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Traveling The Cimarron Circle

by Sharon Niederman

COLFAX — If you’re looking for a weekend road trip, how about the 127 mile “Cimarron Circle?” This tour combines Wild West history with Santa Fe Trail history, with peace and quiet of slow roads and the potential for discovery right here in Colfax County. Cowboy culture flourishes here, and the road can seem like taking a trip back in time.

 

No Hell on an Empty Stomach

Depart Raton on I-25 south. At 3 miles, go right (west) on US 64. On the right is historic marker for the Clifton House, a significant resting spot on the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail and a stop for the Barlow and Sanderson stagecoach line. Built by rancher Tom Stockton, hailing from Tennessee, one of the southerners who came to these parts following the Civil War, it was quite grand in its day, originally stood two stories high and was made mostly of adobe. Here outlaw Clay Allison shot another notorious outlaw, Chunk Colbert, but only after he had finished dinner, because, as Allison said, “I didn’t want to send him to Hell on an empty stomach.”

 

Saving the Best for Last

In 14 miles, see the NRA Whittington Center, which is open to the public. Here are top shooting ranges plus the Frank Brownell Museum of the Southwest. On this facility is the Van Houten coal mine, and it is possible to tour the coal camp there. See the Raton Airport on the left. The ride to Cimarron is straight ahead flat through rangeland where it is possible to see both elk and pronghorn. Cholla cactus sprout spiky branches in the dry grass. Hills hover at the horizon, and arroyos carve the landscape and vintage windmills and weathered corrals testify to the long history of ranching in this area. See junction of US 64 with NM 445 to the left (south). Go through it, remaining on NM 64 west. It is possible to see buffalo from Ted Turner’s Vermejo Ranch on US 64. Ahead rise the Sangre de Cristos. As you motor on, you will come to Cold Beer in 24 miles on US 64, usually with Dodge and Ford pickups and Harleys parked out front. We’re saving this fine cowboy-biker bar for the last stop on the tour. It is located in what was the town of Colfax, now a ghost town, just west of the Vermejo River. Near two railroads, Colfax City was promoted by developers in 1908, but after a 24 year struggle, it faded. The ruins of a hotel still stand. The name “Colfax” is for Schuyler Colfax, vice president under President Ulysses S. Grant. He was implicated in the Credit Mobilier of America scandal in 1873. Colfax County was created in 1869.

 

Mining Disasters

Immediately after Cold Beer, see a small sign for Dawson Cemetery on the right, as well as an historic marker. A visit to this cemetery, only a mile or so off the main road, is one of the most haunting you are likely to experience in all New Mexico, and it will stay with you the rest of your life. Rows and rows of identical iron crosses mark two of the most horrific coal mining accidents in the west: 263 died in 1913 and 124 lost their lives almost a decade later in 1923 The names reflect the many nationalities of miners who came from Mexico, Greece, Italy, and Eastern Europe to work in this bustling coal camp of 9,000 that had schools, hospital golf course, baseball team and more. Phelps-Dodge created an idyllic mining town named for the settler of the area, John Dawson, who ranched on the Vermejo River. In 1950, when the demand for coal was gone, Phelps-Dodge shut down the mine, residents were given 30 days to leave, and the entire town was dismantled and razed.

 

Just My Luck

Returning to NM 64, at seven miles further west, see a sign for the turnoff to the Valle Vidal, valley of life, on the right. While this is an incomparable drive of 46 miles through forests and high mountain meadows, of the Carson National Forest to Costilla, that is true to its name and known for its high mountain fishing of native Rio Grande cutthroat trout, elk herd of 2,000, the largest in the state, , mule deer, mountain lion, black bear, bird and wildlife, if you choose to take this predominantly dirt 2WD road be sure you have some spare time and be prepared to use it. The road is rough, contains jagged rocks and other sharp materials perilous to tires. I speak from personal experience, as I have had a flat tire every tine I have traveled here. Perhaps I am jinxed. The first 17 miles are public access through the Vermejo Ranch. Please be prepared with food and water if you head this way, as there are no facilities of any kind. With the exception of the Shuree Ponds, with its two trout limit, all fishing here is catch and release. To plan your trip, please go to US Forest Service website.

 

Tooth of Time

Three miles beyond the Valle Vidal exit, on right, see a sign for a Santa Fe Trail crossing. This area is rich with Santa Fe Trail markings, including ruts and swales. Although the life of the trail, primarily a military and mercantile trail, lasted from 1821, with the victory of Mexico over Spain that opened the territory up to trade, to 1879, with the coming of the railroad, that brought a more efficient form of transportation of goods, the land is stenciled by the hundreds of wagons that traveled over it. Ruts are the wheel marks left by individual wagons traveling in a line; swales are the markings made by several wagons traveling abreast. A guide to ruts and swales visible in this area is available from the Visitors Center in Cimarron. To the left, five miles southwest from Cimarron, is a distinctive thumb shaped 22-40 million year-old igneous formation in the mountains above Cimarron known as the Tooth of Time. This landmark indicated that from here it was only seven days to Santa Fe.

Find junction 204, at 36 miles, indicating the Elliot Barker State Wildlife area, 14 miles to the right on NM 204. Restricted visiting days and hours are indicated on the sign. Remote and lovely, this is a special place where wildness still abounds. I was greeted by a huge black bear on my first visit. Named for a former director of NM Department of Game and Fish, Barker was also a poet and author. he Elliott Barker Wildlife Area was purchased in 1966 to protect prime habitat for deer and elk. It is A long high mesa with canyon slopes, rocky outcrops, and side canyons with Ponil Creek flowing through the middle, making it perfect habitat for deer, elk, bear, and turkey. Motorized vehicles are not allowed beyond the parking lot, and there is bicycling on designated trails.

Immediately on the right is shady Ponil Campground & RV Park located on Ponil Creek, a quiet campground open year-round for RV’s and from May-Sept. for tent campers.

 

Buckets of Blood

Enter the village of Cimarron, which means wild. Back in the day, this place was one of the wildest, most lawless spots on the map. To paraphrase the Las Vegas Optic: “It was a quiet week in Cimarron. Only three men died.” It was, in the words of one old-timer, a place where “it was real easy to get killed. Buckets of blood flowed in the streets.” The Cimarron River, which gave the town its name, flows west to east through the town on its way to join the Canadian River. Cimarron has a reputation as one of the most authentic Old West towns still existing, and the past does come alive in the architecture, the natural setting, the ranching way of life, and the memories of the inhabitants. Two pertinent items: speed limits are strictly enforced here; and, as you enter town, if it is the right time of day, you may have to wait for the resident deer or elk herd to cross main street. In recent years, the town has been hit hard by fire, causing already-struggling businesses to close up shop. However, it is always possible to find a burger, a brew, and plenty of interesting Old West exploration. It comes to life in summer when up to 23,000 boy scouts and leaders from all over the country arrive at Philmont Scout Ranch to experience back country adventure and practice outdoor skills. Along the main street is a display of portraits of the historic figures who lived in the area. A walk through this display provides a capsule history of the place.

Founded in 1841, with the filing of the Beaubien-Miranda Land Grant, later known as the Maxwell grant, it was, between 1862 and 1876, the base of the agency of Utes and Apaches, who were furnished supplies weekly from Lucien Maxwell’s Aztec Mill, find by going just past the St. James Hotel and turning right on 17th St. Now a museum run by the CS Ranch, it is well worth touring, offering three floors of area history on the Maxwell Grant, Native Americans of the area, ranchers, and scouting. Built by Maxwell in 1864 to grind wheat and corn for nearby Indians as well as Fort Union, to fulfill his government contracts. Maxwell’s government contract to provide for the local Indians was but one of his many wealth streams. Cimarron was a significant stop on the Taos branch of the Santa Fe Trail, and Maxwell’s house, which burned long ago, was a main stop for gamblers and travelers of all stripes.

Go east on NM 21, then cross the Cimarron River to find one of the interesting sights of Cimarron is the landmark St. James Hotel, featured on “Unsolved Mysteries,” The scent of roses, the bottle of whisky consumed at night left behind in an empty room with a locked door, and the unexplained flickering of candles in the window all point to the highly haunted nature of this 1872 building. Founded by Henri Lambert, the French-trained some say was chef to Abraham Lincoln, and who was enticed to Cimarron by Lucien Maxwell to open Lambert’s Inn, the hybrid Victorian Western lobby décor contributes to the romantic ambience. The hotel has been the scene of wild gunfights, as the 27 bullet holes in the bar ceiling give testimony to, and every single wild west personality stayed here, from Annie Oakley to Butch Cassidy. Today, Lambert’s restaurant is the most elegant in the area, but the menu offers casual dining as well. The hotel was given a serious update when it was purchased a dozen years ago by Express Ranches.

 

Jesse James Slept Here

Behind the St. James Hotel is the Old Town Walking Tour, which takes you through the Cimarron of the 1880s, to the old Colfax County jail, where Jesse James once stayed, the well, the campground of the Santa Fe Trail travelers, and several other well-marked stops on an easy self-guided tour.

Before you leave Cimarron, you may want to re-trace your path across US 64 to the Visitor Center located in the park, and the street of shops bordering it. There’s an original old soda fountain, and galleries sell work by local artists.

From the St. James, continue east on NM 21 5 miles to the Philmont Scout Ranch. On this stretch of NM 21 it is possible to see Santa Fe Trail road markings. This immense tract of land, 140,000 acres, was donated by Oklahoma oil tycoon Waite Phillips to the Boy Scouts of America for their headquarters. His summer residence, Villa Philmonte, ten miles south of Cimarron, an elegant 20,000 square foot Mediterranean summer home built in 1927 with art and furnishings intact. has been preserved, and is open for tours during summer months. The Chase Ranch, one of the area’s oldest ranching operations, has been recently been acquired by the Boy Scouts and the old ranch house is preserved and open for tours during the summer as well. Please call the Philmont for hours and directions.

The National Scouting Museum offers free admission. Here learn the story of Philmont Scout Ranch and of scouting. The Seton Memorial Library houses the library and artwork of Ernest Thompson Seton, founder of the Boy Scouts. A superb collection of southwest jewelry and art as well as an excellent western bookshop.

Tooth of Time Traders offers top quality gear for high country adventure, as well as souvenirs.

 

Beneath the Tooth

Just underneath the Tooth of Time is the splendid Casa del Gavilan, (House of the Hawk), a white adobe structure built in 1911 for Jack and Gertrude Nairn. It is recognized as one of earliest and best examples of Pueblo Revival architectural style, and displays original art by Remington and Russell. The courtyard is a tranquil place, and to stay here is to travel back in time to an era that prized graciousness and good conversation, with good whiskey, of course.

 

Best Pals

Lucien Maxwell and Kit Carson were such good friends they decided to settle down together build houses beside each other on the Rayado, 7 miles south of Philmont; 11 miles south of Cimarron. Here they would raise their children. They also married their respective spouses in a double ceremony. Today Rayado is an historic district administered by the Philmont. During the summer, Kit Carson’s house is open as a museum, with candlelight storytelling on certain evenings. Down to the flour sacks in the storehouse, this museum is historically authentic. It was the original Fort Union, built to protect the frontier from Indian raids. At this interpretive site, Staff dress in period clothing and demonstrate frontier skills such as blacksmithing, and cooking.

NM 21 follows the original Santa Fe Trail 11.4 miles as far as the turn to the left toward Miami.

 

Miami

An early 20th century farming development, founded in 1908, Miami was settled by German Dunkards who cultivated fruit trees and crops on what was an old stage route between Springer and Elizabethtown. The name Miami is named for the town in Ohio, but is originally an Indian name. Today it is a quiet, picturesque ranching and residential community that often struggles with water issues. A private lake on the west edge of town is known for its northern pike. The Dunkards believe in a particular form of Baptism and an ascetic way of life that is related to the Mennonites.

 

Springer

Thirteen miles beyond Miami is Springer, named for the brothers from Iowa, Charles, founder of the vast CS Ranch, and the 13th oldest ranch in the US – it remains in the hands of the founder’s family – and Frank Springer, lawyer for the Maxwell Land Grant Co., two of the most influential people in the development of NE NM, Springer was earlier known as Dorsey, named for Senator Stephen W. Dorsey of Arkansas. A town originated here in 1879 with the coming of the railroad. Springer Lake is 3 miles NW of Springer. Springer is the site of the Colfax County Fair held in early August. The former Colfax County Courthouse in Springer, before the county seat was relocated to Raton in 1897, is now a visitor center and museum, the Santa Fe Trail Interpretive Center. The town is located near the Cimarron Cutoff of the Santa Fe Trail. It is also the home of a detention facility, the town’s major employer.

 

Santa Fe Ring and Colfax County War

One of the most interesting buildings in town is the elaborate Victorian Gothic Springer Mansion, built by attorney Melvin W. Mills, located on the southern end, a three story adobe, thirty-two room structure on the Cimarron River with one side facing the Mountain Branch and one the Cimarron Cutoff of the Santa Fe Trail. He is implicated as a member of the notorious Santa Fe Ring, a secretive group of powerful men, including Territorial governor Axtell, who during the Territorial era, promoted their own political and economic interests and controlled the Maxwell Land Grant. He is said to have played a part in what was known as the Colfax County War, a battle between the Maxwell Land Grant Co. and the homesteaders who laid claim to their holdings on the grant. The war was triggered by the murder of Reverend Thomas Tolby, a Methodist circuit-rider, in 1875, an ally who sided with the homesteaders. He was found shot in the back beside the Cimarron River. Mills, along with the Santa Fe Ring, was said to be behind Tolby’s murder. Mills ultimately lost everything, including his fruit empire in Mills Canyon, and his one-time partner, Thomas B. Catron, another powerful Ring member, foreclosed on his mansion. In the end, he begged to be allowed to return to his great house to die, which he did, on a cot.

At the north end of Springer, exit on to I-25 for thirteen miles north to Maxwell. Take the Maxwell exit left and go to stoplight at the 3rd street. Go right, following the signs to the Maxwell Wildlife Refuge, to junction 505. There go left four miles to Stubblefield Dam, known for good fishing. The road is paved all the way. Cross the dam and continue five miles to arrive at Cold Beer, NM, located in the ghost town of Colfax. It is said there has been a bar at this location since Prohibition. The green chile cheeseburger with fries never disappoints. From here, continue on NM 64 to Taos or back to Raton.

For More Information Santa Fe Trail Association 620-285-2054; 1349K-156 Highway, Larned, Kansas 67550 Cimarron Chamber of Commerce (575-376-2417), 104 N. Lincoln Ave., Cimarron Philmont Scout Ranch 575-376-2281

Clay Allison.

 

Tooth of Time. Photo by Sharon Niederman

 

Old Aztec Mill Museum.
Photo by Sharon Niederman

 

Express St. James Bar Photo by Sharon Niederman

 

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