I often wondered how a landlocked state like New Mexico came up with a county named Quay, which is equivalent in meaning to dock or pier. It turns out the county was named for a Pennsylvania senator named Matthew Quay who was a strong supporter of New Mexico statehood.
Sharing much of its eastern border with Texas, Quay County sits at the western edge of the Llano Estacado or Staked Plains. The Llano transitions into Mesa formations to the west of Tucumcari, the county seat. The desert pictured here is not technically part of the Llano as it is located north of the Caprock and the Canadian River which form the northern boundary of the Llano Estacado. The Llano itself is characterized by extensive expanses of farm and ranch land. The Caprock is exposed to free flowing winds which are now being captured by the Caprock Wind Ranch built in 2005 and generating 80MW of electricity. The largest wind generating facility in New Mexico is located near House in southern Quay County and extends into De Baca County. It can produce up to 200 MW of energy. This compares with 1800 and 2000 MW respectively from the San Juan Generating Station and Four Corners Power Plant. Clearly wind energy development has a way to go before it can replace these coal burning power plants.
Quay County is in the bottom third among New Mexico Counties in terms of land area. At 2882 square miles it is larger than Delaware but smaller than Connecticut. Its 2010 population stood at 9,041 with well over half of those living in Tucumcari. Population has been on the decline since the 1950s.
I wondered why the largest city in the county was not located near the Canadian River but about 10 miles to the south. It seems that at one time there was a ranching community named Liberty near the River but when the railroad came in and bypassed the town everyone relocated to the railroad camp then known as Six Shooter Siding. The camp was renamed Douglas but ultimately settled on Tucumcari for the “mountain” (I’d call it a butte) to its south. While the roots of the name Tucumcari are uncertain it is thought to be a corruption of the Comanche word for lookout, a purpose for which the butte was ideally suited and frequently used.
I tried to photograph Ute Lake which was formed when the Canadian River was dammed in 1963. Perhaps it is my Oregonian roots but lakes without trees just do not seem scenic to me. Obviously a popular recreation spot, there is plenty of opportunity to rent a storage space for your speed boat or jet ski if you are coming from Texas or Albuquerque. The small community of Logan caters to the needs of Ute Lake recreationists.
Back in Tucumcari it is all about history. Going way back, Quay County celebrates its geologic history at the Mesalands Community College Dinosaur museum. If you have even the slightest interest in fossils or paleontology this is the place for you. Just around the corner is the Tucumcari Historical Museum. This old school house has been converted into a place to store all the things from Tucumcari attics that were too good to throw away. These old bottles show just one of several shelves full. There is still plenty of room for interpretive exhibits to be developed but for now, if you like old stuff as much as I do, you will enjoy wandering through rooms crammed full of antiques of every description.
Rumor has it that there are more museums in Tucumcari’s future. The old Railroad Depot has seen some recent love and the intended outcome appears to be a railroad museum to help bring new life to the old downtown area. Murals like this one of Railroad logos can be found all over town and help celebrate Tucumcari’s rich history.
Although the town was born when the railroad come through in 1901, it was the creation of Route 66 in 1926 that literally put Tucumcari on the map. A Route 66 museum is being put together at the convention center but in the meantime there is plenty of Mother Road memorabilia to see and experience. The iconic Blue Swallow Motel which has been restored perhaps beyond its heyday glory is a favorite with Route 66 travelers. Its neon sign is one of the best anywhere and the vintage 1950s cars in the parking lot only add to the ambiance.