DON’T BE FOOLED BY THE SUNSHINE, surrounding mountain ranges, occasional adobe building, or even the town’s name, which is Spanish for “fat cottonwood.” “Alamogordo is not a Southwestern town,” asserts Deb Lewandowski, who manages the Tularosa Basin Museum of History, in the heart of Alamogordo. “We’re a Northeastern town dropped into the Southwest.”
What she means is that Alamogordo was founded in New Mexico’s territorial era by Anglo entrepreneurs, who built an economy based on railroads and extractive industries and named their main drag New York Avenue. Nestled in the Tularosa Basin, between the Sacramento Mountains and miles of flowing gypsum dunes, the city thrived for decades but never achieved the cachet that has drawn hordes of people to settle in other recreational hot spots in the West. In fact, for many of the nearly 800,000 people who visit nearby White Sands National Park every year, Alamogordo is little more than a town to drive through.
That’s changing. A band of visionaries has begun luring visitors by spotlighting the town’s varied history with monthly walking tours, revitalizing grand old buildings, beautifying the very walkable downtown area, and coordinating fun events for visitors and residents. Craft brews, New Mexico–made wines, hip lodgings, and down-home cuisine help seal the deal.
Born and raised in New Mexico, as a kid I played in the White Sands dunes a couple of times and passed through Alamogordo on the way to Ski Apache. It wasn’t until my sister got stationed at Holloman Air Force Base, outside of town, that I started to spend a more meaningful amount of time there. We’d plan full-moon picnics during extended hours at White Sands and order trays of $1 tacos from the Lowe’s Signature Market tortilleria on Tuesdays. But a year later, I had to admit that I still didn’t have a clear idea of where Alamogordo’s main street even was, and I hadn’t explored amenities beyond the bounds of the Alameda Park Zoo and its playground—favorite stops for my four-year-old.
That explains why I’m here, on a Saturday morning, to learn more about the town on one of its monthly Roadrunner Emporium New York Avenue Ghost and History Tours. Each stop on the tour is giving me another reason to spend more time in Alamogordo. Most of what I’ve heard about the city has been related to the U.S. Department of Defense and military activities, so my eyes are opening at the tales of saloons and brothels, anecdotes of resilience, and examples of creativity in architecture and art.
“Historically, New York Avenue was the hub of retail and community gathering in Alamogordo,” says Nolan Ojeda, executive director of Alamogordo MainStreet. “People talk about crazy days and the downtown hoedown and festivals and old-fashioned Christmas. Recently, we’ve noticed a huge shift back toward people wanting to support local shops and have a quaint downtown experience.”
A $1.9 million grant from New Mexico MainStreet to beautify the two most retail-heavy blocks of New York Avenue will fuel the momentum and add an improved decorative plaza for events and festivals. “Our last three events that Alamogordo put on saw about 5,000 people—that’s a pretty big deal in a town of about 35,000 people,” Ojeda says. “Events that started out as one city block are expanding to four. To have this new, beautiful streetscape will really take our events to the next level.”
THE ALAMOGORDO AREA HAS BEEN INHABITED for at least 11,000 years, first by the Mogollon and later by the Apache people. The town we know today, though, started because of a different town’s stumble.
“About 125 years ago—and no, I’m not that old—a couple of brothers founded Carlsbad,” says Alice Weinman, who has kept a shop called Victoria on Alamogordo’s New York Avenue for four decades. “Let me tell you why we in Alamogordo are the way we are: It’s because of the way they were.”
Miss Alice, as she’s known, reasons that Carlsbad founders Charles and John Eddy’s conservative 1887 rules resulted in that town’s outskirts, the parts beyond the brothers’ control, attracting less-savory businesses—bars and brothels, primarily. The Tularosa Basin offered a second, 1898 opportunity for the Eddys to found “a good town” while building a short-line railroad between El Paso and Alamogordo to supply the city with coal and timber from the Sacramentos.
When the Eddys arrived, the basin had only recently been settled by Hispanic farmers and Franciscan friars. They oriented their new town of Alamogordo around a canal lined with fat cottonwoods. “They planted another 2,000 trees and built a lake,” says Joe Lewandowski, Deb’s husband of 47 years and the Tularosa Basin Historical Society’s board director. At the center of their newly formed desert oasis, the Eddys erected a hotel and established a main street that zigzagged to prevent horse racing. Unlike Carlsbad, Alamogordo permitted alcohol, albeit only in limited, regulated spaces.
Hispanic residents were segregated into the Chihuahuita neighborhood, which held the 1914 Dudley School. Crossing the Tenth Street dividing line was forbidden until desegregation, in 1954. The Tularosa Basin Historical Society recently acquired the school and is renovating it to create a community center and park—the first park on that side of town.
A self-proclaimed garbologist, Joe Lewandowski was managing the Alamogordo land-fill in 2014 when video gamers insisted that an excavation could prove whether 728,000 E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial game cartridges, which some claimed Atari had buried in Alamogordo in 1983, were actually there. The ill-fated video game had been a widely proclaimed failure that became the stuff of urban legend as gamers argued over what had happened to it. Joe led the 2014 dig. The games were there. He recovered 1,300 of them and sold them to pay for renovations of various properties, including the Dudley School.
Turning onto New York Avenue the morning of my tour, I pass under string lights that connect the two sides of the street before I find a spot to leave my wheels for the day. A sandwich board in front of Roadrunner Emporium confirms I’m in the right place, so I head inside. Vendors take up every corner of the sprawling corner building. The 15 minutes I have before the tour starts won’t be enough time to trawl through the local art and curated antiques for sale, but I do peruse the selection of handcrafted body-care products. Later, I’ll regret not buying a tube of lip balm made with pistachio oil.
Store owner and ghost tour mastermind Chris Edwards hands me a copy of New Mexico’s Influence Magazine, published on New York Avenue, though he’s too modest to mention his hand in producing its lifestyle content. A minute later, he invites our group of seven—including the president of the Flickinger Center for Performing Arts nonprofit board, her family, a longtime local, and a transplanted retiree—downstairs to begin the tour.
Right off, he scares us with a descent into the basement of the 1900 building, which is purportedly haunted by the illegitimate baby of the bank president’s daughter. (When I’d called to reserve my spot, Edwards had assured me that ghosts are just a small part of the story. “We try to tell the story of the redevelopment that’s happening here,” he says.)
After marveling at three of the building’s four atomic-bomb-proof safes, which rest one on top of the other on a rare patch of bedrock, we cross the street to Weinman’s gift shop. She spins the yarn of her resident ghost, a rustler who died during surgery for his gunshot wounds and whose bones she suspects rest under her floorboards. Before we leave, Weinman points out that “Chris has four vaults, but I’ve got the biggest one.” Her place, after all, was previously owned by the town loan shark.
Blocks before reaching it, I notice the retro lines and curving neon set against the red-brick facade of the 620-seat Flickinger Center for Performing Arts. The restored neon “S” centered on the marquee stands for Sierra Movie Theater, the venue’s name when it opened. Admission in 1956 cost 65 cents for adults and 20 cents for children.
We enter through Patron’s Hall, directed by a skyscraping mural promising coffee and ice cream. The mural is being replaced, as neither treat is served here anymore, but Edwards does produce sandwiches. Refueled, we follow volunteer Donna Sennett into the Flickinger’s concession area. During our walk-through, we see a “cry room,” where Miss New Mexico pageant judges now deliberate, and hundreds of lipstick kisses marking the door of the orchestra pit. The creativity is embodied by clouds painted on a blue ceiling of the green room.
Sennett shares that Sierra Movie once boasted the most comfortable seats of any theater; she shed tears when they were torn out. Those American Body Form velvet cushions live on in the nearby Historic Sands Theatre, future site of the Southern New Mexico Museum of Film. “White Sands National Park is the state’s second-most-visited place for film,” says Edwards, who is one of the Sands Theatre’s co-owners. Eventually, the Sands will also provide a venue for classic films and live music.
Upon leaving the Flickinger, we’re greeted by stone centaurs at the Gardens of New York. Stark on the outside, the former Coca-Cola bottling plant—now the home of artists Emmanuel and Lydia Renteria—drips with eye-catching details: animal hides, a carved wooden carousel pony, and The Ladies at Brunch, Lydia’s arrangement of mink furs draped over the backs of dining chairs.
As we make our way to the Tularosa Basin Museum of History, Edwards directs our attention to the county building’s Peter Hurd mural, WPA-stamped sidewalks, and properties that have narrowly avoided becoming CVS stores and flattened parking lots.
“This was the bar,” Deb Lewandowski says, gesturing at the museum gift shop’s red dyed-and-etched concrete floor, pointing out a strip of slightly pink concrete where the counter once stood.
In the part of the building that held the Plaza Cafe, I glance up at the vigas and latillas, made from trees harvested in the Sacramento Mountains. Deb guides us past artifacts from the nearby Three Rivers Petroglyphs area into a room that was once the Plaza Cafe’s freezer. Glass in place of plaster over one section of the interior wall reveals adobe brick. The room now houses military and government materials from 1948 to 2019, including J. Robert Oppenheimer’s security badge and equipment used at the Trinity Site.
The next room bursts with objects, from the Winchester rifle that shot down a plane trying to export five cases of illegal whiskey during the Prohibition era to a piano belonging to Elizabeth Garrett, who composed “O Fair New Mexico” and, with Helen Keller, sought state funding for the New Mexico School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which opened in Alamogordo in 1906.
One display case galvanizes me. It’s dedicated to La Luz pottery, the warmly glazed vessels that workers created at a compound in La Luz from 1930 to 1955. The property later became a hippie commune before the Tularosa Basin Historical Society took it over.
Every other Saturday, learned guides give tours of the 235 acres, including a handful of rescued buildings and the 20-foot-tall clay kiln. This spring, volunteers will lead pottery workshops. Just call the museum to set yours up, Joe Lewandowski says. While you won’t get to dig clay from the on-site pits, you will get to shape a piece, stamp it with a second-generation La Luz trademark, and have it fired in an electric kiln.
“I’d go to jail if I fired up the old kiln,” Joe says, joking about its legendary power. “It’s basically eight flamethrowers.” While waiting out the process, you can stay overnight on the property in your own RV. Just like the old days, Joe says. “We’re turning it into a commune again.”
PLAN TO STOP
Soak up Alamogordo’s museums, drinking establishments, and downtown boutiques, as well the state’s oldest zoo.
Stay. Pets are welcome and humans get breakfast vouchers at the Classic Desert Aire Hotel, the most stylishly updated of the city’s roadside motels.
Shop. Find Tularosa Basin–made goods at the Local Bodega. Buy one bag of everything from the tortilleria inside the Lowe’s Signature Market. Pick up gifts at New York Avenue’s Roadrunner Emporium and Victoria.
Eat and drink. Start the day with a cinnamon roll at Our Country Kitchen. Hi-D-Ho Drive-In is the oldest continuously open restaurant in Alamogordo. Si Señor Restaurant draws crowds; meet locals at Rizo’s Mexican Restaurant. Sample a White Sands Wit at 575 Brewing Co., brave the favorite haunt of New York Avenue’s ghosts at Picacho Peak’s taproom, and round out your tour of Alamogordo’s watering holes at the Tall Pines Beer and Wine Garden. Sip New Mexico vintages at D.H. Lescombes Winery and Bistro and Tularosa Basin varietals at Heart of the Desert. Neighboring McGinn’s PistachioLand offers orchard and vineyard tours.
Get cultured. From its home in the historic WPA-built Alamogordo Woman’s Club, Otero Arts offers rotating exhibits of locals’ work and hosts weekly belly-dancing classes.
Blast off. Some of the state’s contributions to science and technology are highlighted at the New Mexico Museum of Space History, which also leads twice-a-year treks to the nearby Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was tested.
Go way back. At the intersection of Tenth Street and White Sands Boulevard, a new Historical Railroad Park illustrates the most-photographed corner of Alamogordo’s 1900 beginnings with enlarged images and reproduced monuments. “As you walk in the circle, you literally get this 360-degree view of what your surroundings looked like through time,” says Nolan Ojeda, executive director of Alamogordo MainStreet.
Chug along. The Alameda Park Zoo stands in the location of the original hotel. Next door, the Toy Train Depot details railroad history and offers $5 rides along the miniature tracks through Alameda Park.
Mark your calendar. Plan your trip around Alamogordo’s top annual events: Immaculate Car Club Show Up and Show Off (May 20), Otero County Heritage Festival & Street Dance (August 19), White Sands Balloon & Music Festival (September 16–17), and Christmas on MainStreet (December 2). Nichols Ranch and Orchards holds its Cherry Festival on Father’s Day weekend and an Apple Festival on the weekend straddling September and October.