Mention Carlsbad and the first thing that usually comes to mind are the caverns situated at the heart of the Guadalupe Mountains. While these caves are indeed fascinating and boast a captivating history, the city of Carlsbad has its own equally intriguing and rich past, deserving of its own exploration.
EARLY NOMADIC LIFESTYLES
Similar to much of New Mexico’s history, Eddy County’s landscapes of mountains and grassy fields, where Carlsbad serves as the county hub, have been inhabited by wandering groups for millennia. Eventually, the Mescalero and Lipan Apache tribes came onto the scene, later succeeded by the Comanche. The indigenous societies remained fairly stable until the late 16th century, when the Spanish arrived. The Spanish culture was so divergent from that of the native tribes that it dominated and replaced them.
Among the initial inhabitants were Mexicans, who had originally hailed from Chihuahua and other neighboring states. An early pioneer once declared that the territory they roamed was simply “nothing but a howling wilderness.” Living in makeshift encampments, these wanderers primarily raised sheep.
ANGLOS COME TO CARLSBAD After the 1846 WAR
In the wake of the Mexican-American War of 1846, individuals referred to locally as Anglos, meaning white, non-Hispanic Europeans, started settling in considerable numbers. Author Susan Tweit discusses this in her book, Barren, Wild, and Worthless. She recounted that these incoming cattlemen believed, “The grass seemed endless, the profits sure.” They would later come to understand the negative impact of overgrazing.
History of the EDDY BROTHERS AND BISSELL RANCH
In 1881, Charles Eddy, alongside his sibling John and business associate Amos Bissell, set up the Eddy-Bissell Cattle Company. The ranch, named Halagueno, was located at Seven Rivers, roughly 20 miles north of Carlsbad. Seven Rivers holds the distinction of being the oldest settlement in the county and is famous for Native American skirmishes that occurred between 1882 and 1883. The locale was also frequented by William Bonny, better known as Billy the Kid.
IRRIGATION INITIATIVES ON THE PECOS
The trio subsequently built a diversion canal on the Pecos River, kickstarting irrigation in the area. This encouraged other settlers to move in and make use of the burgeoning irrigation system, cultivating fruits, grains, and vegetables, in addition to alfalfa for livestock including horses, sheep, and cattle.
DISCOVERY AND DEVELOPMENT OF MINERAL SPRINGS
Charles Eddy, a man with a vision, foresaw a thriving community. He also discovered mineral springs with healing properties like those in Karlsbad, Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic). Initially, he named the settlement Eddy, but later rebranded it as Carlsbad in 1889 to market the therapeutic springs. The successful ranch and the springs fueled development, drawing immigrants from England, France, Italy, and Switzerland.
EDDY COUNTY Courthouse
Eddy donated an entire city block for the construction of a courthouse. The building, initially built in Victorian-style brick, underwent expansions in 1914 and another in 1939. During the latter renovation, the architectural design was transformed to the Pueblo Style that characterizes it today.
Contributions by JOHN HAGERMAN
In 1891, the Pecos Valley Railroad, spearheaded by magnate John H. Hagerman, came to town. With an interest in transporting both local produce and people, a high-quality hotel was built to serve passengers. Christened The Hagerman Hotel, this two-story establishment featured 60 guest rooms.
THE RESILIENCE OF AVALON DAM
The Avalon Dam has its own storied history. Constructed by Hagerman’s irrigation enterprise in 1891, this dam on the Pecos River was breached by a flood in 1893. Hagerman had it reconstructed in 1904, but it was once again devastated by floods. In 1906, the Bureau of Reclamation undertook yet another rebuilding effort. This initiative was dubbed the Carlsbad Project and encompassed the Avalon Dam, the McMillan Dam, a storage reservoir, and the unique Pecos River Flume — a structure that enabled the river to essentially flow over itself.
The Discovery of POTASH
In 1925, potash, a key potassium component for fertilizers, was found in the vicinity of Carlsbad. This led to the birth of a fresh industry, allowing Carlsbad to lead in potash production until the 1960s.
Six unidentified IMCC workers pose next to a railroad boxcar containing the 100,000th load of potash dispatched from IMCC. Photograph around 1960. Credited to Bob Nymeyer Photo Collection; Photographer Bob Nymeyer. Photo courtesy of Southeastern New Mexico Historical Society.
RADIOACTIVE WASTE SECURED
During the 1970s, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (now known as the Department of Energy) established the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). Designed for storing transuranic radioactive waste, WIPP is situated 2,150 feet underground in a salt formation approximately 26 miles east of Carlsbad. Its primary function is to contain waste that was generated for defense purposes.
So, if you find yourself captivated like Jim White, the man who stumbled upon the caverns in 1901, you should definitely visit the caverns. But don’t overlook the city of Carlsbad during your trip.
Top image: Spill gates at Avalon Dam, north of Carlsbad. The dam was originally built as an earth fill structure in 1888 by private interests. That dam was washed out in 1893. It was quickly rebuilt, but was washed out again in 1904 by the Pecos River flood of that year. In 1907 the United States Bureau of Reclamation rebuilt the dam. The height of the dam was raised in 1912, and again in 1936. Date of this post card is unknown, but believed to be circa. 1912. Photo courtesy Southeastern New Mexico Historical Society.
Photos courtesy Southeastern New Mexico Historical Society