Sunday, March 29, 2015

A visit to historic Mesilla, New Mexico

Basilica of San Albino
Mesilla, New Mexico, is a small town, seemingly quiet today, quite unlike how it was a century or so ago when it played an important part in the history of the West.
Located just a few miles from Las Cruces, Mesilla had an important part in the Civil War, serving as capital of the capital of the Confederate Territory of Arizona.
A block or so off the main drag is the plaza, which is a National Historic Landmark. Signs on some of the buildings gave their history. Anchoring one end of the plaza is the Basilica of San Albino that was originally built in 1852 when Mesilla was part of Mexico. Mesilla became part of the United States as a result of the 1854 Gadsden Purchase. The current church was built in 1906.
Mesilla was the most important city in the region for nearly 30 years, especially since two stage lines crossed through here, Butterfield Stage and Santa Fe Trail. It would have retained its importance as a transportation hub had the residents not demanded so much money for the Santa Fe Railway to pass through; the railway instead routed its rails through Las Cruces.
.Billy the Kid was convicted of
murder in this building in Mesilla
Today, Mesilla is probably better known as the place where the gunslinger William H. Bonney, better known as Billy the Kid, The gunman, captured by Pat Garrett in December 1880, went on trial in Mesilla for the murder of another sheriff. He was convicted and sentenced to hang. Before the hanging, he was transferred to Lincoln, but shot his two guards and escaped. He was killed a few months later, while still on the loose, by Garrett at Fort Sumner where he was buried.
Another legendary gunman to pass through Mesilla was PanchoVilla, a man famous for being the Robin Hood of Mexico. In 1916, he invaded New Mexico at Columbus to get more military equipment and supplies to continue a fight back in Mexico. Eighteen Americans were killed, turning him into a villain in the southwestern United States.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Fort Bowie, Arizona: defending the West

Remains of Fort Bowie
Fort Bowie may be a little bit out of the way for some tourists, but for travelers interested in learning more about the Frontier West it is well worth the effort to get there.

Located in southeast Arizona, Fort Bowie is the first tourist attraction visitors driving Interstate 10 from New Mexico will come to. Conversely, it is the last attraction motorists headed from Tucson to Las Cruces, New Mexico, will find.

Getting to the fort
The remains of the first and second Fort Bowie are located about 14 miles from Bowie, a small community that appears to be turning into a ghost town, with many main street buildings boarded up. After exiting the freeway, follow the signs, turning on Apache Pass Road.
A few miles down this paved road, the road to the Fort Bowie National Historic Site spikes to the left, while Apache Pass Road leads to the trailhead. There visitors can walk 1.5 miles through the hills to the fort’s remains. The trailhead has ample parking and clean restrooms, but no potable water, so be sure to bring plenty, especially on hot days.
Remains of Fort Bowie
Where the road spikes, the sign to the visitor center specifies this entrance is for handicapped visitors only. There are only two disabled parking spaces at the small visitor center, and motorists need to call ahead for the gate to be opened. There is parking for a few more cars below the visitor center, but this involves walking up an uneven stone and dirt path. Since the site only gets about 8,000 visitors a year, chances are good, parking will be available.  

Before taking this route, however, motorists need to decide how comfortable they feel driving on a narrow, one-lane gravel road with no shoulders or pull-offs. If you meet a car coming the other way, one of you is going to have to do a lot of backing up. If we had left the visitor center a few minutes later, that’s what would have happened to us since we encountered a delivery truck coming up the hill just past where the road widened.

A remote hillside fort

Plaque of Fort Bowie in 1894

Fort Bowie has a nice informational visitor center that is operated by the National Park Service, which administers the site. There are photographs of what the fort looked like in its heyday. The Army abandoned the fort in 1894; local farmers tore down buildings and fences for wood to build at their sites. What remains are fragments of adobe buildings that have survived the elements since that time. Troops also defended the area when Confederate soldiers invaded during the Civil War, hoping to secure the Southwest for the Confederacy.

The fort is named from Col. George Washington Bowie, leader of the California Volunteers who staffed the fort. It’s probable that he shared common ancestors with Jim Bowie of the Bowie knife and Alamo fame. The fort later became a stop for the Butterfield Overland Mail route.
Apache wars

Fort Bowie was an important fort during the  years of war with the Chiricahua Apaches. These wars started in approximately 1861, with the first Fort Bowie being established the following year. The war started when Cochise and  Lt. George Bascom failed to agree on how to rescue the stepson of a local farmer who claimed Apaches had kidnapped him and killed 20 cattle. During the coming days, each side would execute hostages, with a full-fledged battle ensuing. Cochise would visit the fort three times after he signed  a peace treaty ending the wars in 1872.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Visiting Tucson's frontier Army post, Fort Lowell

Remains of Fort Lowell hospital
The adobe remnants of an old 19th century Army post can still be seen today in Tucson.

The adobe has deteriorated since Fort Lowell was abandoned by the Army in 1891. Remains are covered by open sheds to protect them from the elements.

The fort is located where Tanque Verde and Pantano creeks join to form the Rillito River. The Hohokam tribe had lived there centuries earlier. Fort Lowell replaces an earlier Army installation, Camp Lowell that was located elsewhere in Tucson. The post is named after General Charles R. Lowell who died from wounds suffered at the Battle of Cedar Creek.

Fort Lowell was in active use between 1873 and 1891, and was key in protecting the Tucson area from Apache attacks. The post was a large complex, serving approximately 250 soldiers and officers. It had an extensive hospital, parts of which are standing today.

The Army decommissioned the post in 1891, with Mexican families moving in after that.

The remains today can be seen from behind chain link fences. It’s free to view them, but a museum nearby charges admission. The museum is administered by the Arizona Historical Society. The museum is open only on Fridays and Saturdays, though the grounds are open during the week.

The museum is located at 2900 N. Craycroft Road.



Thursday, March 5, 2015

Tucson toy train museum delights kids of all ages

Gadsden-Pacific Toy Train Museum
Kids of all ages will enjoy a visit to Tucson’s Gadsden-Pacific Division Toy Train Operating Museum. The best way to describe it is “cool.”
Seven huge tables are full of miniature towns, factories, oil refineries and mountains, with various types of trains running through them. Each table is devoted to a specific type of miniature train, ranging from N scale (the smallest) to large scale. Outside, there’s a real caboose to see and board.
The detail in each table’s contents is incredible. There are tiny people and cars, in period settings designed to complement the era of the train running down the tracks.  Each table has two or more trains running on their own tracks. Overhead, a larger train runs on tracks suspended from the ceiling.
Gadsden-Pacific Toy Train Museum
This model railroad museum is very kid-friendly. Plastic stepstools are provided so children can see the displays. Some displays are interactive. Push a red button, and a trolley comes out of a tunnel and moves around the track. Push another button and a dump truck operates in a rock quarry. Outside, a small train carries kids and adults on a ride around the property.
The museum is usually open the second and fourth Sundays of the month, but does close during June, July and August. You can call (520) 888-2222 to get their schedule. Admission is free, but donations are accepted, as this is a non-profit museum operated by volunteers.
No pun intended, but this fascinating little museum is located off the beaten track in Tucson.  It can be found at 3975 N, Miller Avenue. Take the Prince Road exit off Interstate 10, and then go left on Romero Street. Immediately past the stoplight at Roger Street, make a left turn onto Price Street, which dead ends at Miller. Turn left onto Miller.