Much like the rest of New Mexico, the varied terrain of Eddy County, where Carlsbad serves as the county seat, was historically frequented by nomadic groups for numerous centuries. As time progressed, the area saw the arrival of the Mescalero and Lipan Apache, later joined by the Comanche tribes. This indigenous culture remained generally undisturbed until Spanish settlers appeared in the late 1500s. Their culture was so fundamentally different from native practices that it eventually supplanted them.
One of the initial groups to inhabit the region were Mexicans, primarily originating from Chihuahua and other adjacent areas. An early resident once labeled the land they traveled as “nothing but a howling wilderness.” Leading a nomadic existence, these individuals established temporary encampments and their main occupation was herding sheep.
Post-War Anglo Immigration
After the cessation of the Mexican-American War in 1846, a significant influx of settlers — commonly known locally as Anglos, or white, non-Hispanic Europeans — started to populate the area. In her book, Barren, Wild, and Worthless, author Susan Tweit depicted these cattle herders as thinking that “The grass seemed endless, the profits sure.” However, they eventually grasped the drawbacks of overgrazing, but that’s another slice of history.
History of the Halagueno Ranch
In 1881, Charles Eddy, in collaboration with his brother John and ally Amos Bissell, came onto the scene and launched the Eddy-Bissell Livestock Venture at the Halagueno Ranch in Seven Rivers. Situated around 20 miles north of Carlsbad, Seven Rivers is notable as the county’s earliest settlement. The history of the area involves the Native American clashes that unfolded between 1882 and 1883. Moreover, it was an area frequented by William Bonny, also popularly referred to as Billy the Kid.
Irrigation on the Pecos by the Eddys and Bissell
The Eddy brothers and Bissell constructed an irrigation ditch along the Pecos River, facilitating agricultural growth. This infrastructure improvement attracted additional settlers who leveraged the expanded irrigation facilities to cultivate an array of crops, including fruits, vegetables, and grains, as well as producing alfalfa to feed various livestock like horses, cows, and sheep.
Charles Eddy imagined a burgeoning community and he named his town Eddy. When he discovered mineral springs with curative properties comparable to those in Karlsbad, Bohemia (part of today’s Czech Republic) he renamed the town Carlsbad in 1889 as a marketing strategy for the medicinal springs. This multifaceted success in ranching and health springs drew immigrants from countries such as England, France, Switzerland, and Italy, spurring further development.
Eddy donated an entire municipal block for the creation of a courthouse. Initially featuring Victorian brickwork, the edifice was enlarged twice: first in 1914 and then again in 1939. It was during the 1939 extension that the building underwent a makeover into the Pueblo Style we see today.
Impact of John Hagerman
The industrialist John H. Hagerman was responsible for introducing the Pecos Valley Railroad to the community in 1891. Designed to move both locally grown goods and passengers, the city built a top-tier hotel named The Hagerman Hotel, a two-story structure with 60 lodging rooms.
Under Hagerman’s management, his irrigation firm constructed the Avalon Dam on the Pecos River back in 1891. Unfortunately, the dam was breached by a flood in 1893. Hagerman rebuilt it in 1904, only for it to be washed away again. The Bureau of Reclamation took on the challenge of a third rebuild in 1906, naming it the Carlsbad Project. This endeavor included the Avalon Dam, the McMillan Dam, a reserve for water storage, and the distinctive Pecos River Flume, a feature that enabled the river to cross over itself.
Carlsbad is home to an array of exciting attractions that make your visit to Guadalupe Mountains National Park truly remarkable.
In 1925, the Carlsbad area became a key player in the agricultural sector when potash, a vital potassium compound for fertilizers, was discovered. This find established a novel industry, setting Carlsbad as a central player in the potash market until the 1960s.
A photograph from circa 1960 showcases six unnamed IMCC employees stationed beside a train boxcar that carried the 100,000th shipment of potash from IMCC. Courtesy of the Bob Nymeyer Photo Collection; captured by Bob Nymeyer. Image accredited to the Southeastern New Mexico Historical Society.
During the 1970s, the organization then called the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (now called the Department of Energy), set up the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP. Situated roughly 26 miles to the east of Carlsbad and 2,150 feet under the ground in a salt formation, WIPP serves as a repository for transuranic waste originating from defense activities.
So, if you’re as intrigued as Jim White was, the man who initially discovered these famous caverns in 1901, please plan to visit Carlsbad Caverns. But while you’re in the area, make sure to experience the history of city that lent its name to these caverns. Your adventure will be that much more rewarding.
Read about fun things to do in Carlsbad here!
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