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Modern City, Ancient Roots

Albuquerque has been a destination for centuries. The first inhabitants were big game hunters who melted into the sunset along with the Ice Age. Others followed—but that’s another story. In the 1300s, something happened to the sophisticated cultures we call Ancestral Pueblo. People abandoned the incredible structures of Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde to settle along the Rio Grande, which carried precious water and nourished vegetation. These ancestors of today’s Pueblo Indians settled up and down the river in what the Spanish named Tiguex Province.

Conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado’s expedition reached the Pueblo of Zuni in 1540. The expedition party camped there, attracting the curiosity of a leader from the nearby village of Pecos, Bigotés (Whiskers). He visited Coronado’s camp, bringing tales of gold just down the road. The Spanish, disappointed by villages of mud, believed Bigotés’ stories. Coronado sent his captain, Alvarado, to investigate, making him the first white man to see the Pueblo of Acoma shining on its mountain in the sun. He was also the first to see the area that would one day be Albuquerque. The Rio Grande Valley, with its water, trees and surrounding mountains made a fabulous impression—as did winter-stocked pueblos. Alvarado sent for Coronado to wait for spring in Tiguex, making them Albuquerque’s first tourists.

In the 1600s, Albuquerque wasn't a formal community, just folks living along the river. Farmers eked enough out of the land to sustain families. Some had estancias (estates), replete with patios and chapels. It’s doubtful anyone lived a life of leisure, considering the floods, droughts, epidemics and raids by hostile tribes. In the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, following a century of often violent clashes, the Native Americans drove the colonists out of New Mexico.  

In 1693, Diego de Vargas led the Spanish back to Santa Fe and successfully brokered a peace deal. In 1706, interim Governor Cuervo y Valdez wrote the Viceroy in Mexico City that he had founded the Villa de Alburquerque, named after the Viceroy of New Spain, the Duke of Alburquerque (the extra “r” in Alburqueruque was dropped along the way). “I founded a villa on the banks and in the valley of the Rio del Norte...,” he wrote, “in a good place as regards land, water, pasture and firewood.” A supply wagon train from Mexico City arrived every three years, after a six-month journey along El Camino Real (the Royal Road) to Albuquerque, Santa Fe and the missions. Because this was the only trade Spain permitted, the arrival of the supply wagons was eagerly anticipated by the colonists. What would the wagons bring? Satin slippers, sugar, tobacco, chocolate, or maybe a sweetheart? To greet the wagons there might be a great baile or a fandango (dance party). The demand for goods became so great, the wagons started coming every year.

Once Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, it encouraged more trade with the United States. The famous Santa Fe Trail, which led from Missouri to Santa Fe, connected with the Camino Real into Albuquerque. All kinds of characters started coming to town: homesteaders, merchants, lawyers, cowboys, the usual shady suspects and the soiled doves. Franz Huning, a German immigrant and trader, settled in Albuquerque and opened a store on the plaza. His family went on to become very prominent and instrumental in establishing Albuquerque’s railroad terminal in 1880, making the city a premier stop on its line.

The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway was determined to make the Southwest the new Orient and to replace overseas travel with internal tourism. Artists were commissioned to portray the Southwest as exotic and different. They soon made it a “must see.” To upgrade available accommodations and services in the area, a partnership was forged between the Santa Fe Railway and the Fred Harvey Company, which provided sojourners with the grandest hotels and most elegant dining rooms in the country.

The Alvarado Hotel opened in Albuquerque in 1902. Its shaded portals, bell towers, fountains, immaculate rooms, employees in starched black and white, coffee shop, newsstand, barber shop and many other amenities made it a fairytale place. The Indian and Mexican Rooms were filled with museum-quality Native arts and crafts, opening a previously untapped market for the public and for the craftspeople. Native Americans created jewelry and blankets on-site, and visitors could watch them weave their magic.

The Alvarado began hosting the annual Montezuma Ball, part of the Territorial Fair, which had been going strong since 1881 (when it rained the entire time and the exhibits, as well as the viewers, practically drowned). Fairgoers came to the Fair from all over New Mexico and other states. A permanent park was built at the corner of Rio Grande (then called Main) and Central (then called Railroad). For several days, everyone turned out to watch races, baseball games, car parades and exhibits (both agricultural and artistic), and to gamble in the casino or drink at one of the longest bars in the West. The fair lasted until 1917, when it succumbed to World War I, and was not resurrected until 1938 when it opened at its present location at EXPO New Mexico, current home of the State Fair at Central Avenue between San Pedro and Louisiana.

Although World War I ended the Territorial Fair, it opened the skies to another popular activity: aviation. By 1928 there was an airport on south Wyoming Boulevard, now part of Kirtland Air Force Base. Some of the original buildings still stand. Because we have perfect flying weather most of the time, aviators such as Charles Lindbergh, Laura Ingalls, Amelia Earhart, Roscoe Turner and others made the Albuquerque airport a destination and regular stopover. City folks flocked to see these celebrity fliers and the huge commercial aircraft that passed through. The airport had a nightclub but if you phoned for a reservation, you paid a long distance charge. Air traffic soon outgrew the original adobe hangar, and in 1939, a new municipal airport opened, west of today’s Albuquerque International Sunport.

Despite predictions that airplanes and cars were nothing more than fads, both were here to stay, and soon eclipsed the iron horse. America’s lousy roads and patchy pavement didn't stop car enthusiasts who took to the wagon ruts, farm-to-market roads, and old trails with a vengeance—and with vociferous lobbying for better highways. In 1926 the government yielded and, at least on maps, strung these paths together and gave them numbers. Who knew that one, Number 66, would pass through Albuquerque twice and double its popularity as a destination? “Tin Can Tourists,” so called because they carried sleeping cots on their cars’ running boards and ate canned cuisine, dotted the landscape like mushrooms after a summer rain.

Political machinations, chicanery, plots, schemes and a bridge over the Rio Puerco west of Albuquerque rerouted Route 66 in 1937, lopping off the Santa Fe loop and running the Mother Road straight down Central Avenue, east to west. Thus began Albuquerque’s second heyday as a destination, reviving the excitement once generated by passenger trains and the Alvarado. Called the “City of Neon,” Central Avenue looked like a carnival midway as nearly every motel, store, beanery and bar proudly showed its colors. “Duck” architecture—buildings whose exteriors reflected the function of their interiors—bloomed in the high desert night. The Iceburg Café, which looked like something encountered by the Titanic, sold cold drinks and ice cream; El Sombrero, round and wearing a big hat, offered Mexican food. A huge barrel at Seventh and Central Avenue peddled root beer. Each room facade at the Wigwam Court on West Central Avenue was a teepee. Route 66, decommissioned in 1985, continues to attract visitors as people come to celebrate Route 66 events and to look for ghosts of the old road.

The little villa by the Rio Grande, now New Mexico’s largest city, continues to be a destination for special events and adventures such as the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta®, the New Mexico State Fair, and the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway, as well as a mecca for things that endure such as Albuquerque’s crisp, clean air under a sapphire sky.

Mo Palmer is a freelance writer and speaker who teaches New Mexico history at Sandia Preparatory School. She holds a Masters of American Studies with a concentration in local and regional history. She was the archivist and oral historian at The Albuquerque Museum for 10 years.