Whtie Sands
Administrative History
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WHITE SANDS, 1898-1933

The ecological complexity of the White Sands region had its human counterpart in the protracted efforts of southern New Mexicans to create a unit of the National Park Service at the dunes. Analysis of the political economy of Otero County in the early twentieth century reveals patterns of ambition and conflict that blessed and cursed the national monument campaign for over three decades. These conditions also revealed the challenges awaiting future generations interested in the management of the vast gypsum fields of the Tularosa basin.

Promoters of the "Land of Enchantment" (including park service officials) have been less enthused about the stories of southern New Mexico than they have the more renowned Rio Grande valley and the mountainous north. Yet the historical variables that affected these more populous, and perhaps more romanticized sectors of New Mexico also shaped the development of counties such as Otero. Then, too, the distinctive environmental circumstances of distance, aridity, and isolation gave rise to economic strategies rarely seen elsewhere in New Mexico. The natural forces that crafted the White Sands thus washed over the human landscape to the extent that the western writer Emerson Hough called the basin "as dangerous a country as ever lay out of doors." [1]

Much has been made in popular literature of the area's range wars (especially the Lincoln County Wars of 1878-1881), and of their most glamorous villain, William H. Antrim, or William Bonney, or Billy the Kid. This emphasis obscured the linkage between a harsh environment and extensive efforts to develop southeastern New Mexico's resources. The players in this drama exhibited the qualities of entrepreneurialism and risk-taking that scholars have either described as virtuous or destructive. The post-Civil War era nationwide (1865-1900) has been characterized as the "Gilded Age;" a term first employed by the author Mark Twain to explain the dichotomy between America's rising standard of living, and the manipulation of power and money by industrialists and financiers. The burgeoning cities of the eastern United States required vast amounts of raw materials for industrial production, and the most likely sector for exploitation was the interior West.

Out of this period of rapid economic growth came the "Santa Fe Ring," a small group of investors, politicians, and publicists that took advantage of the dependent status, modest income levels, and lack of access to the outside world that burdened much of territorial New Mexico. Because Congress refused to grant statehood to New Mexico until 1912, the political and economic power of the territory rested in Washington, DC, and in the hands of federal appointees in Santa Fe. In his book, The Far Southwest, 1846-1912: A Territorial History (1966), Howard R. Lamar wrote of this process of isolation and dependency: "The ring reflected the corporative, monopolistic, and multiple enterprise tendencies of all American business after the Civil War." First with land, then with its bounty (timber, stock raising, agriculture, and mining), individuals like Thomas B. Catron, Stephen B. Elkins, and others created an economic pattern of resource use that would reach into the Tularosa basin and surround White Sands. [2]

The proximity of northern New Mexico to the railroad lines building southwestward to California drew the early attention of Anglo ranchers, miners, merchants, and political appointees. Very little energy was expended by outside interests in southeastern New Mexico, except for the large cattle ranches owned by Texans migrating westward. Drawn by federal contracts to supply beef to soldiers at the various military posts along the Pecos and Tularosa rivers, and to Indians on the Mescalero Apache reservation, the ranchers had little time or money to invest in larger development schemes. This would change in the 1880s, when two New York brothers, Charles and John Eddy, came by stagecoach to the Pecos River valley to operate a cattle ranch. Charles Eddy saw the potential for railroad transportation throughout the region, and promoted community building in Carlsbad (which he first named for himself) and in Roswell. Among Eddy's signal contributions was establishment of a large irrigation district near Carlsbad, which by the early twentieth century provided economic stability throughout the area and a model for future water projects. [3]

While agriculture prospered in the Pecos valley, the Eddy brothers wondered if similar applications of technology, capital, and expertise could generate prosperity to the west in the Tularosa basin. Gold strikes in the Sierra Blanca had created the boomtown of White Oaks, while timber harvests had begun in the Sacramento mountains. Charles Eddy approached a group of investors in El Paso, Texas, suggesting the merits of a rail line between that border town and the mines. By 1897 he had garnered enough support for construction of the El Paso and Northeastern Railroad (EPNE), which by 1901 had established its terminus with the Rock Island and Pacific Railroad line at Santa Rosa, New Mexico. [4]

The arrival of the EPNE into the Tularosa basin had the same effect as did all railroad intrusions into the isolated interior West. Natural obstacles to transportation evaporated, and eager promoters provided handsome investments in search of quick returns. Yet the variables of aridity, heat, and distance kept the miracle of Carlsbad from spreading throughout Charles Eddy's new domain. The railroad created a new townsite some fifteen miles east of the dunes, named Alamogordo ("fat cottonwood" in Spanish), where for $5,000 the EPNE had purchased Oliver Lee's Alamo ranch and its precious water rights. The Alamogordo Improvement Company, a subsidiary of the rail line, then platted a village that grew within twelve months to one thousand inhabitants.

Desert Lizard
Figure 5. Desert lizard.
(Courtesy White Sands National Monument)

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2001