For years, travelers on old Route 66 and Interstate 40 have seen the catchy slogan “Tucumcari Tonite!” on billboards promoting the city’s east central New Mexico motels as a destination for motorists.
Perhaps the most famous motel in town is the Blue Swallow, its name and bird lit up at night.
“Tucumcari tonite! is also the title of a new book rich in stories about the history – and prehistory – of the Tucumcari region. 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 city. Stratton was born and raised in Tucumcari, just two blocks from Route 66 and a few blocks from once-crowded train stations.
Stratton was childhood buddies with Phares, son of WA “Arch” Huggins, the man who built the Blue Swallow in 1939; his wife, Maud Huggins, named the motel. In the introduction to the book, Stratton wrote that she wanted “the gracefully quilted blue bird’s title and color to suggest peaceful, soothing rest and sleep.”
Stratton writes of another “Arch”, Arch Hurley, a well-remembered and community-minded Tucumcari resident. On July 31, 1935, Hurley got off the westbound Rock Island Railroad passenger train No. 11 at Tucumcari.
He was returning from Washington, DC, where his long and relentless lobbying effort finally succeeded. He announced that the federal government had approved the construction of the 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 settle on 160 acres of free public land. Most were unable to earn a living.
“It’s not that fertile. They stayed for four, five years and left in droves,” Stratton explained in a telephone interview from his residence in Olympia, Washington.
And in recent years, Stratton said farmers weren’t getting enough water from Conchas “because the lake level behind the dam didn’t fill high enough to reach the irrigation canals.”
The profile of Hurley and the construction of the dam is one of many examples showing Stratton’s ability to find drama in stories that combine people, places and events relevant to Tucumcari.
The city was founded in 1901 “from the ground up” by the Rock Island Railroad, writes Stratton. Rock Island’s plan was to push west to join El Paso and Northeastern Railroad at the Pecos River, hoping for a transcontinental connection which did not occur.
Tucumcari stood as an operational dividing point between Rock Island and the South Pacific. By 1910 the city had become an important regional railroad centre.
Stratton identifies three German Jewish merchants – two brothers and their brother-in-law – as the “founding fathers” of Tucumcari for their enterprise in establishing a site of the town, in nurturing Tucumcari’s early growth, and in seeing it become a commercial center for rural communities in the region. . Merchants relied on their knowledge of Rock Island’s plans for a railroad junction between its main line and the northern New Mexico coalfields at Dawson.
Stratton explores in depth the strong local impact and behind-the-scenes machinations of the Great National Railroad Strike of 1922. The railroad workers in Tucumcari, although of different skill sets and different unions, were all affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. All went on strike.
The strike began over a federal executive order for a 12.5% pay cut and quickly turned 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 Quay County Sheriff; Tucumcari is the county seat.
In the preface, Stratton gives readers an overview of what follows.
“For the most part it is a case study with scientific intent of the influence of transport development in the 20th century, largely of railways and highways in the context of national trends, and of its effects on a western city,” he wrote. 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. The federal interstate system too. Its highways bypassed hundreds of small towns in the country like Tucumcari. These towns had relied on the commerce brought by the floods of tourists. They stopped along the way on roads like Route 66 that ran through their communities, not around them.
Asked what he thinks about Tucumcari’s future, Stratton said he hoped there might be “an outside force” that would save the city from its ongoing economic woes. He noted that Tucumcari has “no skilled labor to attract any type of industry. A lot of people are on social security, on welfare. There are a lot of retirees.
Stratton taught for about half a century, most recently at Washington State University. He is 95 years old and continues to write.
“Historians look forward to retirement to catch up on all that they haven’t done for 30 years due to the demands of teaching,” he said.
“Tucumcari tonite! is Stratton’s second book on the history of New Mexico. The first was “Storm Over the Teapot Dome: The Story of Albert B. Fall”.