A CANYON BEYOND BEAUTIFUL
by Mark Scheinbaum
American Reporter Correspondent
MILLS, N.M., Nov. 8, 2005 -- A trip to the floor of Mills Canyon in the Kiowa National Grasslands of New Mexico would probably make the most hard-core atheist drop to his knees and become a devout evangelist for any or all of the world's great religions.
The current news of hurricanes, earthquakes and fatal tornadoes compels me to tell a story which in some private way I almost want to keep to myself.
The journey to the flood plain of the Canadian River is a trip in space, time, history, and long-forgotten business lessons. It is a story of stark spiritual beauty - the jaw dropping kind, and the story of a man of vision who died penniless, begging for a cot, in a room of the mansion he built in happier days.
This dateline should be "Mills Canyon," but since that is even more obscure than the two-farm postal stop of Mills, NM (not even listed on most maps), we will stick with just Mills. In general terms, it is located east of Interstate 25 between Springer and Roy, N.M. The rugged trip to another place in time started a few months ago when a fish-and-game ranger in the bustling metropolis of Raton, N.M. (pop. 6,500), an hour to the north suggested the Canyon as a good mule-deer hunting location.
Go east from Springer, south at Abbott on State Highway 39, south 14 miles to Mills, and you are on the high mesas where the Rockies and its magnificent Sangre de Cristo Range give way on the long eastern slope to the Great Plains.
At the turn-off to the Canyon, after about 10 miles of successively steadily worsening dirt roads, you come to the windmill and two farm houses called Mills. They give no clue of the past.
The Harding County Website run by the Mosquero, N.M., Municipal School, says Mills was established by investors and homesteaders in the 1890s. "It had a population of 3,000 ... [A]t its present location in 1913 ... the Wilson Company from New York came and built a large store, elevator, bean house, stock pens, lumberyard, hotel and 14 resident houses for their employees.
"Mills finally ended up with three stores, five hotels, a theater, dance hall, four doctors, a hospital, barber shop, two implement sheds, a bank, two saloons, five churches, a school with grades 1-12, a dry goods store, three gas stations, a boarding house, and a jail built out of concrete."
But this bustling town was actually just the descendant of the original settlement at the base of the Canyon to the west.
Melvin Whitson Mills came to the New Mexico Territory in 1868. he established a law practice near the mines of Elizabethtown (now Eagle Nest), later joining with Territorial pioneer and rancher Thomas Catron. A controversial state legislator during the bloody Colfax County War, Mills escaped assassination attempts, became a district attorney and then Governor of the New Mexico Territory. His work as lawyer for the massive Maxwell Land Grant Company, made him one of the wealthiest and most influential New Mexicans of his day.
But for Melvin Mills, his passion and most famous venture would be the Orchard Ranch. which he built in the 1880s in the canyon that bears his name.
"It's estimated that he had 14,000 acres planted with fruits and vegetables, which became famous nationally," Colfax County electrician Dickie "Dee" Bond, a former outfitter and a history buff relates.
"Through a great location and irrigation techniques, plus the river itself, he provided food for stagecoaches and the Santa Fe rail line, and hotels and restaurants along the route. His peaches were the size of grapefruits, and he built a tramway up to the railhead in Springer to ship his produc," Bond says.
The official county description confirms the local lore:
"...[T]housands of fruit and nut trees, acres of vegetable gardens, an extensive irrigation system, numerous structures, roads, and a cargo tramway running from the canyon floor to rim, 800 feet above ... by the turn of the century New Mexico standards, Melvin Mills qualified as a genuine tycoon."
Of course, there is a rich unofficial history as well, one that tells of women who may or may not have been shanghaied from Kansas, taken by rail to Springer, then to Mills to a bawdy house attached to a hotel and only accessible there by secret doors, caves, and tunnels, none of which have yet to be found.
Let's set aside the business venture for a moment. Just say that Mills was a well-known, perhaps flamboyant promoter, sort of a Donald Trump of his day. The family and legacy he worked with and for and which led to his demise were the Maxwells, who were far, far, above Mills' own level of fortune and success.
To paraphrase FDR, nothing surprises like surprise itself.
From Cimarron to Springer to Mills, one drives about 90 minutes on an expanse of table-top mesas livened only by an occasional antelope, completely oblivious to you and your mode of transportation.
Even when you turn west at Mills and see the first signs for Kiowa National Grasslands, you know you are in cattle country. In mid-autumn, the gusts kick up reddish-brown swirls, the water holes await the early snows of the coming year, and the mountains behind you blend seamlessly into the Plains. On a clear day you probably can't see forever - or even Amarillo, a five-hour drive away - but you definitely feel as if two-thirds of the United States is slowly unfolding below you.
The cattleguards clank under your all-terrain tires, and a sign suggests, "Passenger cars not recommended beyond this point." A few more miles down the graded road, the grading becomes a faint memory. Then another sign syas, "primitive road only," warning about the next three miles.
There is a dark green-black line cutting across your high-desert horizon for what seems like 100 miles (it's actually about 40) from left to right (south to north). Your eye is fooled by the flat horizon and the light skipping from mesa to mesa, concealing deep arroyos and quiet canyons the first sign of the greener "bosque," the woods and tree line made fertile by the twisting Canadian River, and the moisture it gives up.
Dee Bond concurred with me that people who visit the Navajo Nation's Canyon de Chelly (pronounced canyon de-shay), usually feel the experience is superior to the more famous Grand Canyon to the west. Mills Canyon does not appear to have the geological or anthropological interest of that Arizona Navajo site, or the world famous Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, but there is that element of surprise that cannot be removed from the dangerous but magical descent into the canyon floor.
Bond, who grew up close to Palo Duro Canyon, a state park in the Texas Panhandle that is purportedly second only to the Grand Canyon in size, notes: "I've guided hunting and camping parties down there as recently as two years ago, and when I tell people of the natural beauty and serenity, well, I think they don't really believe me until they've seen Mills Canyon for themselves."
The switchbacks down the 800 feet, over two rugged miles, are no wider than an SUV. Fallen rocks and outcroppings narrow the road again in spots. If you get a flat, break an axle, run out of gas, or drive off the unguarded precipice, you're out of luck. There is no spot to turn around until you reach the canyon floor, where a small campground waits along the river.
At one of the steepest points is a bridge; well, not exactly a bridge - a slab of concrete is mounted on rotted railway ties. There's no guardrail on the shoulder. For those folks thinking about towing a trailer with all-terrain vehicles, or a camper, a word of caution. Going down into the canyon, the approach to this "bridge" is fairly straight for about 100 yards. Coming back up the wall of the canyon, you approach the bridge from a hairpin turn, with little hope of properly lining up a trailer's wheels on the concrete slab, which is about 20 feet long and 10 feet wide.
By horseback, mule, strong hiking legs, or a slow crawl in a four-wheel drive vehicle, you reach the rocky banks of the Canadian river. Your eye scans upward to the stripped white bark of a few aspen, and rusty, red, and redder strata of porous rock beneath ponderosa pine. It is definitely worth the trip.
No buildings other than the stone roofless frame of Mills' original two-story farmhouse mar the view. No sirens, no cellphones, no electricity. The only web is manufactured by a spider.
"Like a small plane or a boat, when you head for Mills Canyon for a camping trip, you make sure you've told a friend or relative where you're going, and when you're expected back," Bond said.
Yet in the modern world of highways and jetports, there is a lot of inner satisfaction and even total tranquility in knowing that unless someone else drives within two miles of the canyon rim, thousands of people driving along Interstate 25 each day when glancing to the East would have no idea of the grandeur, beauty and danger that waits beneath their horizon. You feel that the Kiowa, the Utes, and the early farm workers of Orchard Ranch must have felt loath to part with the secret of this Shangri-La.
As with ghost towns, abandoned gold and silver mines, and the bygone homesteading days of the Old West, Mills Canyon is but a postscript to a footnote in history.
There are a few lame explanations of the corporate greed, political chicanery, and personality conflicts that destroyed Orchard Ranch, but basically, Melvin Mills and his dreams were buried here.
Well, not really buried - more like drowned.
Known from Indian legend and Territorial pioneers as a place of freakish and record-setting extremes in weather, Mills Canyon was wiped out in the "massive floods of October 1904."
Harding County's history files tell of "Prolonged rains on the Canadian's drainage basin that caused the river to rise dramatically, 70 feet in three days by some accounts ... destroying the orchards, fields and irrigation system and buryng what remained under a thick blanket of silt. The river, which had provided the fertile soil and irrigation water that allowed this small empire to flourish, took most of it away in a few days."
Mills tried to save his farm, his fortune, his employees and their families. But his debts rose and he had to liquidate everything to resurrect the ranch. Banks finally took all of his homes and holdings. His old colleagues here and back East wanted no part of any new ventures.
The old Mills place name moved 10 miles east on the main road from tiny Abbott to the slightly larger agricutural center of Roy, N.M. Even his shredded legacy, the town of Mills, collapsed during the "Dust Bowl" years of the Great Depression.
Melvin Mills, whose only known physical legacy is a small piece of that collapsed stone farmhouse, died a pauper at age 80 in 1925. Most New Mexico history books don't mention him, and his grave in Springer is unmarked. His accomplishments, according to the county, "have fallen into obscurity, as lost to local memory as his unmarked grave in the Springer cemetery."
Perhaps his life can serve as a warning to mortal men of fortune, who think their temporal wealth will outlive the richer beauty of an enchanted canyon. Maybe that is the grace note of Mills' life.
The once revered former New Mexico governor, even in his most improverished years, had told friends he wished to breathe his final breath in the lovely mansion he built in the once-wealthy railroad town of Springer.
Local history there notes that his longtime friends had to beg, or perhaps even bribe, someone in that Mills-built mansion, by then the property of the family of his old law partner and friend, Thomas Catron, for permission to die on a dingy cot in an obscure corner of the house.