Just outside Las Vegas, New Mexico lies one of the best kept secrets of the Southwest. Near the sleepy village of Montezuma, alongside the Gallinas River, is a 90,000 square foot Queen-Anne style castle. The castle has a fascinating history, dating back to 1882.
The Montezuma Castle is a 400-room structure, bordered on one side by the river and on the other by forested foothills. The Rocky Mountains are just minutes away to the West, and to the East are the Great Plains.
Throughout its existence the castle has attracted notable clientele. Ulysses S. Grant, President Theodore Roosevelt, Japanese Emperor Hirohito, and Prince Charles of Wales are among its many famous guests. It has had several diverse incarnations; as a luxury hotel, a spiritual center, and now an International Baccalaureate school.
Built in 1882 it was the first building in the region to have electric lights and an elevator. The castle became an international destination due to the hot mineral baths on the grounds. The mineral baths were proclaimed to have medicinal properties. Many flocked to the springs to ease the pain of a number of ailments, including tuberculosis, gout, dyspepsia and chronic rheumatism. Guests were pampered at the baths by a staff offering a variety of services, from mud baths to massage.
The hot springs have been in use since around 800 AD, when indigenous tribes are believed to have used them for purification rituals and religious ceremonies. Around 1840, the Mexican government granted the hot springs and surround area to American entrepreneurs who built various structures and bathhouses in hopes of capitalizing on the legendary healing waters.
In 1882, businessman Fred Harvey (founder of the Harvey House hospitality chain) constructed a luxury hotel at a cost of $300,000. This was called “The Montezuma”. A railroad spur was constructed from the nearby ATSF railway all the way to Montezuma so guests could travel comfortably by rail, some in private Pullman Cars. A large resort was erected with elaborate gardens and beautifully landscaped grounds. Great care was taken to install electric lighting – the first in the region.
Tragically, just a year later an electrical fire broke out and burned the building to the ground.
Undaunted, Harvey rebuilt the hotel, hiring Chicago architectural firm Burnham and Root to build an even grander hotel, featuring bowling alleys and billiards rooms. Opening it’s doors in 1884, this new structure was advertised as being fireproof, with great care taken on the electrical wiring and water hoses running along the halls. In a stroke of bad luck, another fire broke out – this time in a turret at the top of the hotel. Unfortunately the firehouses could not reach this area, and much of the building burned. In 1886, the structure was rebuilt once again, and aptly named “The Phoenix”. Harvey realized this name echoed the previous misfortunes, and soon changed the name back to The Montezuma. Repeated misfortunes of the castle provided a such colorful background in the book “Child of a Rainless Year” by Jane Lindskold that the castle itself seemed a character in the story.
An economic depression in the 1890s in the US greatly decreased the number of visitors, and the hotel limited it’s operation to summers. The hotel closed its doors for the last time in 1903.
From that time forward the castle went through a series of name changes and repurposing. In the early 1900s boxer Jim Flynn used the building as a training center for his landmark 1912 fight with Jack Johnson which took place in nearby Las Vegas, NM. The YMCA bought the building in 1913, but never actually made use of it. From 1922 – 1931 the Southern Baptist Convention owned and operated it as a seminary. Then in 1937 the Catholic Church bought the building and ran a Jesuit Seminary to train priests until 1972.
In 1981, a hundred years after the original castle was built, the property was purchased by philanthropist Armand Hammer. With encouragement from Prince Charles, who was then president of the United World Colleges, the building and surrounding campus opened as the United World College of the American West in 1982. Today the United World College still occupies the campus, offering an International Baccalaureate curriculum to students from around the world. Currently about 200 students from over 70 countries attend the boarding school at Montezuma.
You can walk through the Montezuma Castle on student-led tours on Saturdays throughout the year. The nearby hot springs are open and free to the public.
Western Life Camp is 10 miles northwest of Montezuma. We offer free tours of our beautiful riverside cabins and would be happy to take you by Montezuma Castle and the hot springs when you come see us.
(For more on the origin of Montezuma see our article, They Call Me Montezuma.)
Contributed by Mike Root