July 1, 2014
By Bill Langer
Along the Sandia Mountains outside Albuquerque, be sure to watch for the light from a miner’s cabin.
We leave Adrian, Texas, in our rear view mirror as we continue our westward trek along old Route 66/Interstate 40. Soon we reach the Texas/New Mexico border where we make a ceremonial swing through the ghost town of Glenrio. Mrs. Ehresman no longer serves her coconut cream pie. Her husband, Homer, no longer runs his service station or tourist court. Glenrio has faded into obscurity.
On our way to Santa Rosa, N.M., we zoom past San Jon and Tucumcari, as well as several more ghost towns scattered amongst lush irrigated fields or bleak prairies filled with yucca and bunch grass. Cattle can be seen grazing amongst the sandstone outcroppings and rock ridges, reminiscent of time preceding the creation of Route 66 when we would have been following the Ozark Trail.
Santa Rosa, “the City of Natural Lakes,” is an oasis in this area of otherwise red mesas of the flatlands. It sits on the edge of a humongous sinkhole that was formed over geologic time as groundwater dissolved the underlying limestone. The land surface gradually subsided in a large roughly circular area about 6 miles in diameter and up to 400-feet deep. About 190 smaller collapsed sinkholes, some up to 1,500-feet in diameter, are contained within the larger sinkhole. One such sinkhole is the 81-foot-deep Blue Hole, a favorite spot for scuba divers.
When we depart Santa Rosa, we need to choose which way we want to go. The original alignment of Route 66 through New Mexico was approximately 507 miles long. It followed the old Pecos Trail north to Santa Fe and then turned south to Albuquerque. One of the most challenging sections of that route occurred along a particularly nasty stretch down La Bajada Hill between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. There, a 500-foot drop along narrow switchbacks struck terror in the hearts of many early travelers, so much so that locals were often hired to drive vehicles down the steep slope.
During 1937, Route 66 was straightened out on an east-west axis from Glenrio to Albuquerque, cutting Santa Fe off the route and shortening the road by 108 miles. No matter which alignment is taken, travelers following old Route 66 were treated to spectacular views of the Sandia Mountains as they approach Albuquerque.
Ancient peoples scratched out mines in the Sandia Mountains searching for materials to use for ceramics, building stones, cutting and grinding tools, and other implements. The Spaniards came looking for gold and silver. Spanish records dating from 1667 describe five mines; the location of only one of which is known today. The rest are known as the lost mines of Montezuma.
Gold, silver, copper, lead, and zinc were all mined in the Sandias during the 19th century although they never experienced a mining boom because of the marginal reserves. The best known mine was La Luz (the light); a lead/silver mine at 10,040 feet. Men and mules hauled tools and supplies up the mountain. There is a story that, on some nights, people in Albuquerque could see the dim light from the miner’s cabin; thus the name.
Today, the main mineral commodities mined in the Sandias are similar to those mined by the ancients…the non-metallics, including sand and gravel, crushed stone, cement, scoria, clay, pumice, and gypsum.
When we arrive at Albuquerque, our destination for the night, we should remember to carefully look at the Sandia Mountains. Maybe we will see the light.
Bill Langer is a consulting research geologist who spent 41 years with the U.S. Geological Survey before starting his own business. He can be reached at Bill_Langer@hotmail.com
Editor’s Note: To read about other stops on the Route 66 tour, click here.