For years travelers on the old Route 66 and on Interstate 40 have seen the catchy slogan “Tucumcari Tonite!” on billboards promoting the east-central New Mexico town’s motels as a motorist’s destination.
Perhaps the town’s most famous motel has been the Blue Swallow, its name and bird lit up at night.
“Tucumcari Tonite!” is also the title of a new story-packed book on the history – and prehistory – of the Tucumcari area. Its subtitle is “A Story of Railroads, Route 66 & the Waning of a Western Town.”
The author is historian David H. Stratton, who has a long and special affection for the town. Stratton was born and raised in Tucumcari, just two blocks from Route 66 and a few blocks from the once-hopping railroad yards.
Stratton was boyhood buddies with Phares, son of W.A. “Arch” Huggins, the man who built the Blue Swallow in 1939; his wife, Maud Huggins, named the motel. In the book’s introduction Stratton wrote that she wanted “the title and the color of the gracefully swooping blue bird to suggest peaceful, soothing rest and sleep.”
Stratton writes of another “Arch,” Arch Hurley, a well-remembered, community-minded Tucumcari resident. On July 31, 1935 Hurley got off the Rock Island Railroad’s westbound No. 11 passenger train at Tucumcari.
He was returning from Washington, D.C., where his long, unrelenting lobbying effort finally succeeded. He announced that the federal government had approved the building of Conchas Dam on the Canadian River, an anticipated boon to the economies of Tucumcari and surrounding farmers.
Before and during the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s, some farmers had come to eastern New Mexico to homestead on 160 acres of free public land. Most were unable to earn a living.
“It’s not that fertile. They stayed four, five years and left in droves,” Stratton explained in a phone interview from his residence in Olympia, Washington.
And in more recent years, Stratton said farmers weren’t getting sufficient water from Conchas “because the level of the lake behind the dam didn’t fill up high enough to reach the irrigation canals.”
The profile of Hurley and the dam’s construction is one of many examples showing Stratton’s ability to find the drama in stories that combine people, places and events relevant to Tucumcari.
The town was founded in 1901 “from scratch” by the Rock Island Railroad, Stratton writes. Rock Island’s plan was to push west to meet up with El Paso and Northeastern Railroad at the Pecos River, hoping for a transcontinental connection that didn’t happen.
Tucumcari did find itself as an operational division point between the Rock Island and the Southern Pacific. By 1910 the town had become a major regional railroad center.
Stratton identifies three German Jewish merchants – two brothers and their brother-in-law – as Tucumcari’s “Founding Fathers” for their enterprise in establishing a town site, in nurturing Tucumcari’s early growth and in watching it become a trading center for the area’s rural communities. The merchants relied on their knowledge of Rock Island’s plans for a rail juncture between its main line and northern New Mexico’s coalfields at Dawson.
Stratton extensively explores the strong local impact and the behind-the-scenes machinations of the national Great Railroad Strike of 1922. Tucumcari’s rail workers, though of different skills and of different unions, were all affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. All went out on strike.
The strike began over a federal decree for a 12.5% wage drop and quickly became violent over the hiring of replacement workers. Into this maelstrom Stratton introduces Alex Street, an FBI agent in a surreptitious, railroad-backed role as an apparent peacemaker. Street was a former sheriff of Quay County; Tucumcari is the county seat.
In the preface, Stratton gives an overview for readers of what follows.
“For the most part it is a case study with scholarly intent of the influence of 20th century transportation development, largely of railroads and highways in the context of national trends, and its effect on one Western town,” he writes. Stratton’s intent may be scholarly, but his writing style is aimed at the general reader. Technology – diesel engines replacing steam engines – hit Tucumcari hard. So did the federal interstate system. Its highways skirted hundreds of the nation’s small towns like Tucumcari. Those towns had counted on the business that flocks of tourists brought. They stopped off on their travels on roads like Route 66 that ran through, not around, their communities.
Asked what he thinks of Tucumcari’s future, Stratton said he hopes there might be “some outside force” that would rescue the town from its enduring economic woes. He noted that Tucumcari has “no skilled labor to attract any kind of industry. A lot of people are on Social Security, on welfare. There’s a lot of retired people.”
Stratton taught for about half a century, most recently at Washington State University. He is 95 and still writing.
“Historians look forward to retirement to catch up on everything they didn’t do for 30 years because of teaching requirements,” he said.
“Tucumcari Tonite!” is Stratton’s second book regarding New Mexico history. The first was “Tempest over Teapot Dome: The Story of Albert B. Fall.”