Across the Continental
Divide on Route 66
you continue your journey from
head on out to through several small villages including Milan, Bluewater,
Prewitt and Thoreau before reaching the Continental Divide.
This 31.4-mile segment was
designated as State Highway 6 in 1914 and a part of the National Old
Trails Highway, a trans-regional road association that preceded the
creation of the Federal highway system in 1926.
The road’s climb out of
the Rio San Jose drainage toward Continental Divide takes motorists out of
an area that was known for its irrigated agriculture, especially carrots,
in the 1940s. The discovery of uranium and development of nearby mines in
the 1950s is evident in distant tailing piles and settling ponds near Bluewater.
As the road begins to climb toward the Continental Divide, the
highest point on Route 66 with an elevation of 7,263 feet, pastures give
way to a pinyon and juniper landscape with Navajo homesteads, trading
posts, and other businesses periodically lining the roadside. From Prewitt
westward, Entrada sandstone cliffs parallel the road to the north,
offering a stretch of spectacular unbroken red sandstone extending to the
Arizona border. This roadbed remained gravel until the 1930s, when Federal
funding resulted in projects to realign and pave the highway. Among these
improvements was the elimination of two grade crossings by realigning the
highway entirely south of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway
line. As a result, Thoreau and other villages, which prospered with
roadside commerce in the 1920s, saw businesses disappear or relocate in
the late 1930s, when Route 66 no longer passed along the towns’ main
Milan to Continental Divide,
NM: This road segment is now designated NM 122 and serves as a frontage
road along I-40 from west of Milan to the Continental Divide. The eastern
8.6 mile stretch is a divided four-lane road completed in 1951 when
several sections of Route 66 in New Mexico were widened. The remaining
22.6 miles is a two-lane road, often closely paralleling I-40 and the
tracks of the former AT&SF Railway as it climbs toward the Continental
Just three miles beyond Grants,
is the village of Milan, basically a suburb of Grants today. Before the
uranium mining boom of the 1950s, Milan was not a town, but rather, a
small cluster of service-related businesses catering to Route 66
travelers. However, with the mining success, the town was incorporated in 1957 and named for Salvador Milan, who was a major
landholder in the area and served as the town's first mayor from 1957
until his death in 1970. Salvador Milan, along with his sister Mary, was
exiled from Mexico during the revolution of 1913.
Over the years, Milan continued
to grow, but recently has boomed with its population increasing at the
rate of 71.6% between 2000 and 2010. Today it is called home to about
3,300 residents. Milan is the site of the privately run Cibola County
Correctional Center, which houses more than 1,000 federal prisoners and is
a major employer. This facility first opened in 1993 as a county prison
but was acquired and expanded by the Corrections Corporation of America in
1998, resulting in the large population boom. Growth continues in Milan as
many new houses and service-oriented businesses are being built to
accommodate its increase in population.
One Route 66 classic in this
small town is the Milan Motel. Situated on on the south side of Route 66
between Milan Street and Airport Road, this log cabin style motel was
built in 1946. It had 12 units, a snack shop and gas pumps. It survived
the bypassing of Route 66 by I-40 and the Uranium bust, but finally closed
in the 1980s. The property was restored with a National Park Service Route
66 Corridor Preservation Program grant and now serves as a Trading Post.
Between Milan and nearby
Prewitt is an interesting section of the old road as it is quite wide
but very seldom used. At intervals, abandoned motels and empty gas
stations can be seen along this stretch of the road. When
was young this was a major carrot-producing area covering thousands of
acres. As visitors continue the journey westward, there are several
lava flows in the region, associated with the much larger deposits of the
nearby El Malpais National Monument south of Grants.
eight miles beyond Milan, West bound Route 66 travelers will arrive at what was once the stopping point of Bluewater.
In 1870 several French ranchers came to the
area and organized a cattle company, irrigating their ranches from a small
reservoir. The town got its start when the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad,
later Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad built a station there in 1881
and named it after Bluewater Creek. Local ranchers built an earthen dam on
the creek in 1885, but floods washed it away a year later.
In 1889 a post office was established. In 1891-92, the area suffered a
severe drought, causing many cattle to die and many of the defeated
ranchers gave up and left the region. Soon, a Mormon man named Ernst A.
Tietjen, who lived in nearby Ramah, claimed the land and built an earthen
dam for irrigation at the point where the Cottonwood and Bluewater Creeks
met. Unfortunately, that dam also washed away in 1904.
In 1905 Ernst A. Tietjen finished homesteading his land and obtained
a clear title. He then began to have the land surveyed and a
townsite laid out. He sold the first lot to E.H. Dewey for $15 and before
long a school was built. The dam was replaced with a cement one which in
turn was replaced by the current concrete arch dam constructed in 1926-27
by the Toltec-Bluewater Irrigation District. The water was used to
irrigate the farms downstream towards Grants, which became at that time
the "Carrot Capital of America".
In 1926 Route 66 was aligned just north of
Bluewater between Gallup and Grants. Although never much more than a railroad loading
station; a trading post, two motels, a café, garage, and gas station, this
stopover point once
did a brisk business.
1935, a popular stop along this stretch, was the Old Crater Trading Post
built by Claude Bowlin. It was named after a local volcanic crater. Bowlin
had been trading with the Navajo since 1912 and his first trading post
sold food and goods to the tribe where he learned their language and
customs. After World War I, from 1919 to 1935, Mr. and Mrs. Bowlin bought
and sold several trading posts in the Gallup and Farmington areas of New
Mexico. The Bluewater store was built with a flat roof, stucco walls with
protruding viga beams and featured colorful murals on its exterior.
Selling rugs, dolls, jewelry and pottery, it was popular with tourists
along Route 66. In 1938, gas pumps were added. Bowlin opened more stores
in New Mexico in the 1950s. When Uranium was discovered in the area,
business boomed and the original store was demolished and replace with a
new one in 1954. When I-40 bypassed it, the trading post was closed for
good in 1973. The old building, located about 1.5 miles north of Bluewater
still stands. However, Bowlin's Bluewater Dairy Queen Travel Center now
serves this area on I-40.
Though the village is called home to about 600
people, the community is mostly a cluster closed business, and homes, but
it still has a school.
All that’s left today of the Route 66 era are
the remains of the old Bluewater Motel, Allen’s Garage, and the Old Crater
Trading Post. All silent now, they attest to the better times along this
old chunk of the road
Bluewater you will see
beautiful red sandstone cliffs to the right and the volcanic cone of El Tinterio, where lava was said to have flowed as far east as
settlement was in this area before it became Prewitt. Called Baca, after a
local ranching family, it dates back to at least 1890. However, in
1916 two brothers by the names o Bob and Harold Prewitt moved to the area
and established a trading post in a large tent along the National Old
Trails Highway. When a post office was established in 1928, it took the
name of Prewitt. In 1946 it was described of consisting of little more
than a trading post and a railroad siding.
a side trip to nearby Bluewater Lake State Park might be a stop for you if you’re looking
for camping or fishing opportunities. The lake is stocked with
rainbow trout, native or cutthroat trout, and catfish, with
trout weighing up to 9 pounds having been caught in the lake. The park is
also host to many of nature's feathered friends. Situated on the north
flank of the Zuni Mountains, the reservoir is about seven miles southwest
of Prewitt. Swimming, water-skiing, boat ramps, electrical hookups
and dump station are also available
Just another eleven more
miles brings you to the small town of
Thoreau. The town got its start as a siding for the Atlantic & Pacific
Railroad in 1881. In 1886 a store and post office were established called
Chavez. Several years later, in 1890, brothers William and Austi Mitchell relocated
their timber business from Michigan to the Chavez area. The next year, the
post office filed for a name change to Mitchell. Though timber was
plentiful in the area, their business did not prosper. The third and final name
change to Thoreau came in 1899 when the Hyde Exploring Expedition established an
extensive Indian trading network and established their headquarters in the
town. Residents pronounce the town's name like "thuh-ROO" (similar to
"through" or "threw".
During Route 66' heydays, Thoreau was home to several
trading posts, a gas station, a garage, and about 375 people. One popular
stop during these times was
Roy T. Herman's Garage and Service Station. Built in 1937 on Route 66, the
building remains today and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
In the 1960s Interstate 40 bypassed the old Route 66.
population was 1,863 at the 2000 census.
Another side trip presents itself here. The town of Crownpoint, some 24 miles north of
Thoreau is the southern jumping off point to the
Culture National Historical Park. Chaco Canyon
is one of the key sites of the prehistoric culture in the Four Corners
Another five miles west of Thoreau brings travelers to the
Continental Divide. In typical Route 66
fashion there are a number of trading posts here to take advantage of the
many people who stop along the route. In the early days of the Mother
Road, the site included the Great Divide Trading Company, the
Continental Trading Post and Top O’ The World Hotel and Café.
If you are traveling the
original road, you will need to rejoin I-40 at exit 47 as the old road
dead-ends just beyond the
Continental Divide. However, continuing down this short stretch provides
photo ops including the old Top O’ The World Hotel and Café and the
facing signs of an old Whiting Brothers Station.
The Great Divide Gas Station and trading post
featured both vintage electric pumps and tall gravity
fed pumps, photo 1940, courtesy New Mexico Route 66
A trading post at the Continental Divide, New Mexico,
Kathy Weiser-Alexander January, 2015.
From the Continental Divide, travelers will
continue on I-40 to the small village of Iyanbito to the north of I-40 and
continue westward to the historic Fort Wingate Military Reservation on south
side of I-40. Originally established as a trading post in 1860, a full fledged fort was
added in 1862. Garrisoning soldiers during the Civil War, it later
functioned in the capacity of military surveys, escort functions, and
patrols against raiding Indians. Among the soldiers associated with
the fort were
"Kit" Carson, John "Black Jack" Pershing, Douglas MacArthur, who
lived there as an infant, and several Navajo Code Talkers.
In 1914 the fort housed Mexican Federalist
troops and their families who had fled the Pancho Villa uprising. The Army renamed the deactivated fort "Fort
Wingate General Ordnance Depot" in 1918.
Fort Wingate is still an active base sometimes involved as a rocket
launching testing site. The original trading post was sold to a
private individual and continued to operate until the 1990s. The
Fort Wingate grew up around the fort and trading post and exists
From here, you have reached the outskirts of
Gallup, the Indian Center of the Southwest.
of America, updated May, 2016.
Hinkley, Jim, Route 66 Encyclopedia, Voyageur Press, 2012
National Park Service
Never Quite Lost
The Route 66
Continental Divide Slideshow:
All images available for photo prints & editorial downloads HERE.
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