NEW MEXICO’S RED RIVER VALLEY HAS A RICH AND FASCINATING PAST | by Lynn T. Nolan
The Red River Valley has a fascinating past. Footprints of those who walked here before are deeply embedded, and the paths are many. Pioneer days here were forged by difficult living conditions.
Red River boasts a colorful history complete with Native American Ute and Jicarilla Apache Indians, mountain men, trappers, gamblers, outlaws and miners. There were also boom and bust cycles in this raw frontier with abundant fur-bearing game for trappers in the early 1800s. Copper and gold discovered in nearby Elizabethtown spurred the arrival of many prospectors in the 1860s with the “get rich quick” fever. Red River’s population soared in the 1890s and folks poured in by the hundreds, including notorious outlaws and characters of the wild west.
Gold, silver and copper mines operated in the Red River area until 1925, located in Pioneer Canyon, Goose Creek, Bitter Creek, Mallette and upper Red River Canyons. In 1916 Molybdenum was discovered in the lower Red River Canyon, a “moly” mill was built in 1921-22, where mining continues today at the Questa Mine.
Homesteading in Red River began in the late 1800s by Ed Westobey and the three Mallette brothers. By 1900, Red River had a population of 3,000 complete with 15 saloons, four hotels, two newspapers, a barber shop, a sawmill and a red light district. The first schoolhouse made of log was built in 1896. In 1915 the schoolhouse burned down and was replaced with the Little Red Schoolhouse made of brick. It still stands today and houses the museum located behind the library. Mining failures at the turn of the century caused Red River to become a ghost town that came back to life briefly in 1912.
Built in 1915-16, the Red River Pass Road, replacing a harrowing wagon path down the big hill through Road Canyon, put Red River on the map. With the advent of affordable cars courtesy of Ford Motors, panhandle families hit the road looking for trout and cool summer relief.
spacerIn the early 1920s, two gold mining families, the Oldhams and Youngs, built resorts with fishing ponds at the southeast end of town.
By the late 1920s and early 1930s, Red River was designated as a “mountain playground” by tourists escaping the summer heat. In 1928, tourist cabins were built on the present day site of the Riverside, along with the Pioneer Camp Site, and in 1930 a grocery store and gas pump. Rental units at the Grandview were built, and another grocery store across from Miners’ Hospital. Around 1940, Red River started a Chamber of Commerce with Cap Johnson as president and Winnie Hamilton as secretary.
About 1939 or 1940 the first ski area in Red River was built by L.S. Lewis; the first lift consisted of a rope tow. The cost of a lift ticket in those days was about a dollar. In 1958, S.E. Bolton built the Red River Ski Area on today’s site, and installed the first homemade chairlift.
Today, Red River’s excellent climate and varied activities draw tourists from all over the world. The list of notable visitors here is long, including J. Robert Oppenheimer who frequented here to escape the pressures of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos.
Activities include skiing, hiking, biking, snowmobiling, hunting, fishing, horseback riding, sightseeing, gold panning and more. The beauty and enjoyment of these activities assure the growth and continuation of Red River’s exciting history and designation as a great “mountain playground” for generations to come.
— ©2013 Lynn T. Nolan
Facts and photos compliments of the Red River Historical society.
This article appeared on page 30 of HighCountry Magazine 2010.