Grants, New Mexico – Uranium City USA

Route 66 in Grants, New Mexico by Kathy Alexander.

Route 66 in Grants, New Mexico by Kathy Alexander.

Like most places in New Mexico, Grants was first home to the Ancient Puebloans, who established an advanced civilization in Chaco Canyon to the north of present-day Grants in the 12th century.

Pueblo del Arroyo at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico by the National Park Service

Pueblo del Arroyo at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico by the National Park Service

The long-abandoned area changed when the railroad made plans to extend its lines from the east. The first resident of the region was Don Jesus Blea, who owned the contracts for the railroad and established his home in 1872 on the southern side of San Jose Creek.  He called his new “settlement” Alamitos (Little Cottonwoods.)

Soon, three brothers Angus, Lewis, and John Grant, were contracted to build the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad through the region, establishing base camps during their work westward. In 1881 the railroad reached Alamitos, and the settlement became a coaling station. Before the railroad came through, only three or four Hispanic families lived in the area, primarily making their livings at ranching. When the trains arrived, so did the rapid development of Grants, as a tent city sprang up on the west side of town, sheltering thousands of railroad workers. Soon, the settlement’s name was changed to Grant’s Camp after the three brothers who had built the railroad.

Grants, New Mexico Cafe Sign

Grants, New Mexico Cafe Sign

Before long, an entrepreneur named Simon Bibo purchased 160 acres from Jesús Blea and built a store and hotel. He also sold much of the property to other businessmen, and several other businesses sprang up near the railroad tracks in no time.

During the late 1800s, the area surrounding Grant’s Camp had an abundance of water, enticing many homesteaders to farm the region. Others grazed cattle and sheep on nearby ranches or took advantage of the plentiful logging opportunities.

In 1882, the post office was established with the name of Grants, but the population continued to call the settlement Grant’s Camp. Later, when the Railroad Station was built, that changed to Grant’s Station, and in 1936, the town’s official name was changed to plain ole’ Grants.

Though remaining mostly a quiet farming community, Grants took advantage of the many travelers who came through town when Route 66 was built. Motels and services soon opened right up against the railroad tracks, many of which still operate today.

In 1950, a local rancher named Paddy Martinez found an odd yellow rock in the nearby Haystack Mountains ten miles west of town. Soon, the rock was found to be uranium which created a booming economy when the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission began to mine the valuable ore. It also started a fever as many invested in Geiger counters and took to the hills.

West Theater in Grants, New mexico by Kathy Alexander.

West Theater in Grants, New Mexico by Kathy Alexander.

Where never before had the land been posted as “No Trespassing,” it was now posted with “Trespassers Will be Prosecuted or Shot.” Disputes between landowners regarding mineral rights claims became common and local attorneys had a field day.

The area uranium reserves turned out to be one of the largest in the world, and the population of Grants boomed from some twelve hundred people to nearly twelve thousand. The Grants uranium industry developed about six thousand jobs and produced about 63 percent of all the uranium mined in the United States. The mining continued in full force until the 1982-83 recession forced the closing of the mines and the mills.

In the meantime, Cibola County was created on June 19, 1981, from the westernmost four-fifths of the formerly much larger Valencia County, and Grants became the county seat.

Though losing some of its population when the mines closed, the city of Grants had diversified its economy, so it continued to thrive.

Today, Grants is a small town of just less than 9,000 residents. A growing tourist destination, the town is favored for its fishing and boating at Bluewater and Ramah lakes, its proximity to the Ancient Puebloan ruins, and its outdoor recreation in national monuments and forests.

Grants - Old Wayside Motel

Grants – Old Wayside Motel

Several icons still appear for the Route 66 enthusiast, including the Lariat Lodge, Grants Cafe founded in 1937, the Sands Motel, Lavaland Motel, the closed Lux Movie Theatre, and Trail Drive-In Theatre, and many more. In Grants, old 66 is called Santa Fe Avenue.

A number of side trips present themselves from Grants including the Acoma Pueblo just 12 miles southeast of Grants, and the Bandera Ice Caves, another 13 miles down the road.

Continue down Route 66 along a 41-mile chunk to the Continental Divide on your way to Gallup, New Mexico. And as always, Kick a little Asphalt along the way.


© Kathy Weiser-Alexander/Legends of America, updated November 2021.

Also See:

Chaco Canyon – Home of Ancestral Puebloans

New Mexico – Land of Enchantment

New Mexico Route 66

Route 66 Main Page

Route 66 Photo Galleries