Stretching as it does from the crest of the Rocky Mountains into the Great Plains, I envisioned Colfax to be one of the largest counties in New Mexico. But in checking the statistics I learned that at 3,771 square miles (that’s bigger than Delaware but smaller than Connecticut) Colfax ranks 17th, or dead in the middle, of New Mexico’s 33 counties.
Colfax County, named for Schuyler Colfax, the 17th vice president of the United States (no one seems to know exactly why), is bordered on the west by Taos County, on the east by Union, on the south by Mora and Harding and on the north by the state of Colorado. Its 2010 population was 13,750 with almost exactly half living in Raton, the county seat.
Despite its middling size, the three days I scheduled for Colfax County were not nearly enough. I drove a lot of miles but did not hit every road in the county or even every paved road. It has been a fairly decent monsoon season in Northern New Mexico and sunflowers have painted much of the landscape of Colfax County yellow. Driving the back roads of the plains you never know what you might encounter. It might be an old boxcar or an old farm truck. I also saw a whole flock of wild turkeys but they were too fast for me.
My first stop was the history museum in Springer located in what was once the county courthouse. Springer was the third in a series of four county seats. The history of this area is colorful to say the least and is well documented at the museum. If you are looking for a microcosm of the old Wild West you need look no further than Colfax County. The Santa Fe Trail, Indian raids, cowboys and land barons, shootouts and lynchings, it all played out it Colfax County. As a photographer though, it’s often the little things that trip my trigger. This old school globe and Coca-Cola cooler were both found at the museum.
In order to understand present day Colfax County you need to understand something of its past. I’ll try to be brief but it is not easy. In 1841 a French Canadian trapper named Charles Beaubien and his partner Guadalupe Miranda petitioned the Mexican government for a land grant which they received on condition that they encourage the land to be settled. When Beaubien’s son was killed in the Taos Revolt of 1847, protesting the ascension of the United States Government after the Mexican-American War, Beaubien hired his son-in-law Lucian Maxwell to manage the grant lands. Maxwell, who came to New Mexico as a fur trader and was a close friend of Kit Carson, established his headquarters at Rayado and later moved north to Cimarron (Spanish for wild or unruly, I suspect the appellation was first applied to the river that runs through it but history tells us it was a fitting name for the town as well). When Beaubien died in 1864 Maxwell reportedly bought out the remaining land grant heirs amassing a total of 1, 714,765 acres or about 2214 square miles (slightly smaller than the state of Delaware) which represented most of what would become western Colfax County. (At the time of the issuance of the Land Grant the area was included in Taos County which in 1859 was split apart to form Mora County. Colfax County was created in 1869 and later lost some of its territory to form Union County). This was at the time the largest private land holding in the Western Hemisphere and became known as the Maxwell Land Grant.
When gold was discovered in 1866 on Maxwell Land, Lucien became extremely wealthy in dollars as well as land, mainly from leasing his land to the miners. When Colfax County was formed in 1869, Elizabethtown, the center of the gold rush, became the county seat. (Some 25 or so years ago a friend and I stumbled onto the ruins of Elizabethtown while driving the Enchanted Circle…I searched for them again this trip but they appear to have faded into the landscape or been removed by owners of one of the many ranchettes that have sprung up in this area just north of Eagle Nest…either that or I blinked at the wrong time). In 1872 Maxwell sold the Land Grant to a syndicate of English investors. Thus began the Colfax County war when the Company insisted that settlers on grant lands…some of whom had been there for 30 years…either buy their land or clear out. Conflict between the settlers (called squatters by the company) and their supporters and the Company led to numerous deaths and shootouts and did not end until an 1887 decision by the Supreme Court affirmed the rights of the Maxwell Land Grant Company in ownership of the land.
The Land Grant headquarters remained in Cimarron for a time and gold played out in E-town so Cimarron became the county seat from 1872 to 1882. When the railroad came in, bypassing Cimarron some ways to the east, the county seat, along with the headquarters of the Maxwell Land Grant Company, were moved to Springer a town carved out of the land grant by brothers Charles and Frank Springer, a rancher near Cimarron and a lawyer for the Maxwell Land Grant Company, respectively. By the 1880s ownership had transferred to a Dutch Company which eventually sold off large chunks of land that would allow such entities as Vermejo Park Ranch (590, 823 acres) now owned by Ted Turner and the Philmont Scout Ranch (137,000 acres) donated to the Boy Scouts by Okla-homa oilman Waite Phillips, to exist. Not to mention the 100,000 acre Valle Vidal (right), now part of the Carson National Forest which was donated to the American People by Pennzoil in 1982.
On the left is a picture of the camping center at the Philmont Scout Ranch. Who wouldn’t want to go to camp there? I did not have time to explore the road to Vermejo Park Ranch but you must have reservations to visit the ranch itself. A room at the main lodge will set you back only $550 a night, guides and four wheel drive transportation are extra. Bucket list or not in this lifetime? I’m still on the fence on this one. It does appear that Ted and his crew are taking good care of the land so more power to them.
The current county seat of Raton, Spanish for mouse or small rat, takes its name from the nearby Raton Range which was known for the abundance of small rodents feasting on pine nuts. Raton has the dubious distinction of being located about equally distant from Denver, Albuquerque and Amarillo. Not in the middle of nowhere but you can see it from there, as they say. Raton became the county seat in 1897 having outstripped Springer as a railroad, coal mining and ranching center.
On the left is a picture of the downtown historic district which has a great selection of early 20th century architecture including the 1903 railroad depot. I do think the city fathers, Amtrack or whoever manages the depot need to give some thought to the negative aesthetics of cell phone towers, satellite dishes and power lines which really detract from the beauty of this structure (and make it darned hard to photograph). The alarm clock I found in a jewelry store window display on Second Street. The downtown area appears fairly healthy but there may yet be opportunity for a girl to open a photo gallery there if returning to Oregon doesn’t work out.