By David Kammer
Designated in 1873 as Roswell, the name of the father of Van C. Smith, the settlement’s first postmaster, the town began to grow in the 1890s as a result of the discovery of artesian water and the coming of the railroad. Prior to the discovery of artesian water, early residents had used the waters of both the South and North Spring Rivers to supply gravity-based irrigation ditches to irrigate fields in the area that soon became part of the growing town. These rivers, only a few miles in length, were fed by springs resulting from the underground flow of water from the Capitan Mountains, some 30 miles to the west, which then rose to the surface as they descended into the Pecos Valley. During the town’s earliest days following the platting of the original townsite in 1885, small timber bridges along Main Street crossed two ditches irrigating fields along the south side of North Spring River. In addition to sustaining crops, these ditches also provided the early settlers with drinking water, while another ditch diverted to the east of Main Street powered a turbine which rotated the stones of the settlement’s first grist mill (Perrigo 1991: p. 46).
The discovery of artesian water in 1890, however, began a process of change. With artesian wells being dug throughout the Pecos Valley, from 10 miles north of Roswell to 55 miles to the south, the pressure that had fed water into the North and South Spring Rivers gradually diminished. With these multiple artesian wells irrigating the area’s orchards and gardens, Roswell assumed an oasis-like appearance and gained a reputation as one of New Mexico’s most productive farming valleys. This increased use of the area’s underground water, however, negatively affected the two rivers, diminishing flows estimated in the late 1860s as 40 feet wide and 10 to 20 feet deep. By the 1930s, when a growing sense of the need for conservation led to Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects aimed at capping many of the free-flowing wells, the rivers had become dry channels.
As the town expanded with the platting of new additions to the north, lots lining North Spring River now faced on a dry channel. Efforts to landscape this channel began in the 1930s as WPA projects. In the early 1940s, when a prisoner-of-war camp was established at Orchard Park, 14 miles southeast of Roswell, German prisoners, many of them members of General Rommel’s Afrika Corps, were assigned to construct riprap along North Spring River’s channel (see Figure 8-1). As they labored in the area, the prisoners fashioned an Iron Cross consisting of polychromatic stones embedded in riprap. At first, some members of the community perceived the cross as an insult to the community and coated it with cement. However, over the years the concrete has been removed through erosion and the cross is seen as a reminder of an important chapter in the city’s past and was commemorated in 1993 with the creation of a small observation park.
The second factor contributing to Roswell’s early growth and the development of the early residential neighborhoods within the historic district was the coming of the railroad. Although the Pecos Valley Railway had been completed to Eddy (now Carlsbad) in 1891, thus linking the area south of Roswell with the transcontinental Texas and Pacific Railroad at Pecos City, Texas, it wasn’t until 1894 that the line was finally extended north to Roswell. Then in 1899, a northern link was completed so that the line, renamed the Pecos Valley and Northeastern Railway, connected with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway lines at Amarillo.
As a result, Roswell became the shipping point not only for the cattle that had spurred the settlement’s original growth but also for the alfalfa, apples and peaches, and, eventually, cotton, that became its economic mainstay. Aided by this commercial growth, the town grew from a population of 343 in 1890, to 6,000 in 1910, and rapidly increased to 11,000 in 1930 and 26,000 by 1950. Related to its emergence as the center of both commercial and ranching activities in southeastern New Mexico, was the additional demand for housing on the part of distant ranchers who maintained “Sunday houses.” These second homes located within the growing town furnished ranchers and their families with an in-town residence available for weekend cultural and religious activities, as well as a base for conducting business.
The coming of the railroad also facilitated the importation of new building materials and house designs. In the absence of materials such as lumber and bricks, many of the earliest buildings in Roswell were of sun-baked adobe brick construction. The construction of the town’s first brick plant in 1890 resulted in the availability of a soft brick that most builders viewed as inadequate for facing. In 1894, the railroad began to import hard bricks from Texas and Kansas that prompted a new generation of brick commercial buildings, as well as a few instances of brick residential construction (Shinkle 1964:178). More common to residential construction in turn-of-the-century Roswell, however, was lumber. Previously hauled from the Capitan Mountains or from as far as Las Vegas, New Mexico, lumber became readily available in the late 1890s and early 1900s when several lumberyards opened near the railroad tracks. While the source of their inventories is unclear, the increased supply accounts for much of the early residential construction, especially the numerous Hipped Box and Queen Anne-style houses that appear in the Downtown Roswell Historic District. It also accounts for the generally more modest examples of these styles in this addition to the district.
The preference for the Hipped Box and simplified Queen Anne houses in Roswell’s residential neighborhoods west of Main Street reflect the building pattern found in the territory’s other communities through which railroads passed in the late nineteenth century. Similar to East Las Vegas’ neighborhoods and Albuquerque’s Huning-Highlands, the Downtown Roswell Historic District illustrates how the railroad made an array of building materials and plans available to previously remote areas, especially in the American West. As with these other communities, the degree to which design elements appear within given buildings is often a reflection of the social hierarchy of the community. Some areas within the neighborhood offer particularly ornate examples of these design styles; others, often in subsequent adjacent additions, offer more modest examples. Together they provide a more complete depiction of the tastes and building preferences embraced by the largely Anglo-American middle class segment of the community within a given period.
While architects did practice in Roswell during the late territorial period, it is unlikely that few or any of these relatively modest residences reflect the results of their efforts. Records indicate, for example, that one of the first architects registered in New Mexico, Columbus Redmond Carr, resided in the town but appears to have limited his design work to public and commercial buildings from the turn-of-the-century through the 1930s. Consisting of relatively simple plans, many which reflected design norms with which were already familiar elsewhere, most of these residences reveal their builders’ familiarity with basic designs and their ability work with pre-cut architectural details. The use of the slightly pitched front gables and asymmetrical front porches, for instance, represents a convention found across much of the lower Midwest from which many of the community’s first residents hailed. Similarly the use of extensive porches fronting the Hipped Box houses and the steep pitch of many of the roofs represent practices already widespread in those warmer regions.
The appearance of residences employing the Craftsman style in the late 1910s and early 1920s continued, and even extended, the generous use of porches. Defined by their wide overhangs and exposed rafters, these modest bungalows are also characterized by multiple paired and grouped windows. The effect of the generous fenestration associated with the Craftsman style was fortuitous both in Roswell and other New Mexican communities, in that in emphasizing an integration of outdoor with indoor living the style lent itself to the climatological therapy then advocated for health seekers seeking to overcome consumption. Although at an elevation of 3,500’, Roswell lay below the so-called “zone of immunity” that drew consumptives to Santa Fe, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, and Silver City, the community nevertheless also attracted tuberculars seeking their cure. While no records cite specific residences within the addition to the historic district that housed health seekers, the numerous Craftsman-style dwellings within the area recall a period in the community’s history when their broad porches and multiple windows offered the ideal housing for consumptives.
By 1930, residences stood on most of the lots within this addition. Uncharacteristic of the more ornate houses lining the residential streets to the south, the blocks within boundary increase also contained a few duplexes. Generally located on corner lots and employing a rectangular plan with a pitched roof, the multi-unit dwellings recall an era in which Roswell’s growth necessitated a higher density housing even within the preferred walkable suburb lining the downtown commercial district. During the Great Depression, most of the remaining undeveloped lots were filled with new housing. Continuing to reflect the changing popular taste in building styles, the infills occurring within the period of significance exhibit elements associated with the Southwest Vernacular style.
The selection of the period of significance, 1890-1946, reflects the platting of the first additions that make up the current district and the end of substantial development within the early subdivisions along the west side of Roswell’s original townsite that are included within the district’s boundaries. It also reflects efforts carried out during the New Deal and, later, with German prisoners-of-war to complete the landscaping projects associated with the North Spring River as it ceased to flow and it became, instead, a challenge for the community to integrate its now dry channel into the suburban landscape. This boundary increase to the historic district complements the original historic district, in that it represents a continuation of its landscape and building practices and the effort during the 1930s and 40s to stabilize the river channel.
Fleming, Elvis and Minor S. Huffman, ed. Roundup on the Pecos. Roswell, New Mexico: Chaves County Historical Society, 1978.
Fleming, Elvis and Ernistine Chesser Williams, ed. Treasures of History II: Chaves County
Vignettes. Roswell, New Mexico: Chaves County Historical Society, 1991.
_____. Treasures of History III: Southeast New Mexico People, Places, and Events. Roswell, New Mexico: Chaves County Historical Society, 1995.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps for Roswell, New Mexico, 1921.
Shinkle, James D. Fifty Years of Roswell History, 1867-1917. Roswell, New Mexico: Hall-Poorbaugh Press, Inc., 1964.
_____. Reminiscences of Roswell Pioneers. Roswell, New Mexico: Hall-Poorbaugh Press, Inc., 1966.
Essay taken from "Downtown Roswell Historic District," National Register of Historic Places, July 2001.
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