Touching the Past at Dripping Springs

We arrived at the Dripping Springs Natural Area Visitors Center on a perfect, golden September morning. As a helpful ranger told us a little about the history of the area and gave us a trail map, dozens of hummingbirds crowded the feeders on the observation deck. The view of Las Cruces stretching westward in the valley below and the eastern vista of the crags of the Organ Mountains soaring 9000 feet into the cloudless sky were simply spectacular.

The area’s namesake rock springs are only about a mile and a half from the visitors center. The hike is rated as easy, although there is an altitude gain of about 1500 feet most of which occurs in the first part of the walk. There is a well-maintained trail with strategically placed benches and picnic tables where hikers can rest and admire the incredible scenery along the way.

Because of the altitude change as you climb the trail the flora gradually transitions from cacti and desert scrub to carpets of wildflowers and huge cottonwoods. Observant hikers may see several species of birds including quail, red-tailed hawks and eagles, deer, rattlesnakes, squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits and even the occasional mountain lion.

We headed up the trail in the warm sun with insects buzzing, lizards scampering out of the way and grasshoppers leaping left and right. The natural beauty is more than enough to make Dripping Springs a fun and interesting place to hike. But there’s more. There are ruins. 

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The Dripping Springs ruins complex is not ancient. The buildings, which are clustered in three groups scattered through a narrow canyon, date from the late 1800s and early 1900s. The sites include the remains of a stagecoach station, a resort hotel and a tuberculosis sanitarium.

The Bureau of Land Management is attempting to stabilize the historic structures. That means all the buildings are off limits. You cannot go inside. However, you can walk around the exteriors and peer through the windows and doors some of which are covered with metal mesh.  

Dripping Springs is a photographer’s paradise. The opportunity to capture images of real Old West buildings in a dramatic mountain setting is amazing. Each group offers a distinct atmosphere and appearance. Make sure your phone or camera is fully charged.

The Stagecoach Stop

The first buildings hikers come upon – just like mountain travelers more than a century ago – is the Butterfield stagecoach stop and livery station. This was not a stop on a main stagecoach line. It was constructed specifically to service the resort, known as Van Patten’s Mountain Camp, which is about a quarter of a mile further up the trail.

Resort guests boarded coaches in Las Cruces for the 17-mile journey into the mountains. After they were dropped off at the resort, the coaches and horses returned to this livery area. At the height of the resort’s popularity the station included a barn for coaches, wagons and horses, a general store, a large vegetable garden and a chicken coop. Today in addition to the buildings, you’ll see a watering trough and a corral.

After you leave the Butterfield stage area, you’ll encounter a clearly marked loop in the trail. It doesn’t matter which direction you go first but make sure you travel the entire loop.

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The Resort

If you take the left-hand loop, your next stop will be the remains of the resort hotel, Van Patten’s Mountain Camp. Although the name has a rustic feel, the hotel was anything but. Construction began around 1895 and the resort opened in 1897. It had 15 guest rooms, a dining hall, a concert hall, a gazebo and a roller-skating rink. The resort, named after its founder and owner Eugene Van Patten, offered guests a refreshing break from the oppressive heat of Las Cruces in the desert below.

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Van Patten, who was from upstate New York, led an eventful and adventurous life. By the time he opened his mountain resort, he had been a stagecoach driver, a stationmaster, a county sheriff, a US Marshall, founded several businesses and fought in the Civil War. He was married to a high-ranking Piro Indian woman named Benita Madrid Vargas.

Because of Benita’s family and community connections, the resort was staffed by young Piro men and boys. They worked at the hotel and the livery area and helped maintain the roads. The younger boys carried cool water from the rock springs to the guest rooms. Sometimes Piro men captivated resort guests by putting on dance performances in the roller-skating rink.

It was all very exotic and incredibly beautiful and by 1900 Van Patten’s Mountain Camp was the talk of the Southwest. It attracted notables such as Pancho Villa and Sherriff Pat Garrett. Rumor has it that Billy the Kid, who was indeed active in and around Las Cruces, was also a guest.

The resort lost its panache and fell on hard times during the First World War. By 1917 it was all over. Van Patten went bankrupt and sold the property to Dr. Nathan Boyd, a San Francisco physician who renamed it the Dripping Springs Resort.

The Springs

The next stop along the trail is a natural interlude. An excellent spot to view the rock springs lies along the trail just beyond the resort. Water emerges several places in the cliff face, in some spots as small waterfalls. The amount of water coming out of the mountainside depends on the season. Even if the water is not rushing, it is still a beautiful and peaceful place to take pictures. The sound of the water dripping through the rocks is magical.

The Sanitarium

The next and final stop on the trail loop is the Boyd Sanitarium. This is where tuberculosis enters the story.

It’s hard to imagine how horrible tuberculosis, or consumption as it used to be known, was. A nearly always fatal wasting disease, its symptoms included uncontrollable bloody coughing, high fever, exhaustion and intense chronic chest pain. Tuberculosis is highly contagious and anyone of any age, including young children, could succumb. Patients suffered greatly and died miserable deaths. There was no cure until the 1950s. Prior to that time the most doctors could do was to keep patients as calm and comfortable as possible.   

During the 1800s, for reasons that are still unclear, people began to link tuberculosis to the climate. It was felt that the humid atmosphere in big cities along the coasts was making people who already had consumption sicker as well as causing the disease to spread more rapidly. Doctors recommended that patients move to the high mountain deserts of the Southwest for the thin, dry air. Thousands upon thousands of them, along with their doctors and nurses, migrated to New Mexico.

Sanitariums opened across the state to accommodate the influx of people. They ranged from modest operations that were little more than clusters of tents to elaborate and elegant facilities that catered to wealthy sufferers from as far away as Europe. Both Presbyterian Healthcare Services and Lovelace Medical Group began as tuberculosis sanitariums.

“Treatments” included having patients sleep outside in the cold night air, even during winter. If that was not possible, sleeping with all the windows open was an acceptable alternative. Patients who were strong enough were encouraged to walk outdoors each day. Those who were too weak spent much of their time wrapped in blankets, lying on chaise lounges outside.

And this brings us back to Dr. Nathan Boyd, the new owner of the Dripping Springs Resort. Dr. Boyd’s wife had contracted tuberculosis and he was desperate to help her. He not only planned to convert the Dripping Springs Resort into a sanitarium, his goal was to create a huge state-of-the-art mountainside health complex for consumptives.  

The large frame building on stilts that dominates the site today was the sanitarium dining hall. A few other structures were completed, but the grand plan for a major facility never came together.

Less than three years after buying the property, the Boyds sold it to Dr. Sexton, a Las Cruces physician. He operated the sanitarium for a few more years then closed it for good. According to local people the buildings were in fairly good shape as late as 1946. Most of the damage we see occurred since then.

Not all the destruction was due to vandals, however. Some portions of the sanitarium simply disappeared on their own. Units known as ephemeral patient housing, basically lean-tos, were scattered around the area. No evidence of these units remains but several were situated in the cliffs above the dining hall. In the thinking of the day, higher locations had healthier air, especially on cold, clear nights.

And it is with the approach of darkness as the Dripping Springs Natural Area prepares to close for the evening that visitors report having strange experiences near the sanitarium. Some hear deep, rasping sighs. Others report being engulfed by sudden waves of sadness. Still others describe feeling agitated as if something awful is about to happen.  

The weird shadows cast by boulders and the eerie late afternoon sounds of the mountains could cause anyone to feel a little edgy. It’s perfectly normal. What some people think are sighs is nothing more than birds rustling their wings as they settle into the treetops for the evening. Surely that’s all it is. Isn’t it?

Plan a Visit

The Dripping Springs Natural Area is located less than 20 miles outside of Las Cruces, New Mexico. It is administered by the Bureau of Land Management. There is an excellent Visitors Center with a large parking lot and restrooms staffed by friendly, knowledgeable people who will help you understand the ruins and tell you what to expect as far as plants and animals go. A visit to this beautiful area is highly recommended.

For information on hours, fees, etc visit Dripping Springs Natural Area

 

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