MAGDALENA – In this old cow town, history is not ashes to ashes, dust to dust and gone with the wind. Here in Magdalena, on U.S. 60, 26 miles west of Socorro, the past is just down the road and around the corner and – like as not – part of the present and, hopefully, the future.
You can eat lunch at Kelly’s Place, a cafe in the lobby of the Hall Hotel, which originally opened for business in 1917 and is the sole survivor of several large hotels that once existed here.
Over at Eagle Wholesale, which deals in plumbing, electrical and general hardware, owner Clark Brown will show you the rope-operated freight elevator that runs from the store’s basement to its upper level. From 1916 through the 1950s, the building that now houses Eagle Wholesale was a warehouse for the Charles Ilfeld Company, which provided goods of all kinds for ranchers and small businesses in southwestern New Mexico and eastern Arizona.
The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway depot, built in 1915, once served the Magdalena Branch, a spur track between Socorro and Magdalena. Now the depot is Magdalena’s library, which, according to director Yvonne Magener, offers a combined inventory of 27,000 books and DVDs and also Wi-Fi.
Just north of the library is an old AT&SF boxcar that has been used over the years to store items related to Magdalena’s history. Recently renovated, the grand reopening of the Boxcar Museum is at the heart of the Magdalena Frontier Festival on Saturday, June 2.
“The gist of the festival is to educate people about our history,” said Judyth Shamosh, the volunteer curator who coordinated the museum’s restoration. “We are celebrating our history.”
You can’t find a place that’s more Old West than Magdalena or that stayed that way longer. Into the late 1960s, long after better-known cattle trails were just worn places in the ground, beef on the hoof was being driven over the Magdalena Stock Driveway to the shipping pens in Magdalena and loaded there onto train cars headed for markets in the east.
Founded in 1884, Magdalena, according to some accounts, got its name because a natural formation on a nearby mountainside put some early visitors in mind of the image of Mary Magdalene, one of Christ’s followers in New Testament accounts. But the town got its nickname, Trails End, because the Stock Driveway, which extended 125 miles west into Arizona, stopped there.
Trains out of Magdalena hauled not only cattle and sheep but lead, zinc and silver ore produced in the mining town of Kelly, two miles southeast of Magdalena.
So, Magdalena had it all – cowboys, cattle drives, rodeos, railroaders, miners, saloons and the commerce and carousing that comes from mixing all those elements.
The ore finally played out at the mines, however, and trucks started transporting livestock. The railroad tore up the spur’s tracks in the early 1970s. The weathered stockpens, which still stand on the north side of the village, hold only weeds and memories today.
Memories are what Shamosh and other Magdalena volunteers have loaded in the Boxcar Museum. Displays include exhibits about the Stock Driveway, the Kelly mines and the railroad, the latter featuring a working remake of a steam engine whistle. Shamosh is proud of the refurbished Boxcar Museum.
“Before, it looked like the inside of a well-used boxcar,” she said. “One of these days, we might paint the outside, but some people like the old look of it. I wish we still had the tracks.”
‘Got enough misery?’
Fewer than 1,000 people live in Magdalena. Shamosh, who has been here 20 years, is not the sort of person you’d pick to settle in a small, dusty New Mexico village with more history and wide-open spaces than anything else. She was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., and earned a degree in submarine geology at Southern Connecticut State University.
She got out west in 1974 when she moved to Phoenix with her then husband, who was embarking in studies at Arizona State University. Between 1977 and 1979, she worked as an assistant curator at the Phoenix Art Museum, cataloging the museum’s entire art collection, “paintings, ceramics, sculptures, you name it,” while she was there. It was experience that proved valuable in sorting out and organizing the materials stored in the Boxcar Museum.
But she would have never got to that point if she had not made a detour to Magdalena while traveling from Phoenix to Albuquerque in 1998.
“We were looking into the window of this dilapidated building when a man across the street yelled, ‘Haven’t you got enough misery in your life? Come on in for some coffee,'” Shamosh recalled.
The man, a Magdalena resident and future friend, who has since passed away, helped Shamosh find a house in the village.
“I’m a small-town girl at heart,” she said. “I was raised on concrete and in an apartment building no less. But I should have been raised on a farm or a ranch. I would have been happier.”
Now she has a house with a stunning view of the mountains and prairie and a corral with three horses. She learned to ride after settling in Magdalena.
“I love the whole cowboy feel of the town,” she said.
She hopes the Boxcar Museum and the Frontier Festival will attract people to Magdalena so they can learn about its history, savor its laid-back lifestyle and stimulate it’s economy.
“It’s going to be an action-packed day,” Shamosh said of the festival. “I don’t know how many people are coming. I hope 400, but a thousand would be great.”
A thousand would double Magdalena’s population.