Grand visions in the New Mexico desert

Thursday, March 23, 2017 5:37 PM
The Elephant Butte Dam project celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. Irrigation water from Elephant Butte irrigates thousands of agricultural acres in southern New Mexico.
Artist Kate Halcey works with the Elephant Butte concessionaire to try to provide historic structures as artist-in-residencies. She is part of a wave of new residents to Truth or Consequences who love the starkness of the desert and the slower pace of life in New Mexico.
A bronze statue representing Civilian Conservation Corps workers stands in a small park above the Elephant Butte Dam. The CCC was one of the most successful of all of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, providing jobs and skill training for unemployed young men during the Great Depression.
Adobe-style tourist cabins above the lake, built by the CCC before World War II, are sought after by vacationing families, but the structures need repairs and maintenance.
A stained-glass representation of Elephant Butte Dam, rescued from an antique shop in El Paso, Texas, is now illuminated behind the bar at the Sierra Grande Hotel. Elephant Butte set the precedent for all subsequent Bureau of Reclamation projects, which provided irrigation and recreation across the American West.
Originally named Hot Springs, New Mexico, Truth or Consequences has numerous soaking pools and private mineral baths in the Hot Springs Historic District near the Rio Grande River.
The Elephant Butte Dam Site Marina has slips for 200 boats. The rock formation to the left of the photograph seems to resemble an elephant, hence the name. Elephant Butte set the precedent for all subsequent Bureau of Reclamation projects, which provided irrigation and recreation across the American West.
Media mogul and ardent conservationist Ted Turner has bought and restored the 1929 Sierra Grande Hotel. Visiting guests can also tour his vast New Mexican ranches, including the Armendaris at 360,000 acres and the Ladder Ranch at 156,000 acres.
A superb stained glass representation of Elephant Butte Dam, rescued from an antique shop in El Paso, Texas, is now illuminated behind the bar at the Sierra Grande Hotel.
In the quiet cove of Hospital Canyon, stone houses, which may once have been residences for nurses, are slowly undergoing stabilization and restoration, but much work needs to be done both inside and outside. Marina employees are dedicated to saving these structures, which represent some of the last of the original buildings at the dam site.
A CCC logo stands out on one of the adobe-style casitas just above the dam site marina. Many historic buildings have been demolished over the years, and others need repairs and renovation.

Historians love birthdays and anniversaries, and southern New Mexico is celebrating a big one.

It’s been a century since the Bureau of Reclamation constructed the Elephant Butte Dam under terms of the Reclamation Act of 1902 signed into law by my hero, President Theodore Roosevelt. One of the first large projects of the Bureau was damming the Rio Abajo, the lower stretch of the Rio Grande below Albuquerque. It was a grand, optimistic gesture 100 years ago, and it epitomized the idea of dreams in dry places and reclaiming the desert.

New Mexican pioneers certainly had imagination. First, they saw a rocky basalt outcrop like a small mesa and they thought it looked like the head and body of an elephant. Then, they wanted to dam the Rio Grande to grow irrigated crops in a low elevation Chihuahuan desert. They thought the dam should be built near the elephant, hence the name Elephant Butte Dam. Of course, there were no elephants in southern New Mexico. There weren’t thousands of acres of irrigated crops, either, but that was about to change. In the early 20th century, American engineering know-how would transform the West with an orgy of dam building on most western rivers. The project that started it all was Elephant Butte.

HHHOut to the dusty village of Hot Springs, New Mexico, came hundreds and then thousands of construction workers. College-trained engineers moved to the Southwest with their pressed khaki pants, slide rules, pith helmets and sharpened pencils. It was the American century. Americans could do anything, and we did.

In 1912, New Mexico had achieved statehood, and legislators clamored for a big irrigation project. They got one. Elephant Butte can store 2 million acre feet of water for the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, and it provides outdoor recreation for water skiing, jet boats and pontoon boats at Rock Canyon Marina; Marina Del Sur, a 150-slip marina in the middle of the lake; and the Dam Site Marina, which is a 200-slip facility.

The small community of Hot Springs bustled with hardworking and hard-drinking construction workers in a desert so dry the Spanish named it Jornada del Muerto, or Journey of the Dead, along the Camino Realle as wagon caravans slowly made their way north from Mexico City to Santa Fe. Dry and forbidding, the land had little use, but irrigation would change all that. From 1911 to 1916, dam-builders toiled away. Alcohol was banned within five miles of the construction site, so Hot Springs, just beyond the perimeter, boomed with gambling, saloons, prostitutes and bath houses flush with hot mineral springs.

HHHHealth-seekers came west along with construction workers. The town began to grow, and in 1950, it changed its name to Truth or Consequences, after an NBC radio program hosted by Ralph Edwards. Just off of Interstate 25, T or C, as the locals call it, is now becoming an arts community and a safe haven for post-Sept. 11 refugees and others fleeing urban/suburban centers. There’s a Healing Waters Walking Trail, the Jack E. Baker Rotary Park & Wetlands and the Hot Springs Historic District, which includes Blackstone Hot Springs, La Paloma Hot Springs, Indian Springs, Pelican Spa, Artesian Bath House, Hay-Yo-Kay Hot Springs and Riverbend Hot Springs.

These are not places to swim but rather small soaking pools and spas, tile-lined in buildings built from the 1920s to the 1950s with efficiency apartments, rented rooms and both indoor and outdoor mineral baths. If the original pioneers had wacky ideas about irrigating the desert, newer neighbors also have visions.

Outside of town, Richard Branson’s Spaceport America claims to be the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport “designed to make space travel as accessible to everyone as air travel is today.” Maybe, but I failed to see rockets taking off, and no space aliens joined me for a stroll down Truth or Consequences’ downtown streets. But then I didn’t walk the Astronaut Walk, enter the Gateway Gallery or experience the G-shock simulator. If the second space age is dawning at Truth or Consequences, the sun is taking a long time to arise.

HHHSierra County, New Mexico, could use a little uplift. It’s the ninth poorest county in the United States, with many residents living in block after block of single-wide trailers. T or C is trying to be an arts community, but historic preservation needs momentum. Unfortunately, vintage buildings constructed during the dam-building phase were condemned and torn down between 1964 and 1978, when New Mexico State Parks poorly administered the Elephant Butte recreation area. About 150 buildings were demolished, leaving only 18 to 20, including 1940s casitas and residences for nurses in Hospital Canyon.

“There’s a lot of sadness among locals about houses that have been lost,” says Kate Halcey, who works with Neal Brown, the marina concessionaire. “We talk a lot about stewardship and getting it back to what it was for families.”

With a friend who recently moved to T or C, population around 6,000, I walked among the buildings, some near ruins, others beginning to be preserved. It’ll take time, but historic preservation of remaining structures at the century-old dam site is a worthy goal. If millionaire Richard Branson wants to go into outer space, another millionaire and local property owner, Ted Turner, has more down-to-earth ideas.

Turner has restored the 1929 Sierra Grande Lodge, which is now a high-end holistic spa with 17 rooms and a casita listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The hotel is “a luxurious sanctuary offering upscale accommodations,” but it’s more than that. Branson wants to take visitors to distant galaxies. Turner has launched Ted Turner Expeditions to bring wealthy clients to his 156,000-acre Ladder Ranch outside town. For $9,000, a party of two can have the remote ranch to themselves for three nights. It’s an intact ecosystem, and one of only three places where endangered Mexican wolves are bred for re-introduction into the wild to be placed south of the border in the Sierra Madre.

Private half-day tours are also available for Turner’s sweeping 360,000-acre Armendaris Ranch. Guides meet guests at the Sierra Grande, and for $450, exclusive visitors are taken to the Armendaris where they may glimpse a wide variety of native wildlife and introduced oryx.

HHHBack at Elephant Butte Dam this summer, water levels had dropped to the lowest they’ve been in decades to provide water downstream for Mexico, proving that climate change will affect all of us in the Southwest. Tourists visited Spaceport America, looking up and squinting into the sun, hoping that an errant flying saucer might be coming in for a landing. Back at Turner’s Sierra Grande Lodge, we had an elegant dinner and marveled at a large stained-glass window of Elephant Butte Dam, recently rescued from an antique store in El Paso, Texas. Vibrant colors shone from behind the bar.

Whatever the future of Truth or Consequences, from space visitors to high-end eco-tourists, from house boaters on Elephant Butte Lake to your average vacationer taking an afternoon soak in one of a half dozen pools, T or C will be fun to visit, especially if historic preservation succeeds in town and at the dam site.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. Email him at