon House, you’ll be able to visit the California State Railroad Museum, one of the finest railroad museums in the world, a restored Wells Fargo office which now serves as a museum as well as a host of other structures dating back to the California gold rush era.

Gold Country in California makes for a fascinating, fun and educational destination and is ideal for a family vacation or weekend getaway.

(Undated photo of the Angels Hotel is from the public domain. Remainder of photos are from the author’s private collection)

How Native Americans Enforced Their Laws

Early 1800’s England

In London England during the 1700’s, a police force as we refer to one today did not exist. There were courts established by the British Home Secretary and many times the people chosen for these positions were political appointees. This was before Scotland Yard.

Ratcliffe Highway Murders Reward Poster

Justice could be quite subjective. As far as crime was concerned, it flourished, but usually at night when only the dim gaslights lit the narrow streets. At night in some of London’s most transient districts, the “watchman” would be stationed in one of the several booths established along the roadway. Hopefully he stayed awake and didn’t frequent the nearby pubs.

This system of civil protection in England would go on until 1811 when a series of murders called the “Ratcliffe Highway Murders” in the east section of London forced the Home Secretary to revise methods of crime prevention and detection and to upgrade the district courts. There is a very good book about this London incident, “The Maul and the Pear Tree: The Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811” by authors P.D. James and Thomas A. Critchley. The book is a great read and really offers a lot of insight regarding law enforcement in early 1800’s London.

Native American Governance

So how did the Native Americans govern themselves?

When you explore the subject of the American West in regards to law enforcement you might first assume that the rule of law was brought over to this continent by it’s European forefathers. The assumption would be that the very idea of law enforcement in the American West, the protection of personal property and the maintenance of order came from European concepts, at least the implementation of it here in the United States. The more you read about the subject, the assumption is not exactly accurate.

Cavalry and Indians

It can be argued that any organized society demands some degree of law enforcement. This was not something conceived only by European societies. Every Native American tribe had some type of system of laws. Some might be enforced by only a single leader, others by a council of perhaps a dozen or more chiefs. What is known is that many of the indigenous cultures had some type of police system with accepted powers and duties. These law and enforcement agencies within tribes were in place long before the Europeans migrated westward. It appears that the only problems with the rule of law when the two cultures, European and Native American met in the frontier, was just whose laws were to be followed?

What is Known About Early Native American Law Enforcement

When you research the history of the Western North American Natives and particularly before the years of massive European migration from the east you find that many of the Native American tribes had in effect their own security forces and laws (not codified) and their own style of a “court system”. The Cheyennes had a relatively sophisticated system set up for self governance. There was a “Council of Forty-Four” which was made up of four chiefs from each of the ten Cheyenne tribes plus an additional four elder chiefs.

Alfred Jacob Miller art of Hunting Buffalo, Indians chasing buffalo over a cliff

Along with this there was a select group of warriors chosen to put in effect whatever it was the Council decided upon. This law enforcement group would maintain discipline within the tribes and various bands and would supervise over buffalo hunts and provide military leadership. The warriors in this select group were considered the best of the warriors and in the case of the Cheyennes they were given the collective name of the “Dog Soldiers“. In fact, history ranks these Cheyenne warriors as the best fighters during the years of the American West Indian Wars. The Dog Soldiers would be the enforcement mechanism for the Council of Forty-Four. This of course included the protection of property which was important to the Cheyenne.

The Cheyennes also had a way with dealing with murder. In Cheyenne culture it really didn’t make much difference if the death of another tribe member was caused by accident or not. If the tribe member was deemed guilty of the act he was expelled from the tribe. In effect, he was banished from their society. As a historical side note, the Cheyenne’s still operate the Council of Forty-Four to this present day.

Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle

The Cheyenne Dog Soldiers

The Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, being independent by nature, eventually had a changing effect over Cheyenne society. Their militaristic make up changed the Cheyenne clan system which was deeply rooted in ancient Cheyenne culture. As an example, when a man married a woman he invariably moved to the females home or home tribe. This was the rule for as long as anyone could remember. The Dog Soldiers decided to do it the other way around and this did much to erode this centuries old custom.

When the whites entered Cheyenne territory and the military pushed treaties on the Natives, it was the Dog Soldiers among their ranks who resisted the most. The Dog Soldiers refused to sign treaties. These warriors were not prepared to move to a reservation and be ruled by the white Indian agent. It was this resistance and the wars that followed that further eroded the authority of the Cheyenne chief not to mention that many of the presiding chiefs at the time were killed in battle or massacre. An example was the death of Southern Cheyenne leader and chief Black Kettle during the 1868 Washita River Battle.

Links to three additional Trips Into History articles you’ll enjoy are the Comanche Indians , the Surrender of Crazy Horse and a visit to the American Indian Art Museum in Santa Fe New Mexico.

Indian Territory map

Law Inside Indian Territory

Most historians will point to the “Five Civilized Tribes“, those from the southern part of the country who were the first forced on to the Oklahoma Indian Territory during the early 1800’s, as having the most detailed structure of inner control.

These included the Cherokees and the Seminoles. At that time within the Indian Territory “the light-horse” acted as the primary security arm. They protected the area against whiskey traders, drove out encroaching livestock and in general maintained the order including protecting personal property. Drunkenness was a common problem and the “light-horse” would typically take the offender handcuffed to a tree and tie him up there until he sobered up. Each of the five Civilized Tribes had slight differences in penalties but each did have a structure in place to maintain social order.

There are several excellent museums around the United States that feature interesting art and information regarding the “Dog Soldiers”, the “Light Horse” and Native American societal structure in general. You may wish to add these to your next road trip planner. They include…the Koshare Museum in La Junta Colorado on the campus of Otero Junior College…the Black Kettle Museum in Cheyenne Oklahoma…the Crazy Horse Museum at the Crazy Horse Memorial four miles north of Custer South Dakota…the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C.

The Westward Migration and American Law

Eventually, when America’s westward expansion grew, the two cultures, European and Native American would meet. The problems which ensued really had little to do with lawlessness as it had to do with possession of land. Land was the reason the Indian Wars were fought. The Indians attacked settlers to drive them from their land. The treaties that were signed and often broken had to do with the distribution of land. If Indians stole livestock, you could argue that this was a response to the immigrant encroachment on their ancestral lands.


Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 dividing Native American land

When you look only at the rule of law you could probably make the argument that certain Native American cultures were more civilized at times than some of the western gold rush towns. Some of these towns that literally sprang up overnight were lawless to the extreme. Drinking, gambling, theft and the occasional murder were not unheard of. Often the law was administered at the end of a rope. At this very same time neighboring Native Americans most likely had a more formal way already in place to keep the peace within their own society. The western lands were sparse and lawmen were far and few in between. Law and order, at least the European variety, did arrive. It just took time.

A History of Policing Their Own

As a final note, it should be pointed out that the western Native Americans were very effective in policing their own, even after their collective surrender to reservations in the late 1880’s.

The reservation police, who were Native Americans themselves, were usually supervised by the local federal Indian agent, but as the years and decades passed, the tribes gradually took over the administrative functions as well. Today, Native American reservations throughout the nation function as a quasi-separate government body and have their own trained police forces on the job with outside police involvement only in cases of certain violent crimes.

Excellent books regarding the subject of Native American governance and society include the Story of the Great American West published by Readers Digest, Ghost Dance by author David Humphreys Miller and The Cheyenne Indians: Their History and Lifeways by author George Bird Grinnell.

(Indian Territory map from author’s collection. Remaining photos and images from the public domain)

Ghosts in Hotels


All throughout the United States there are historic hotels, many of which were constructed during the 1800’s and early 1900’s that are still in operation today and most have quite interesting backgrounds. The subject of ghosts in hotels are connected with many of these sites.

monte vista hotel in flagstaff arizona

Hotel Monte Vista, Flagstaff AZ

You no doubt have heard some of these stories on television that employ ghost cams and ghosts in hotels is certainly not something new. While you can argue that some of these stories may be a bit over hyped, the fact is that the hotel ghost has been around for decades upon decades. Their sightings have come from many notable people who have no real need for publicity.

In this article we wanted to highlight just a few of these old and still operating hotels which you just want to visit or stay a night or two at during your travels. Most of these ghost hotels have been restored over the years and display their original splendor.

Hotel Monte Vista / Flagstaff Arizona

The Hotel Monte Vista in Flagstaff Arizona is a hotel with several stories. At one time this hotel served many in the motion picture industry since the geography around the town lent itself quite well for the production of western movies.

hotel monte vista flagstaff

Hallway, Hotel Monte Vista

The phantom bellboy is just one of these stories. A knock on a hotel door announcing room service would be met with an empty hallway with nobody in sight. Among the guests reporting these happenings was no less than a man named John Wayne staying at the Hotel Monte Vista while working on a film. Some, including John Wayne, reported a bellboy standing outside room 210 who seemingly disappeared.

Another good ghost story relating to the Hotel Monte Vista is the sighting of a woman sitting in a rocking chair at the window of room 305. Guests and hotel staff have also reported the rocking chair moving by itself. This story connects itself with the fact that the room at one time had a long term elderly woman renter who would sit by the window of room 305 for hours on end.

flagstaff old town hotel

Monte Vista Hotel sign in lobby

One more story concerning the Hotel Monte Vista, and there are several more, concerns a 1970 bank robbery. It seems the bank robbers stopped by the hotel’s bar to have a drink even though one of the robbers was shot by the bank guard. Reportedly the wounded man had one last drink at the bar before bleeding to death from his wounds. Both bar guests and staff have since that time have witnessed bar stools and drinks moving on their own as well as being greeted with the phrase “good morning” by an anonymous voice.

The Hotel Monte Vista, constructed in 1926 and opened in January 1927, is located in the Old Town district of Flagstaff. One of the original investors was none other than the author Zane Grey. If your travel plans happen to take you through northern Arizona, this is one stop you want to add to your Arizona trip planner. The Hotel Monte Vista is located at 100 N. San Francisco Street in downtown Flagstaff.

plaza hotel las vegas new mexico

Plaza Hotel, Las Vegas New Mexico

The Plaza Hotel / Las Vegas New Mexico

Hotel ghosts are nothing new for the state of New Mexico. Las Vegas’ Plaza Hotel is just one of those. The Plaza Hotel in the center of historic Las Vegas New Mexico was built in 1852. This would ave been about six years after the U.S. took over the region from Mexico during the Mexican American War. Thirty-six years later, a prominent town resident by the name of Byron T. Mills, took over ownership.

The Plaza Hotel ghost story begins in the year 1945 when Mills, who still owned the hotel, decided to demolish the old structure. For a reason nobody knows, Mills changed his mind and cancelled demolition. Speculation was that Mills started to consider the hotel’s long and rich history and simply decided to let it stand.

The paranormal activity reported at the Plaza Hotel involves guests and staff reportedly seeing an apparition of Byron T. Mills who passed away in 1947. This included experiencing doors suddenly locking, the distinct smell of perfume and doors opening by themselves followed by the sound of footsteps with nobody in sight.

las vegas nm

Las Vegas New Mexico looking east from the plaza

Ghost sighting investigators have examined the Plaza Hotel. Results included abnormal electrical activity that would appear and then disappear several times. The investigators did indeed smell the aroma of perfume in several locations as well as the sudden strong smell of a cigar with absolutely no explanation. In fact, patrons many times have smelled cigar smoke in the bar with no explanation whatsoever.

If your travels take you to New Mexico, I would surely recommend a stop in historic Las Vegas and a stop at the excellently restored Plaza Hotel. The hotel is located on the north side of the Las Vegas New Mexico plaza.

Links to two additional articles on Trips Into History which you’ll find interesting are the Historic Hotels of America and the story of the Psychic Mediums of Lily Dale New York.

driskill hotel austin tx

Driskill Hotel, Austin TX

The Driskill Hotel / Austin Texas

The Driskill Hotel in Austin Texas was built in 1886. At one time it even served for legislative meetings prior to the Texas state capital building being erected. There’s a lot of rich history concerning the Driskill which was built by cattle baron Jesse Driskill. Today, the Driskill Hotel is owned by Hyatt Hotels but is still named the Driskill Hotel. The hotel remains one of the premier hotels in Texas.

The Driskill Hotel is known to be the most haunted hotel in Texas. One of the several ghosts in hotels stories concerning the Driskill is that of Jesse Driskill himself wandering through the original part of the hotel. His presence is felt by the strong smell of cigar smoke ans well as an interest in bathroom lights.

driskill hotel

Driskill Hotel Grand Staicase

Another interesting story is about a young girl and a bouncing ball. During a legislative session in the hotel’s early years, a legislator’s young daughter reportedly fell to here death from the hotel’s staircase while chasing a ball. The young girl’s death was the first at the new hotel and a short time after the tragic event the sounds of the girl playing on the staircase could clearly be heard.

The next Driskill ghost story concerns a man named P.J. Lawless. Lawless was a ticket agent for the International Great Northern Railroad and ended up residing at the Driskill Hotel for some thirty-one years. Hotel guests have reported seeing such a man appear. The thing that stands out to guests is a man in the crowd dressed in an early 20th century ticket taker’s uniform and who is known to check his railroad watch as though still tracking trains that don’t exist today.

The historic and haunted Driskill Hotel is located in downtown Austin Texas at 604 Brazos Street.

(Photos and images from author’s private collection)






California and the Old Spanish Missions

Alta California

The story of the Spanish missions is the story of California. Visiting the sites of the twenty-one missions established in present day California is a journey into the very origins of what one day would become one of the largest states in the U.S. Going from south to north, the California missions helped Spain to colonize this region bordering the Pacific Ocean.

san francisco mission dolores

Mission Dolores, San Francisco CA

Spain of course was the European power that first explored North America’s southwest region. The first colonization efforts occurred in present day New Mexico and Texas. The earliest explorer to that region was Coronado. His 1540 expedition moved north out of New Spain (Mexico) and traversed over present day Arizona into New Mexico. His expedition was not one of colonization. That would come years later. Coronado was in search of the Seven Cities of Gold which he and others had heard so much about from the Aztecs in old Mexico.

The Spaniards would begin their settlement of California, which was named Alta California with Fray Junipero Serra’s founding of the first mission of California in present day San Diego. The year was 1769 and the San Diego mission was Spain’s first foothold on the west coast. Because of Spain’s earlier colonization of Nuevo Mexico along the Rio Grande, the Alta California missions were built many years after the New Mexico missions. As an example, the mission in San Diego was founded well over 100 years after the Spanish founding of Santa Fe.

california mission san jose

Mission San Jose

The Missions and the Military

When you research anything to do with Spain’s missions in North America you come to understand how their colonization differed from those of other European countries. The key difference was the close association between the church and King. While the church was a separate entity, their efforts in the colonies were hard to differentiate from those of the Conquistadors. The missions in California were an integral part of it’s colonization. The King granted the land to the Franciscans who in turn built the California missions.

If you look into the history of the Spanish colonization of Nuevo Mexico during the early and mid 1600’s you will realize two things. In New Mexico, the Spanish authorities and the friars were working as one. The other thing you’ll realize is that the administrations in old New Mexico and Alta California were quite different. Although there were incidents of violence, Alta California never went through anything similar to the Pueblo Revolt in Nuevo Mexico in 1680. The revolt was essentially a very violent Indian backlash against the harsh rules imposed on them by the authorities which included the friars. Most of the trouble centered around forced labor and punishments meted out for those rebelling against Christian worship. The 1680 coordinated pueblo uprising was to such a degree that the Spaniards fled the region for some twelve years. They returned in 1692 with a different, more gentle attitude toward the native population. The second time they were successful.

santa clara califorina mission

Santa Clara Mission

Colonizing Alta California

Research shows that the attitude of both the friars and the military toward the Indians was much more accommodating than a century earlier in New Mexico. The friars in Alta California concentrated on education and agricultural pursuits as it pertained to the missions and the surrounding Indians.

To be sure, the Spanish military was present to protect the missions but the warfare between them and the Indians never approached anything near to what happened in New Mexico. The overall goal of both the Spanish missions and military was to help assimilate the Indians to a more European way of existence . By doing this they would be able to create subjects for the King of Spain which is one of the purposes of a colony. The missions in California also served to show Spanish claim to the territory. This would have been directed to the Russians who had settlements in northern California north of the San Francisco Bay area. It would also give notice to the British who were active in the Oregon and Northwest region.


mission carmel california

Carmel Mission

In a big way, it was the Russian and British interests to the far north that made the Sonoma Mission the northernmost of the twenty-one Spanish missions. After the Mexican Revolution which expelled Spain from Alta California and North America, the new Mexican government built a secular society and mission expansion ceased. The one exception was that the Sonoma Mission, named Mission San Francisco Solano, was erected during Mexican rule. The Mexicans also considered building a mission to the north in Santa Rosa but never went ahead with it. A case could probably be made that the construction of the Sonoma Mission and the consideration of one in Santa Rosa was more of a military initiative than a religious one. To further make the point, after the Mission San Francisco Solano was built, the military stationed General Mariano Vallejo and his northern command in Sonoma with the task of keeping an eye on the Russians.

sonoma mission

Sonoma Mission

The Old Spanish Missions Today

The old Spanish missions have been and still is one of California’s biggest tourist attractions. In fact, if visiting California for the first time, a tour of the Spanish missions is a must. The missions, through their artifacts, paintings and museums tell the story of the real founding of California. It all started with the mission system.

The current state of the missions vary greatly. Most of the missions deteriorated over the decades and a few are almost non existent but many have been beautifully restored and many are still used today for religious worship.

Three missions that I believe are of special historic significance would be the Mission San Diego, the Carmel Mission and the Sonoma Mission or referred to as Mission San Francisco Solano.

mission san rafael arcangel

Mission San Rafael Arcangel

The mission in San Diego is named Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala. This mission of course was the very first and was built by Father Junipero Serra in 1769. The mission in Carmel California which is named Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, was also built by Father Serra. Serra built this second mission about a year later in Monterey California adjacent to the military presidio. After a short time he thought it best to have the mission some distance from the presidio to be closer to the Indian population and he thus built the Carmel Mission a short distance south of Monterey. The Mission San Francisco Solano is significant in as much as it was the only one founded under Mexican rule and served as a military outpost as well during the 1830’s and 1840’s up until the conclusion of the Mexican American War.

Links to three interesting photo articles on our Western Trips site are a Visit to Mission San Juan Bautista…the Carmel Mission in Carmel California and a Visit to Sonoma Californiaand the Sonoma Mission.

mission san juan bautista

Mission San Juan Bautista

Tips on Visiting the Missions

The first thing I would suggest is to get a good statewide California road map. Check online for mission visiting hours. The missions are controlled by the local parish and visiting hours can vary greatly. Keep in mind that many of the missions are active places of worship so scheduled events can also have an effect on visiting hours. Visiting hours also can change by season. Also remember that some missions are in remote areas while others are in busy tourist destinations such as in Carmel and Sonoma. The remote missions will be much further away from travel conveniences so bringing along bottled water is a good idea.

From south to north, the missions are; Mission San Diego de Alcala in San Diego… Mission San Luis Rey de Francia in Oceanside…Mission San Juan Capistrano in San Juan Capistrano…San Gabriel Mission Archangel in San Gabriel…Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana in Mission Hills (Los Angeles)…Mission San Buenaventura in Ventura…Mission Santa Barbara in Santa Barbara…Mission Santa Ines in Solvang…Mission La Purisima Concepcion northeast of Lompoc…Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa in San Luis Obispo…Mission San Miguel Arcangel in San Miguel…Mission San Antonio de Padua northwest of Jolon…Mission Nuestra Senora de la Soledad located south of Soledad…Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo in Carmel…Mission San Juan Bautista in the San Juan Bautista Historic District…Mission Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz…Mission Santa Clara de Asis in Santa Clara…Mission San Jose in the Mission San Jose District in Fremont…Mission San Francisco de Asis in San Francisco…Mission San Rafael Arcangel in San Rafael…Mission San Francisco Solano in Sonoma.

(Photos are from author’s private collection)


History New Mexico / The Ranch School

fuller lodge los alamos NM

Fuller Lodge (Old Los Alamos Ranch School building), Los Alamos New Mexico

Los Alamos New Mexico, once called the settlement of Otowi, and a relatively short drive northwest of Santa Fe and a city built upon mesas, is one of those western destinations which has quite a rich history. New Mexico history itself is one of the most diverse found anywhere in the U.S. Los Alamos history, especially that history during the mid 1900’s, revolves around the development of the Atomic bomb during the years of the Manhatten Project.

Another interesting part of the history of Los Alamos revolves around the years prior to the famous Manhatten Project. These were the years of ranching and agriculture which Los Alamos was active in. In the case of Los Alamos New Mexico, this earlier history, the ranching, the homesteading and agriculture  was all impacted by the pressing needs of the 1940’s Manhatten Project.

The story of the Los Alamos Ranch School and it’s ultimate collision with the Manhatten Project is quite interesting.

los alamos ranch school

Old photo taken in front of school building

Land of the Pajarito Plateau

At one time one of the most successful of ranches in northern New Mexico was the Los Alamos Ranch. The land for this ranch, just north of the present day Bandelier National Monument and along the Pajarito Plateau,  was originally a Spanish land grant from the 1700’s which eventually was purchased by a group of midwest investors.

A Detroit businessman by the name of Ashley Pond took out an option on this land in 1913. By that time it had been both heavily timbered and overgrazed. Tree stumps were found everywhere. Pond recruited boyhood friends from Detroit including the heads of the Packard and Hudson Motor companies into the project. Interestingly enough, the basic plan for the land, if there was a real one at all, was to create a private club for the wealthy. The climate of northern New Mexico was considered conducive to healthy living and a resort for the wealthy there was not something unheard of.

ranch school dinner ware

Dinner ware exhibit from the Los Alamos Ranch School

The Pajarito Club

The Pajarito Club would be what the Detroit investors would call their private club. That being said, there never appeared to be a clear plan for it’s operation. Each investor had his own ideas of what it should be and friction developed. Ashley Pond, who was not an equal partner but was the operating manager, would often purchase furnishings and items for the group without their prior consent. Old lumber company buildings were acquired and some of the investors would send friends out to enjoy the climate at Los Alamos. Some of the partners also visited the club during the summer months with their families. In addition, some visitors were invited to the club as potential new members.

All of this was taking place as the shadows of World War One were building and the club’s investors becoming increasingly nervous about their investment under the day to day operation of Ashley Pond. By the year 1916, the Pajarito Club investment failed.

ranch school builsing los alamos nm

Los Alamos Ranch School Building as it once appeared

The Los Alamos Ranch School

Ashley Pond returned to the area in 1917 and  took over a homestead on the Pajarito Plateau.  Pond then obtained a log building and established the Los Alamos Ranch School that same year. The Los Alamos Ranch School was a boarding school for boys near Otowi, New Mexico, in what would eventually become Los Alamos, New Mexico.

The school’s goal was to aid boys in becoming strong young men through a life of rigorous outdoor living and classical education. Ashley Pond himself was plagued by bronchitis and other ailments as a child. Pond wanted to offer youngsters a chance to improve their health away from polluted, urban environments. The school started with a few ranch buildings from the old Brook homestead. In addition, Pond constructed what was called the Big House, a two-story, upright log building which housed classrooms, a dining hall, and school offices.

With that being said, the Los Alamos Ranch School, a health school, was a private school for the wealthy. The school’s faculty were mostly graduates of Ivy League schools and the academic course was college preparatory. The boys enrolled there who were between the ages of 12 and 18 were each assigned a horse. Activities included everything from community projects such as trail building to constructing sports fields and rifle ranges to swimming, horseback riding and tennis. The boys also took camping trips into the mountains.


los alamos historical museum

Los Alamos Historical Museum

The meals were planned with nutrition in mind and the students were told to finish their meals. If not, they could be sent home. Parents were sent complete reports on their child’s progress both academically and physically.

Enter the Manhatten Project

The United States search the country for a location for it’s atomic bomb program, the Manhatten Project. Requirements included remoteness, available water, an area that could be secured and one which was away from the coast and not really vulnerable to attack. Los Alamos New Mexico, high up in the mountains and located on meas tops was the eventual choice of the military.

As a result, life would change forever. Homesteaders were evicted by the military and the entire town became essentially a self supported secret military installation. Officially, as far as the U.S. government and it’s employees were concerned, there was no such place as Los Alamos New Mexico. Mail was addressed to a Santa Fe postal box number. If a child was born at Los Alamos during the war years, the birth certificate would also display a Santa Fe post office box number as an address.


fat man atomic bomb

Replica "Fat Man" atomic bomb on display at Bradbury Science Museum

The End of the Los Alamos Ranch School

The Los Alamos Ranch School, established in 1917, was another victim of the Manhatten Project. In November of 1942 the United States government purchased the school. The last graduating class of the school was in January 1943. The army took control of the land and buildings the very next month.

Links to additional Trips Into History photo articles you’ll enjoy is the historic Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu New Mexico and a Scenic Santa Fe to Taos Road Trip.

On our Western Trips site see the story of our visit to the Puye Cliff Dwellings.

Sites to See in Los Alamos New Mexico

Sites to add to your trip planner include the Los Alamos Historical Museum and Shop. Located at 1050 Bathtub Row, the museum features exhibits and books about the area’s geology, anthropology and history. Included is the Fuller Lodge which was the Los Alamos Ranch School’s main building.Admission to the museum and surrounding structures are free.

bandelier park cave

Ancient cave at nearby Bandelier National Monument

The Bradbury Science Museum located at 15th and Central which is operated by the Los Alamos Laboratory. Here you’ll find more than forty interactive exhibits, films about the history of the Manhatten Project as well as exhibits of various atomic devices. Admission to the museum is free.

Visitors during the winter season can enjoy the Pajarito Mountain Ski Area and summer visitors can enjoy golf at the Los Alamos County Golf Course. Nearby historic attractions include Bandelier National Monument and Puye Cliff Dwellings of the Santa Clara Pueblo and it’s history of the ancient cave dwellers.

Two excellent books on this subject are Los Alamos: The Ranch School Years 1917-1943 by authors John D. Wirth and Linda Harvey Aldrich and Inventing Los Alamos: The Growth of an Atomic Community by author John Hunner.

(Photos from author’s private collection. Fat Man atomic bomb replica photo from the public domain)