By the late 1860s and early 1870s, trade and travel along the Santa Fe Trail was beginning to slow due to the westward extension of the railroad system. When the railroad was making plans to extend into the area in 1879, the Watrous family donated the land for the right of way, stations, and yards. The chief engineer of the Santa Fe Railroad laid out a new town just to the east of La Junta to service the railroad. The new town took the name of Watrous in honor of Samuel B. Watrous. The economics of the valley shifted to center around the railroad, leaving the formerly bustling trading town of La Junta largely abandoned. When the railroad finally came through in 1880-81, Watrous became the major stop for materials headed for Fort Union, just a few miles north of town on the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail.
In 1886, Samuel Watrous allegedly committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. Said to have been despondent over his son, Samuel Watrous, Jr., having killed himself just a few months earlier, he followed in his footsteps. This “suicide” was immediately questioned and the mystery of his death remains today. (See more HERE.)
The village of Watrous continued to thrive after the death of its namesake for a number of years. Watrous’s son-in-law, Carl Wildenstein, developed a flour mill and several new ranches were established. By 1889 the settlement boasted a population of 365 people. In 1900 Watrous had grown to include several general stores, two churches, a hotel, school, post office, barber shop, blacksmith shop, livery stable, lumber yard, slaughterhouse, tavern, and about 500 people. The village was also home to several short-lived newspapers, including the Mora County Pioneer, Pioneer Journal, Northern New Mexico Farmer’s Weekly, Arrow, and the Pioneer Plains Times.
In 1904 William T. Brown purchased land outside Watrous and built Valmora Industrial Sanatorium to provide care for stricken workers from the Chicago area. Shoemaker ranch and its fine breed of Palomino horses were great boons for the town. But, unfortunately for Watrous, its heydays were nearing their end.
In April 1910 a disastrous fire almost burned the entire town. The fire started in J.D. Rankin’s store and high winds carried the flames to all sections of the town west of the railroad. The Hotel Frye was destroyed, as well as two stores, three saloons, the barbershop, and several others. The town was never rebuilt. However, by 1915, it was still an important railroad point and in 1920 still supported 435 people, in part due to the sanitarium residents at Valmora Ranch. When the town was incorporated in 1939, it was beginning its decline. By 1950, the population had dropped to 256 people. Although the railroad made flag stops as late as 1953, Watrous was no longer a key shipping point.
Today, this small town of just about 135 people is a National Historic Landmark District that includes the routes of the Santa Fe Trail that originally came together in the La Junta area and buildings and structures associated with the community’s active use from 1835 to 1879. Much of the original character and integrity of La Junta remain today, from its rustic built environment to the natural beauty of the rangeland in the valley. Throughout the district, deep trail impressions and wagon wheel ruts still dot the landscape.
Sophisticated buildings such as a log and adobe stagecoach station, brick commercial buildings, and adobe homes in the Territorial style still stand in the Tiptonville area. At the southern tip of the Tiptonville district, where the Mountain and Cimarron Branches merge, is the log and adobe Gregg Tavern-Stage Station, which served the Barlow-Sanderson Stage Line in the 1860s and 1870s. Also in this area are the Fort Union Corral Buildings, where muleskinners may have cared for the cavalry horses.
The Phoenix Ranch south of the Mora River and west of the settlement of La Junta is the site of one of the finest Territorial period residences in New Mexico. Dating from the 1860’s, the two-story square plan ranch house has a two-level gallery extending around all four sides and Greek Revival details on the window and door surrounds. The rock barn and other outbuildings may date from the same period.
The Watrous Valley Ranch and House passed through three other families before coming into the hands of the current owners, who have completely restored the house. Located at 2286 Hwy 161, the ranch still has thousands of acres of original grazing land and hundred of Samuel Watrous’ original Black Willow and Cottonwood Trees.
Watrous is just off I-25 about 18 miles northeast of Las Vegas, and about 95 miles south of Raton, New Mexico.
To get to the Tiptonville area, cross I-25 at the north end of Watrous on the road to Fort Union. The turnoff to the old townsite is about one mile up the road. Turn left and drive about 0.5 miles. Though the buildings are on private property, many of the buildings can be seen from the road. Santa Fe Trail ruts are visible in this area.
Clark, Anna Nolan, Fifty Years of Change, New Mexico Magazine, February 1938
Santa Fe Trail Association Quarterly, Volume 12, February 1998
Varney, Philip; New Mexico’s Best Ghost Towns: A Practical Guide; University of New Mexico Press, 1987