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Mountain men and muzzle-loaders, trail towns and tepees.

Mountain men and muzzle-loaders, trail towns and tepees

There's romance still to arriving at Santa Fe's Plaza by street signs that announce "Old Santa Fe Trail." In the shaded plaza, a stone monument marks the end of the trail. The old roads still join there (they're paved now), the Palace of the Governors has seen many coats of white-wash but still welcomes visitors, and the La Fonda Hotel, though rebuilt, stands as a refuge at trail's end, as it did when William Becknell and ofur companions launched trade with the U.S. along this trail in 1821.

Much more in Santa Fe remains from the 59-year trail era (1821 to 1880) that made Santa Fe a commercial center and secured its role in settlement of the Southwest. In fact, many historians believe it was trail trade that caused Santa Fe, a Mexican frontier capital, to surrender to the U.S. Army without firing a shot in 1846 during the Mexican-American war.

The drama of the trail and what it means today seems certain to linger. Congress last year added its entire 950-mile route-from Franklin, Missouri, to the Plaza in Santa Fe--to our National Historic Trails System, only the fifth trail to be so distinguished.

Now the Park Service is surveying the route, much of it privately held. Some stretches still show rut marks. Within a few years, new markers will locate

many points of historical interest for present-day travelers.

The highways shown on our map on page 75 closely parallel much of the trail. Towns and old forts along the way are beefing up their summer celebrations. A visit to New Mexico or southeast Colorado this spring or summer can easily bring you to dramatic remainders of bygone days and to events that can make trail days come to life again (see box on page 78).

For example, Las Vegas (we mean the sleepy town in New Mexico, not the bustling entertainment hub of Nevada) and Fort Union can be visited in one hurried day from Santa Fe. Cimarron's a long day's round trip from Taos. If you can, plan to stay overnight or dine at historic hotels in these old towns.

Much of the area is high plans or pine country, so summer days will be in the 80s to 90s; nights could drop to the 40s or less. As your state maps will show, national forests are fairly close for camping.

The most current guide to the trail-erasites along the entire route is Following the Santa Fe Trail, a Guide for Modern Travelers, by Marc Simmons (Ancient City Press, Box 5401, Santa Fe 87502, 1986; $11.95 plus $1.25 shipping).

A new era for Santa Fe and the Southwest, under Mexico's flag

James Monroe was president, and soldiers who had fought for independence with George Washington were still alive in 1821 when William Becknell, a desperately in-debt Missouri farmer, saddled up a few horses and headed for Santa Fe, then a Mexican frontier capital.

Next spring, on his second journey, Becknell was the first ever to cross the plains. With 21 men and three freight wagons, he pioneered a route 100 miles shorter, avoiding the mountains. The trade-off for taking the Cimarron Cutoff was a dreaded 50-mile march across waterless desert, and vulnerability to Comanche and Kiowa attacks. But the Mountain Branch was nearly impassable to wagons, which could only inch over Raton Pass.

Along both routes, trade with Santa Fe, long forbidden under Spanish rule, blossomed from the Mexican connection.

It was no easy task. Creaking along for two months, at some 15 miles a day, the wagons were literally stores on wheels, bringing to the Mexican frontier everything from cotton, fabrics, fired brick, porcelain bathrubs, and knickknacks to canned oysters and peaches. Savvy Mexican traders soon took advantage of the routes to send Mexican mules, silver, and furs to Eastern markets.

In Santa Fe, the adobe town known for its hospitality, liquor, gambling, and women, goods were reloaded for trips south to Chihuahua or west to California.

The trail remained international until 1846, afrter the outbreak of the Mexican War, when President James K. Polk ordered Col. (soon Gen.) Stephen W. Kearny to invade New Mexco. From Bent's Fort, he marched unopposed into the Santa Fe plaza on August 18, 1846, establishing American rule over the entire route.

"The Santa Fe Trail Passes into Oblivion," heralded the Santa Fe Gazette in 1880, with the arrival of the first Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe train in Lamy, 17 miles from Santa Fe. (Today's Amtrak still stops daily in Las Vegas and Lamy, en route to Chicago or Los Angeles.)

For a copy of a self-guided walking tour of 17 trail-era sites still visible in Santa Fe, send $1 and a stamped, self-addressed business-size envelope to Santa Fe Trail Association, Rancho de los Cuervos, Tano Rd., Route 4, Box 240, Santa Fe 87501.

Las Vegas: 90 historic buildings; hot springs and ice cream cones

Sixty-five miles east of Santa Fe, Las Vegas ("the meadows") was founded in 1835 by 35 families on a Mexican land grant with views of both the Rockies and the high plains. The community quickly became important and remained so through the early railroad decades. By 1900, Las Vegas had become the largest, most prosperous city in New Mexico.

Tourism is giving this town of 15,000-- largely forgotten by visitors until recently --a modest revival. The wonderfully restored 1882 Plaza Hotel, at 230 Old Town Plaza (37 rooms with private baths, antiques; from $45 a night for two), and nearby shops are only a portion of the town's architectural bonanza, spanning both banks of the Gallinas River.

Still intact is everything from the oldest flat-roofed adobe districts around its original west-side plaza to the prosperous Victorians and international-style buildings of newer, railroad-era section east of the river.

Free walking tour brochures, available at tourist haunts or at the chamber of commerce, 727 Grand Avenue, lead you past significant architecture in nine historic districts. The town boasts 900 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places--more than a third of all such buildings in the state.

Also look for:

Books. Visit the 1921 Louis C. Ilfeld Law Office building at 220 Old Town Plaza, now La Galeria de los Artesanos, a history-packed bookstore; owners Diane and Joe Stein offer a wealth of local information.

Castle and hot springs. Five miles northwest of town on State 65, see the 250-room Montezuma Hotel, now an international secondary school (it's pictured opposite). Call (505) 454-1461 for Friday tour reservations. Any time, visitors can soak at nearly open-air hot springs, popular with Santa Fe Trail trekkers and before that with Indians who hunted on these plains.

Food. Try the Plaza Hotel's full-service restaurant; Spic and Span Bakery, 713 Douglas Avenue, famous for its doughnuts; for New Mexican fare on Bridge Street, try El Rialto at 141, or Estrella's Cafe (locals rave about the chili) at 148. For ice cream cones or milkshakes, try Murphy's Drugstore at Sixth and Douglas.

B & B. Another historic inn is The Carriage House, 925 Sixth Street: eight rooms start at $34 for two, with breakfast; it also has antiques for sale.

Museum. Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders (25 percent were from New Mexico) made Las Vegas their headquarters. Rough Riders Museum, 729 Grand Avenue, is open 9 to 4 daily except Sundays and holidays; free.

New Mexico's Stonehenge: Fort Union still guards the trail

Recognizing the trail's importance as a trade route, the U.S. government in 1829 called in the military to defend it, and after 1846 a network of forts was established to fight Indians.

Largest was Fort Union, 38 miles north of Las Vegas, now a national monument. Its crumbling abode ruins dot the grasslands like a silent Southwest Stonehenge. Ranchland surrounds it; the setting seems little changed since wagon days.

Plan to spend several hours. A small visitor center and museum introduce the fort. A self-guided tour through the ruins is furnished with interpretive signs and tapes that sound as if old-time soldiers are talking to us. At the rear of the fort, note ruts of the trail's Mountain Branch.

Fort Union was established in 1851 to replace Santa Fe as military department headquarters, because the New Mexican territorial capital was regarded as a "sink of vice and extravagance." From here, military supplies also were dispersed to forts all across the territory.

What you see is mainly the third and last fort. Begun in 1863, it remained important until the railroad came, and it was active a dozen years after that.

On weekends several interpreters in period dress conjure the spirit of the trail era. Fort Union is open 8 to 6 daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day, 8 to 4:30 the rest of the year; entry is $1 per person or $3 per carload. From I-25, take Watrous exit (366) onto State 477; the fort lies about 8 miles northwest.

Cimarron: an old hotel with ghosts, a mansion, and history reenacted

A main stop on the trail's mountain branch was Cimarron (elev. 6,430; pop. 892), founded in 1841 by Lucien Maxwell, owner of New Mexico Territory's largest land grant--nearly 2 million acres. Mr. Maxwell was well known for entertaining lavishly in his block-long house replate with dance hall and gaming rooms--where fortunes were won or lost overnight.

There's still a lost-in-time quality to what's left of the old town, south of the highway; it rests on a shelf between mountains and two fertile valleys. Early on, this was a cowboy capital, and ranching is still big business.

Old Mill Museum. Fire destroyed Maxwell's house, but his three-story 1864 stone grist mill, now Old Mill Museum and crammed with memorabilia, is open 9 to 5 Memorial Day to Labor Day (closed Mondays); $2 adults, $1 ages 12 and under.

The St. James. Entertaining in 19th-century splendor is the specialty of the St. James Hotel, built about 1875 by Henry Lambert, a chef for President Lincoln, and handsomely restored in 1985. Much of the furniture is original. Its 12 rooms, named for such famous former guests as Wyatt Earp and Jesse James, start at $45 for two.

Some 26 men were said to have been murdered here. The Las Vegas Gazette once reported: "Everything is quiet in Cimarron. Nobody has been killed for three days." To hear owners Pat and Ed Sitzberger tell it, some victims still haunt the place. (Room 18 is permanently closed to soothe an apparently huffy spirit.)

Villa Philmonte, Philmont Museum. June 15 through August 25, don't leave the area without driving south through grasslands of the 127,395-acre Waite Phillips ranch, donated to the Boy Scouts in 1941. While some 300 Scouts and Explorers a day arrive here for summer camping, other visitors are welcome to tour Phillips' lavishly furnished 1927 Spanish Mediterranean mansion, Villa Philmonte. Free tours depart on the half-hour between 8:30 and 11, 1:30 and 4:30. Open the same hours, 1/4 mile south, the Philmont Museum tells all about the place.

Kit Carson Museum. In the early 1850s, Kit Carson lived and ranched in Rayado, 7 miles south of Philmont's headquarters. A shady hacienda built and furnished to resemble Carson's 1850s spread is operated by staff in period costume June 15 through August 25. Daily, 8 to noon and 1 to 5, you can shoot a black powder rifle, help bake bread in an old Mexican-style oven, and watch blacksmiths and woodworkers.

Bent's Old Fort: once and still a retreat on Santa Fe Trail's Mountain route

In 1833 Charles and William Bent and Ceran St. Vrain built a massive adobe fur-trading post that became a welcome retreat along the Mountain route. It offered billiards, a bar, peacocks, and nights free from worry about Indian attacks.

Carefully reconstructed by the Park Service in 1975, this national historic site is a trail buff's mecca: 31 of its 35 rooms are furnished as in its heyday, and it's tended by staff and volunteers in period dress.

The fort is about 180 miles southeast of Denver and 290 miles northeast of Santa Fe; drive 1 mile north of La Junta on State 109, then east 6 miles on State 194. It's open 8 to 6 daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day, 8 to 4:30 at other times (closed winter holidays). Cost: $3 per car.

Photo: Santa Fe was a 200-year-old Spanish town when six decades of Santa Fe Trail trade dramatically altered its fate. Small river park is one of many remnant tributes to that era

Photo: Badger-faced cap sets off costume for proud mountain man. Look for similar garb at rendezvous from Santa Fe to Bent's Old Fort

Photo: It took two months or more for traders to cross the 950 miles from Franklin, Missouri, to old Santa Fe. Wide color line shows trail highlighted in this report

Photo: Dozens of tepees cozy up to Santa Fe Trail site for rendezvous near Raton. You're welcome to visit

Photo: Catch Bent's Old Fort with wagon pulling by the fortress-like adobe walls and pioneer-style folks in view--and you know for a moment what life on the Santa Fe Trail looked like

Photo: Color lines mark modern highways that closely parallel the old trail. Text takes you to three trail towns, two forts

Photo: During August rendezvous, Civil War soldier poses with end-of-trail marker in Santa Fe's Plaza

Photo: Hotel's name stands boldly above brick facade of one of many handsome Victorians built in Las Vegas during 1880s railroad boom

Photo: "Buffalo Bill" Cody and Wyatt Earp may have napped in the furnishings that await today's visitors in the lobby of Cimarron's St. James Hotel

Photo: Rounded towers gave Las Vegas's century-old Montezuma Hotel its nickname "The Castle." Now it's part of the Armand Hammer United World College campus

Photo: Visitors in costume and modern traveling garb circle a trader telling how it was in the old days at Bent's Old Fort
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Title Annotation:includes related article on guided tour of the Santa Fe Trail
Date:May 1, 1988
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