Back in the Old West When There Was No Old West
Tucked away in a picturesque valley in the foothills of the Sierra Madre is an enchanted Shangri-La that sings of other eras. Indians called this region Calimaya long before Spanish Explorer Vasquez de Coronado noted in 1540, ” here is something special…”
The Spaniards called this land Real de los Frailes because of some tall white rocks resembling hooded monks overlooking a small Indian village shaded by cottonwoods.
In 1683, 143 years after Coronado, two abundant veins of silver were discovered seven miles to the west of present day Alamos. The mines of Aduana and Minas Nuevas, in a zone 4.5 by 1.5 miles, produced an estimated $100,000,000 in 1910 dollars.
Soon, Alamos was the richest and most important city on the El Camino Real. Juan de Anza departed Alamos in September 1775 with local families and freshly mined silver to settle San Francisco. Alamos money and citizens were also vital for expeditions that settled Monterey, Santa Barbara and five years later, Los Angeles. Father Kino used the Royal treasury to finance a chain of missions in northern Sonora and southern Arizona. The Bishop and Governor resided in Alamos, as did the first high school, printing press and newspaper and important trading center.
The lure of silver brought international miners from Europe and other continents. On the Sea of Cortez galleons from Asia, Phillipines and Europe called on the port of Huatabampo loaded with cargo, a week by burro from Alamos. They brought luxuries such as silk and satin and the world’s finest furniture. Opera Companies visited. China minted coins here. Merchants came from India and Japanese supervised a silk factory. The indigenous population included Mayos, Yaquis, and Tarahumaras. Hordes of miners and traders, who endured great hardships in their travels, overran Alamos.
As many as 30,000 people made Alamos their home during the peak of its glory in the 18th century. Here, new Spain was pomp and circumstance with a beautiful Church, grand haciendas built in the style of Andalusia, Spain, flower-filled patios, romantic serenades, elegant carriages, flourishing commerce, and mines that ranked amongst the most productive in the world.
The Past is Alive in the Structures and the Sparkle of an Eye.
For the past 300 years Alamos has been built and shaped by families of wealth and taste. Experienced builders and skilled craftsmen, through good times and bad, have gone about town building and restoring ruins. Today it is a National Colonial Monument, an ageless tribute to the men and women who entrusted their designs, possessions and dreams to the future.
The Sunday promenade in Plaza de Armas goes back to the 1680’s. In peaceful times families gathered here for conversation, worship and grand public celebrations. The church and prominent colonial mansions were built surrounding the plaza for protection against the Indians: Tarahumara, Yaquis, Mayos and Apaches. Later, the plaza afforded a prestigious address.
For Every Action There is An Equal and Opposite Reaction.
With prosperity came hardship. The poor could not afford the inflated prices of merchandise shipped by pack trains from Guadalajara and Mexico City, a hazardous trek that took four months. Indians were used as slaves or cheap labor. Sanitation and disease were a problem: in 1770 alone plague wiped out 6,000 people.
There were continual power struggles between Colonels, Governors, Admirals, Priests, Bishops, and an unending parade of Royal emissaries. The city was heavily taxed by the Crown and by those who controlled the local territory. Political instability raged, treaties and agreements were broken. Alamos had its ups and downs depending on the mood of the day, month and seasons.
Alamos endured two centuries of siege mentality and the prize was control of silver and politics. At one time or another the plaza was overrun by the Spanish, Mexican colonists, Federalists, Liberals, French, Apaches, Independents, Reformers, Pancho Villa, Renegade soldiers and bandits. Along with droughts, pestilence and floods Indians continued constant uprising. Apaches came south to plunder and the independent Tarahumara sought revenge for their forced slavery. By 1849 only 4,000 people remained in Alamos. The miners had left for California’s gold rush.
And Then They Were Gone.
Trade shifted from El Camino Real to coastline ports. Plazas, arches, ornate ironwork, hand carved wood, high ceilings and cobblestone streets fell upon hard times. Roofs caved in leaving two to five foot thick walls open to the sky. The once great patios filled with debris. Despite the wars, bad weather and impoverished neglect. old families stayed, as did some miners. Alamos continued on… the sun would rise another day in this land that remained in a forgotten age.
The Plaza is peaceful these days. Alamos streets are safe from intruders and invaders.
Town folks sleep well at night knowing tomorrow is another day, another song, another hug, another laugh, another challenge, another moment to be part of Alamos…
And Then Along Came A Man Named Levant.
Not until the 1950’s did a lone American, Levant Alcorn, come to the cobble stone streets, and see the potential for the future. He saw value in the plazas, arches, ornate iron-work, carved wood doors, high ceilings, five-foot thick walls and proximity to the United States International border.
He began to acquire ruined mansions. Soon, he was selling property to independent Americans hoping to realize their dream standard of living. Restoration projects began and continue today. Now, Alamos has over 200 American families as part of its social fabric.
Each wall, every window and door is a story. Where did it come from, how and when did it get here? Was it made by an Alamos or imported craftsmen?
There is a prideful sense of ownership that comes with undertaking a restoration project that in reality will never end. And there is a humble realization that the casa is really owned by history and this is but a brief opportunity to be part of a continuum of gatekeepers and masters.
Restoration-maintenance is an industry, it is a way of life. Owners, maestros, workers
and house-help are a team that can last a lifetime.
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©2013 Anders Tomlinson, all rights reserved.