GERALDINE CHICARELLI DAVIS TEETERS ATOP a sharply cut bank, peering into the sluggish creek below. She remembers when it flowed with enough force for children to splash and swim for days. She remembers her parents’ home rising behind her, and all the other homes, and all the other families of miners along the main dirt road and the faint ones leading into the nearby canyons. All of them were drawn to work in some of the richest coal mines in the nation.
“We had the childhood that a lot of children could envy,” she says, tears teasing the corners of her eyes. “We had the run of the creeks and hills and roads. It seemed like we were all a big family, all ethnic groups—German, Japanese, Scottish, everything.”
An early autumn wind sweeps across this uninhabited valley on the Vermejo, a Ted Turner Reserve, which butts up to the city of Ratón’s western edge. Foundations of forgotten houses are about all that proves what Chicarelli Davis remembers: the top-producing coal-mining town of Brilliant, just one of the company towns that once fanned out from Ratón—Sugarite, Dawson, and Van Houten also among them.
From 1873 to 2003, they gave the people on this volcanic cap of northeastern New Mexico some of the best-paying jobs they ever saw. But where houses, schools, social halls, and even a hospital once stood, little remains. The occasional glimpse of an old quarried-rock mule barn. A gated-off mine entrance. A series of crumbling coke ovens.
A special tour organized by the Raton Museum and Vermejo staff drew Chicarelli Davis, who lives in Ratón, along with members of her family and an assortment of history hounds, to explore a few of the towns that were on what’s now the Vermejo. The Turner property hopes to make it an annual excursion beyond the ranch’s locked gates. The trip also is a good example of the way residents of Ratón honor their past while striving toward a more prosperous future.
Nearly every person I meet on the tour cites a personal tie to that past—Ratón’s mines, or its old horse-racing venue, or the ranches scattered across the high plains. They share not only a remembrance of better days but a drive to bolster their hometown pride with a 21st-century spin that embraces outdoor enthusiasts, art lovers, and the film industry—plus a flight or two of craft brew.
“We’re at a point where we’re finally able to revitalize Ratón,” Brenda Ferri says over a hearty lunch at the 111 Park restaurant and coffeehouse, in the heart of downtown. She leads the city’s MainStreet program and the Raton Arts and Humanities Council, which runs the Old Pass Gallery, and she operates the Heirloom Shop, an antiques store. The MainStreet program just completed the state’s first Great Blocks project, with sidewalk and landscape improvements, and obtained a Verizon grant to install signage in the downtown area. “We’ve got young people coming in, a distillery, breweries, a really cool arts vibe,” she says. “The other night, I drove down and there were so many cars, so we’re getting a bit of nightlife, too.”
Kayvan Khalatbari, a Colorado entrepreneur who had tired of Denver’s explosive growth, purchased the long-closed El Raton Theatre last year and has already held events in it even as he tackles renovations. (The Spaghetti & Westerns Festival in October invited film and pasta buffs to events in both Ratón and Trinidad, Colorado, 21 miles north; some of them went between the two the old-fashioned way, via Amtrak.) He’s also building greenhouses for organic fruits and vegetables to be sold at co-op markets in Ratón and Trinidad, and creating even more jobs with a cricket farm whose products will end up in pet food and fertilizer.
Other investors are laying plans to transform the WPA-era Kearny Elementary School into a 4D film studio—the only one of its kind in the state—and will train residents for film industry jobs through a partnership with Santa Fe Community College.
The Raton Pass Motor Inn revels in its midcentury-modern past, proof positive that travelers will flock to properties that mix authenticity with a bit of sass. LA JEFA SAID CHANGE THE SIGN SO I DID, reads the motel’s turquoise-colored marquee the day I check in. In the downtown area, a handful of turn-of-the-century properties (think pressed-tin ceilings and wide-plank floors) await rebirth, something Khalatbari expects sooner rather than later. “I’ve found it much easier to work in Ratón than Colorado,” he says. “I think New Mexico is on its way up.”
SCOTT BERRY'S MOM WAS BORN TO ENGLISH parents who came over so that her father could work at Sugarite’s mine, about six miles northeast of Ratón. It’s now part of Sugarite Canyon State Park, which has interpretive trails through the town that was. Trained in civil engineering, Berry worked for the York Canyon Mine—the last of the breed—before becoming Ratón city manager in 2014. One of his big goals is to attract more tourists with expanded outdoor recreation.
Besides the hiking, camping, and fishing opportunities at Sugarite, he notes, Climax Canyon, in the heart of town, offers three miles of forested trails. Hikers and bikers can obtain a pass from City Hall to travel over the Old Pass Road—the original link between Colorado and New Mexico, which frontiersman “Uncle Dick” Wootton once charged a toll to use. Capulin Volcano National Monument looms 32 miles to the east, with trails on the rim and down below. Efforts are underway to add the 2,000-acre Bartlett Mesa Ranch to Sugarite’s 3,600 acres. Working with the Nature Conservancy, the Trust for Public Land, and the State of Colorado, Ratón aims to create a bi-state attraction that pulls travelers off I-25 for an extended weekend.
“We’re in the middle of everything—Denver, Albuquerque, and Amarillo, Texas,” Berry says, adding that the pandemic’s work-from-home opportunities helped at least one sector of the city. “We’re seeing a strong demand for housing. Colorado and Texas people can sell at the top of the market, get away from traffic and crime, and come to a quiet town.”
Michael Brown and Brandy Dietz bought into that vision when they purchased the Raton Pass Motor Inn in 2020. The former Dallas residents had frequently stayed at the motel while traveling to Denver and came to adore its 1956 vintage verve. “We were 97.7 percent full this month,” Brown says during a rare lull in the couple’s action.
They changed next to nothing in the period decor developed by previous owner Laurie “Bunny” Bunker. Rooms carry themes like Classic Movie Cowboy and Lucky 13, and breakfast includes the tiny boxes of cereal that lodgers remember from their youth.
“We’ve seen newer businesses come in already,” Dietz says, “hip and local people investing in this community.” One of their goals is to develop guided tours, including bike tours, of places like Sugarite and the nearby NRA Whittington Center, a 33,000-acre spread with a variety of shooting ranges and winding dirt roads, as well as the former mining town of Van Houten.
Visitors can get a grounding in all the region’s mines at the Raton Museum, in a stone Romanesque Revival building on Second Street. Director and curator Roger Sanchez delights in walking visitors through the exhibits, which include old mining equipment, a “danger” sign in six languages, and a wealth of historic photographs of towns that held hundreds of lives at a time. When the mines closed, the companies didn’t care to pay taxes on the buildings, so they either moved them to other mines or let residents deconstruct them and keep the parts. Some carted the square four-room houses to new neighborhoods in Ratón.
“You can still see some of them in the old parts of town—if you know what to look for,” Sanchez says.
Staring at an image of a place that held sturdy two-story gathering sites, baseball fields, post offices, and churches, places that have all but vanished, I’m struck by how fragile the material world turns out to be. Who’s to say whether any town that’s hit with an economic wallop will survive.
ANDY AND FABIE SOLANO REPRESENT HOPE for the long haul. In 1956, they moved from Las Vegas, New Mexico, to join Andy’s brother in a shoe repair business he purchased on Ratón’s main drag. They eventually took it over and grew Solano’s Boot & Western Wear into an emporium stretching half a city block that includes a veritable museum of bearskins, animal mounts, and well-worn hats donated by local cowboys.
“We’ve seen the town decline,” Fabie says, “but it hasn’t hurt us a whole lot.” Their kids and grandkids handle the internet sales for them and welcome customers, who include local ranch workers as well as actors Sam Elliott, Val Kilmer, and Tom Selleck. “When the town found out he was here,” Fabie says of Selleck, “we had to lock the doors.”
The resilience of star power also reigns a half block away, where the 1915 Shuler Theater still packs in crowds to enjoy local and touring shows, as well as its pristine Rococo design. Brenda Ferri has a key to it, so we slip in and can’t even get to the 451-seat auditorium before the lobby murals have me stunned, head cocked back in full gawkery.
Painted by Ratón native Manville Chapman as part of a WPA project, the murals depict eras of the city’s past, including its earliest days as Willow Springs, before a baffling 1880 name change to the Spanish word for a mouse. “Sometimes I wish we could change it back,” Ferri says with a smile.
She ducks backstage while I climb into an opera box overlooking the stage to watch as she works the rigging to bring down the original fire curtain, a massive watercolor depicting the Palisades, in nearby Cimarrón Canyon. The care that went into preserving not just one curtain but an entire theater testifies to Ratón’s skill for carrying the past into the future.
“Our town still needs a toy store, a sporting goods store, a bookstore,” Ferri says. “But we have a ghost.” The spirit of Evelyn Shuler, daughter of the physician and mayor for whom the theater was named, so loved the performing arts that even death can’t keep her away. “I’ve never seen her,” Ferri says. “But I’ve had professional actors doing Shakespeare who told me, ‘She watched the show tonight.’ ”
Perhaps, like a lot of very living, very active, and very forward-looking people, Miss Evelyn just can’t bear to leave.
Top of the World
Nestled near the towering Ratón Pass, the town of Ratón bursts with things to do.
Stay. Lodgers with a taste for the past adore the Raton Pass Motor Inn. Vintage car clubs are welcome. For a splurge-worthy stay, consider lodging and/or special activities at the Ted Turner Reserves Vermejo Ranch.
Eat. In the downtown area, get your fill at the Gate City Craft Bar, Colfax Ale Cellar, Bruno’s Pizza & Wings, and 111 Park, where you’re likely to meet some of the city fathers who gather there daily.
Explore. Learn about the region’s mining history at the Raton Museum, then head out to the interpretive trails at Sugarite Canyon State Park and the NRA Whittington Center. (Call the Whittington Center a day before to ensure the road to the old town of Van Houten is open.)
Shop. The Heirloom Shop, Santa Fe Trail Mercado, and Score Antique Shop hold treasures large and small. Solano’s Boot & Western Wear will dude you up like a cowboy, and its tack shop can repair anything under the sun.
Get outside. Hit the trails in town at Climax Canyon or head out to Capulin Volcano National Monument or Sugarite Canyon State Park for a true nature experience. The state park also welcomes anglers at Lake Maloya and has seasonal campsites. Reservations recommended.