You can argue all day about which Old West town was the roughest, toughest and wildest of them all.
Dodge City? Entirely possible.
Deadwood? Could be.
But historian Ralph Emerson Twitchell made a strong case for Las Vegas, New Mexico. No other town, he wrote, harbored a more disreputable bunch of desperadoes and outlaws than the little burg tucked up in the northeastern region of New Mexico.
Hyman G. Neill (better known as Hoodoo Brown) served as justice of the peace, mayor and coroner. Along with some unsavory associates—among them Mysterious Dave Mather, J.J. Webb and Dave Rudabaugh—Neill formed the Dodge City Gang, ostensibly to clean out corruption in Las Vegas.
But the gang itself was involved in cattle rustling, prostitution, gambling, train robberies and murder, with well-connected higher-ups making sure the men who did the dirty work were rarely charged or, if jailed, were released.
Enough was enough. On April 8, 1880, a public notice in the Las Vegas Optic newspaper advised the gang that the good citizens of the town were determined to restore order, even “if they have to HANG by the strong arm of FORCE every violator of the law in this country.”
Neill took the hint and fled to Texas.
Examine a treasure trove of documents and photos of Teddy Roosevelt and the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry (a.k.a. the Rough Riders) at the City of Las Vegas Museum and Rough Rider Memorial Collection.
For a big-picture look at the opening of the West, visit the Santa Fe Trail Interpretive Center in the Bridge Street Historic District.
GOOD SLEEPS & EATS
Enjoy the restored, Victorian-era elegance of the Plaza Hotel, which opened in 1882. For an adventure, ask for Room 310, where you just might have a ghostly encounter with the restless spirit of former owner Byron T. Mills.
Dick’s Restaurant, established in 1940, features fresh ingredients from local farms. Try Mama’s Meatloaf, made from scratch and slathered with a savory bacon and green chile gravy.
NOTABLE WESTERN EVENT
Talk about traditions—for 125 years now, Las Vegas has held its annual Fourth of July Fiestas celebration, three or four days packed with music, parades, fireworks and fun activities such as watermelon-eating contests.
John Stanley, the Arizona Wildlife Federation’s 2007 Conservation Media Champion, is a former travel reporter and photographer for The Arizona Republic. He still loves to explore the back roads, ghost towns and out-of-the-way nooks of the Great American West.