HISTORY OF ALAMOGORDO
BEFORE THE FOUNDING
The vast basin in which Alamogordo is located is known as the Tularosa Basin. It is an amazing area, which was once a large dome. The dome collapsed and a remarkable process was set in motion. The hills around the basin are rising at the rate of two inches a century while the basin floor is sinking at a similar rate. All of this is happening with geologic deliberation so it goes unnoticed, but the area is a most unusual one for the study of the earth sciences. The basin also contains the White Sands, an area of pure gypsum dunes that had its genesis in a massive saline lake that lies under the basin’s floor. Just to give a fascinating contrast, the basin also contains the malpais, a massive lava flow pushed up from volcanic activity beneath the basin floor. All of this has created a unique area.
Although the Tularosa Basin is an area of little rainfall, there are springs flowing with fresh water that proved to be of interest to prehistoric man. There is evidence of man’s migrations through the basin dating back to 10,000 years ago, and man may have been a seasonal resident in the basin from 6,000 years ago to 2,000 years ago. There is evidence that man was a permanent resident from 1600 B.C. to 1350 A.D. These various bits of evidence give us a culture we refer to as Paleo-Indian, or old Indian. The Apaches appeared in the basin around 1500 A.D. and roamed the area freely. Their present home, the Mescalero Apache reservation, was established in 1873.
Those who ultimately controlled the basin came in the 1800’s. Farmers came from the Rio Grande region to establish small settlements near water sources. Tularosa and La Luz were established by such migrations in the 1840’s. The miners came seeking gold, silver, and other minerals, in the 1870’s and 80’s. They established towns like White Oaks in the north of the basin and Orogrande in the south. The ranchers, who were to loom so large in the basin’s history, came in the 1880’s. Most of them moved out of the Reconstruction South, particularly Texas, and were looking for land and water. The best known of them was a young man named Oliver Lee who was ultimately to control over a million acres of land. Lee’s ranch, the Circle Cross, at one time even included the land on which Alamogordo was to be located.
THE FOUNDING OF ALAMOGORDO, NEW MEXICO
Alamogordo had an unusual beginning. It was a “planned community” before anyone even used that term. It was a railroad town, the brainchild of an entrepreneur from New York: Charles B. Eddy. Ably assisted by his brother, John A. Eddy, and his attorney, William A. Hawkins, Eddy set out to build a railroad and the communities that would support and sustain the iron horse. Alamogordo emerged as the largest of these communities. Eddy, who had substantial funds from family investments in the Empire State and from his own investments in southeastern New Mexico, intended to build a railroad from El Paso, Texas to the coal fields around Dawson, New Mexico and then on to larger rail connections at Las Vegas, New Mexico. His railroad, the El Paso and Northeastern, reached Alamogordo on June 14-15, 1898, and the town had its official beginning.
On land purchased from Oliver Lee, Eddy planned a community, which was to feature large wide thoroughfares, and irrigation ditches lined with trees. The trees that seemed to thrive were the Cottonwoods, which grew to great dimensions. The name “Alamo Gordo” translated from the Spanish means fat Cottonwood. There was to be a park – the Alameda – that was to be located alongside the railroad tracks through the town. A railroad hospital was founded to care for the workers and others in the town. Later, a Baptist college was located in the eastern part of the community in an area that came to be designated as the College Addition. All lots sold in the town were sold by the Alamogordo Investment Company, which was Eddy’s holding company.
One interesting feature of Eddy’s town reflected the prohibitionist tendencies of the founder. Eddy wanted no liquor in his model community. Hawkins, wise to the weaknesses of humans, advised his boss that total prohibition was doomed to fail and that we would be better advised to bring demon rum out into the open. Thus was born the Block 50 Ordinance. On the original plat of the town, Block 50 was located immediately across from Eddy’s office at the railroad headquarters. This was set aside as the only location in town where liquor could be manufactured and dispensed. Into each deed that came from the Alamogordo Improvement Company, a provision was written which prohibited liquor on any lot. Failure to comply meant the lot reverted to the company. Thus, Eddy could keep his eye on wayward employees and homeowners were most scrupulous in using the bottle. This provision actually stayed in effect until 1984; Hawkins knew how to write an ordinance.
THE YEARS OF QUIET DEVELOPMENT
Between the years of its founding in 1898 to the establishment of White Sands National Monument in 1933, Alamogordo enjoyed a quiet and steady development. The railroad remained its major economic base and its major reason for being. Its first growth had been explosive. Soon after the town’s founding, its population was estimated at 1,000; by the time Otero County was established, early in 1899, the cities’ population was about 3,000. As the railroad continued building to the north, things settled down and Alamogordo’s population remained almost constant at the 3,500 to 4,000 figure for the next thirty years.
Major industry was related to the railroad. Crossties were needed as the tracks pushed northward. One of the most remarkable rail lines ever established resulted from this need. Lumber for ties could be found in the forest to the east above Alamogordo. To bring the logs out of the mountains, Eddy founded the Alamogordo and Sacramento Railroad. It was nineteen of the most torturous miles on any rail line in the country. It had a five-degree grade, which was the steepest on any line in the country. It had an “S” shaped trestle with a thirty-degree curve, the first such in the nation. It rose from 4,300 feet of altitude to 9,000. Indeed, a most remarkable feat of railroad building. It worked. It provided the new boomtown with vast amounts of lumber. A sawmill was established, a crosstie treatment plant went into operation, and a peripheral industry, tourism, was born. Through shrewd advertising, the health-giving airs of the mountains became chic. Cloudcroft was born as a Mecca for those seeking to escape the desert’s heat. The railroad also provided a shipping point for industries of long-standing in the area: mining and ranching.
Water was a continuing problem for the railroad. Its steam driven engines needed a ready supply of fresh water that would not leave deposits in the boilers. Since much of the well water in the basin was not acceptable, Eddy, working through Hawkins, went through the mountains until he found a ready source of fresh water. Bonito Lake, located some fifty miles from Alamogordo, was used as a source for the thirsty town. A pipeline project, almost as difficult to build as the rail line to Cloudcroft was developed.
Eddy divested himself of the line he had so carefully nurtured in 1905. He sold the line to Phelps-Dodge’s El Paso and Southwestern Railroad Company. They controlled the line until 1924 when they sold to Southern Pacific Railroad Company. Through these various changes, Alamogordo remained primarily a railroad town. Few other industries grew and this made the young community a “one industry” town living on the ups and downs of the railroad. Generally things were good but not always.
The Baptist College closed its doors in 1911, after failing to attract enough students interested in higher learning. This failure was offset to a degree by the establishment, in 1903, of the New Mexico School for the Blind. This remarkable institution, today known as the School for the Visually Handicapped, has become one of the premier institutions of its type in the nation. It has a very large endowment and is a leader in technology for the blind.
THE FOUNDING OF WHITE SANDS NATIONAL MONUMENT
Being a “one-industry” town had its bad moments. When the railroads started a decline due to the development of a highway system and the growth of the trucking industry, Alamogordo started a small decline. It was not a major rail center and there was less and less need of its crossties. The sawmill continued to operate but more for general purposes and less for railroad purposes. Less need for lumber meant less need for the line to Cloudcroft. Tourists still used the line some but a road to the mountain community meant the rails were little used. The last run on the fabulous Cloud Climbing Railroad was in 1947.
The hospital that was built as part of Eddy’s original plan gave rise to a sort of industry: what we today would call the health-care industry. The great climate and a ready supply of interested physicians led to the establishment of a tuberculosis sanitarium and some other medical facilities that hired a good number of trained people.
But Alamogordo seemed a town without too many prospects. Without too many prospects, but with at least one man of great vision. Tom Charles was a local insurance and real estate broker and general entrepreneur. He had an abiding interest in the large gypsum dunes located nineteen miles to the west of the town. Charles studied the geology of the dunes as well as their history. He came to the conclusion that here was a treasure, not just a local treasure but also a national one. New Mexico was represented in the U.S. Senate by A.B. Fall, a resident of the Tularosa Basis, from 1912 until 1921. Fall had tried during those years and during his brief tenure as Secretary of the Interior to establish an all weather national park in the basin and the surrounding mountains. He had been unsuccessful but he had laid the groundwork for Tom Charles to push the idea of a national park or monument for the White Sands. After building local support and intensive lobbying at the national level, Charles was able to accomplish his dream. Herbert Hoover declared the White Sands a National Monument on January 18, 1933. Tom Charles was chosen as its first custodian and a new industry was born for Alamogordo.
Tourism, on a level never envisioned by Mr. Eddy and the rail line to Cloudcroft, became a basic element of Alamogordo’s life. The National Park Service welcomes some 600,000 visitors annually to the great white sea.
ALAMOGORDO AND WORLD WAR II
When World War II started for the U.S. in 1941, Alamogordo was a small town of 4,000 souls doing moderately well on the residue of its economic past and its young tourist industry. An explosion was about to occur, literally.
The need for space for aerial bombing and gunnery training during the war is what changed Alamogordo forever. The fact that the area had miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles, became an asset of great value. Construction actually began at what is now Holloman on February 6, 1942. Runways were laid to provide a training area for the British Royal Air Force. Christened the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range, the base quickly had its mission expanded. After the year-round flying possibilities were recognized, the newly named Alamogordo Army Air Field became a major training area for heavy bomber crews. This remained the field’s major function until the end of the war, although consideration was given to testing rockets at the base as early as 1943.
Great attention for the area came as a result of one of the most significant events in man’s history. At 5:29:45 a.m. on July 16, 1945, the first tumultuous rumblings of the Atomic Age were heard with the detonation of the first atomic bomb. Actually, Trinity Site, the location of the detonation, is some fifty miles northwest of Alamogordo as the crow flies, but the small railroad town of Eddy’s dreaming will be forever thought of as the home of the bomb. For a brief time Alamogordo was known as the “Atomic City.”
Alamogordo Army Air Field was deactivated at war’s end but it did not stay long in retirement. Its thirty-eight mile width and its sixty-four mile length made it an ideal location for the Air Corp’s newly burgeoning rocketry program. Certainly, when Alamogordo became home to the Air Corp’s Guided Missile Test Range under the Air Material Command, a new age dawned for the Tularosa Basin.
The year 1947 saw great changes in the military structure of the base. In that year, the Air Force was established as a separate branch of the armed services. The base was named Holloman Air Force Base, in recognition of George V. Holloman, who had had a distinguished career as a scientist and as an Air Force pilot. He was killed in the crash of a B-17 bomber on Formosa.
Holloman has gone through many command changes since its establishment but it has remained a major link in this country’s military preparedness. It has been a Strategic Air Command base, a Tactical Air Command base, and a major research and development installation. It has become an instrumental part of the nation’s rocketry program and is located within the confines of White Sands Proving Grounds.
Alamogordo has reflected the many changes of Holloman. It moved from being the “Atomic City,” to being the “Rocket City,” and has taken it all in good grace. Its population grew to reflect ups and downs at the base. It went from its normal 4,000 people at the start of World War II, to about 20,000 by the early 1950’s. If ever the appellation, “a military town,” applied anywhere, it is to Alamogordo. And no town ever wore the title more proudly.
ALAMOGORDO SINCE WORLD WAR II
Since World War II, Alamogordo has become a cosmopolitan city of some 30,000 population. It has a population based on its military orientation and on its historical position in southern New Mexico. Economically, its major industry is Holloman Air Force Base and all the related contract work connected with the base and its operation. The normal service contingent at the base is about 6,000.
Alamogordo has also emerged as a center for education in the southern part of New Mexico. It has one of the finest public school systems in the state, and New Mexico State University at Alamogordo, which was founded in 1958, is a fully comprehensive, two-year branch community college recognized for its fine teaching. In the area of special education, New Mexico School for the Visually Handicapped is generally accepted as the finest residential school for blind and visually impaired students in the nation. Taken together, the budgets of the schools provide Alamogordo’s second major industry.
Tourism remains strong. The White Sands National Monument draws visitors from all over the world. An added attraction has been the International Space Hall of Fame and the Clyde Tombaugh Space Instruction Center. These facilities were developed in the 1970’s and have added a new dimension to both tourism and education for the “Rocket City.” Recognition was given to the history of the area with the development of Oliver Lee State Park, located eight miles south of the city. This park has proven to be a popular center for hikers and overnight campers.
Vestiges of the old Alamogordo remain. We still have our railroad and a sawmill. We still have our ranches and even a mine or two. We still have a climate second to none, and we still welcome those who want to visit or retire here. But we have, since World War II, found ourselves on the cutting edge of man’s technological development. This makes Alamogordo, New Mexico, one of the most interesting and exciting places in the world.
By Dr. David Townsend