Socorro History

Socorro County was established by the Territorial Legislature of New Mexico in 1852 with the City of Socorro as the county seat. At the time of the County’s founding, it stretched all the way from Texas to California. Subsequently, many counties have been carved out of Socorro County, giving the County its current boundaries.

Among the early inhabitants of the county were the pueblo people, the “Piros” who settled in the area around 1200. Several centuries later, the region was also populated by tribes to be later known as the Navajo and Apaches.

In 1598 the village of Socorro was so-named by Don Juan de Oñate, who was given supplies by the Piros on his expedition through the area. Socorro is the Spanish word for “help/aid.” Throughout the 1600s, Spanish missionaries were sent to the area to teach Christianity to the Piros, and the region also was host to a few Spanish settlements serving as stops along the Camino Real. Some of these early settlements were La Joya, Luis López, and Valverde.

In 1680, the “Pueblo Indians” revolted against the Spanish, forcing the settlers to retreat to present-day Mexico. Although New Mexico was re-conquered by the Spanish in 1692, the Socorro County area remained relatively uninhabited by European settlers, however, the area was the site of numerous battles between the Spanish and native tribes. By the 1810s, the region was again permanently settled by the Spanish, including ranching villages such as San Antonio and trading stops along the Camino Real. The Socorro County area became part of Mexico in 1821, and the area continued to be colonized.

After the war with Mexico in the late 1840s, the area of Socorro County became the territory of the United States. In 1854 Fort Craig was established at its current location to protect European settlers from native tribes. 1861 brought the Civil War to Socorro County, most significantly the battle of Valverde, where Confederate forces were victorious over the Union army. After the Civil War, the region saw increased settlement and prosperity due to mining and ranching.

Socorro County was known for being part of the “wild west” during the booming years of the 1880s. Some significant events include Sheriff Elfego Baca’s famous shoot-out, the Socorro vigilante movement, and less dramatic events, such as the founding of the New Mexico School of Mines in 1889. The boom times came to an end in the 1920s, leaving Socorro County as a peaceful agricultural community. During World War II the first atomic bomb was detonated in the County at Trinity site, not far from San Antonio.

Today in Socorro County, ranching and farming is still the most vital part of the economy, but the County is also leading the way in the technological development of the country with the help of world-renowned research facilities such as New Mexico Tech, the NRAO's VLA, and Stallion Site on White Sands Missile Range.

Highway Development Through Socorro County

By Paul Harden

Note: This information was shared with a constituent researching a family member's prison escape from a road crew in 1918 on 'Socorro Road'.

In 1918, there was no standardization on how highways were named, and those tended to change from state to state and year to year. Prior to 1926, the names are a bit of a mess. The Federal Highway Commission was formed in 1923 to straighten out the national mess, which started the numbering system of U.S. Highways and encouraged the same at the state level.

Prior to 1926, most highways were known by names, such as the "Lincoln Highway," "Pikes Peak Highway," "Ocean to Ocean Highway" (which went through Socorro), etc. It was a push to form the first highway to run coast to coast and fights as to the routing (i.e., through Denver, Santa Fe, etc.). The first true coast-to-coast highway ended up coming from Norfolk, Va to Los Angeles via Amarillo, TX, Socorro, NM, and on to Los Angeles. It was called the "Ocean to Ocean Highway," (O2O) completed in 1911, and on to Los Angeles. Of interest, the reason it came through Socorro is that there were no bridges spanning the Rio Grande. The County of Socorro decided to build a bridge across the Rio Grande north of Socorro to beat Albuquerque, which is today's Escondida Lake bridge.

That was the first auto bridge across the Rio Grande and lured the highway through Socorro and away from Albuquerque. In those days, the O2O came down Johnson Hill to Pueblito, and across the new County bridge. In 1926, the O2O was designated U.S. 60 and rerouted over Abo Pass (the designation it still holds).

At the same 1910-12 period, there was a push to build a highway from Mexico to Canada. El Camino Real was chosen to be this highway from El Paso to Santa Fe, then the Santa Fe trail to Raton, then to Denver, Cheyenne, and the Canadian border. In New Mexico, this was known as the "Camino Real Highway." There are a few references to the "Socorro Highway," being the segment from Albuquerque to Socorro. I am assuming this is the "Socorro Road," though I have never seen a reference quite to that exact name. In 1926, this highway was redesignated into U.S. 85, and in 1964, replaced by Interstate I-25. The old U.S. 85 is now NM-1 through Socorro County.

There are references to portions of El Camino Real Highway being built by prison labor, primarily due to the efforts of the Superintendent of Penitentiaries at the time, Holm Bursum. Documentation indicates prison labor was used on the road from Socorro north to the Rio Puerco, and the east side highway to La Joya; also south of Socorro to San Marcial. Prison labor was not used on the U.S. Highways in NM as far as I know.

Therefore, it is assumed the reference, in the escape documentation, to the "Socorro Road" in 1918 was the post-WWI rebuild of the Camino Real Highway, through Socorro, NM. Around this same time, the name also slowly shifted to the "El Paso-Santa Fe" highway, eventually to be designated U.S. 85 in 1926.