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Our Watershed- The people of the Gallinas Canyon

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series running over several consecutive Fridays. It is written by members of the Hermit’s Peak Watershed Alliance, which seeks to foster land stewardship in the Gallinas, Sapello and Tecolote watersheds.

Although it has changed through the years, a deep relationship with the land has been felt by the residents and visitors of the Gallinas Canyon. The stories are rich and varied, with many of them rooted in the land, water, fish and wildlife that have been so important to those with a history in the Gallinas Watershed.

Before the Spanish arrived to the Las Vegas area, the indigenous population surely had a name for the giant landmark we call Hermits Peak. While we have yet to find what they called it, we do know the early Spanish settlers named it El Cerro de Tecolote.

In the 1860s, Giovanni Maria Augostini created a sanctuary of solitude in a cave on the south facing cliffs of El Cerro de Tecolote. He led a life of penance, healing, generosity, and endurance. Modern day Penitentes burn a fire at the top of the peak in remembrance of The Hermit during Holy Week each year.

For the last 200 years, people, places, landscapes, names and even attitudes have changed in the Gallinas Canyon. If you looked at before and after pictures, you may not recognize it. Mother Nature as well as settlers have left their footprints in the canyon, for better or for worse.

The area around the modern-day Western Life Camp was once called Las Placitas Arriba and the small village of Gallinas was Las Placitas Abajo. El Porvenir was where the Christian Camp is and the river was called El Rito de San Jose, later changed to Beaver Creek, and then El Porvenir Creek. In the 1900 census, there were 40 people living in the village of Lincoln (El Porvenir Canyon). Santa Rosa (logging camp) was just past the Porvenir hotel, and there was a village on County Commissioner Ron Ortega’s property called El Canyon de Medio. The road extended through El Porvenir Canyon all the way to Las Dispensas.

A significant time of change was during the construction of the railroad and the rapid development associated with it.  Lumber mills and logging were commonplace to provide wood for the railroad and homes for the growing population. Large herds of sheep and cattle were seen grazing throughout the canyon to feed local and distant people.

The Gallinas River played a continual role in the lives of the early settlers. For instance, in the early 1900s heavy early spring rains coupled with a very deep snow pack caused a 100 year flood. El Rito de Tecolote took out the entire village of Lincoln. Traces of the foundations, aceqias, and roads can still be seen today.

Frank Duran, 72, was born on El Rito de San Jose. He described the underbrush, the dense willows and the cottonwood trees: “In a matter of two or three steps you could disappear into the bosque.” Luis Montano recalled the drought of 1950-1957: “The river went dry, we parked our wagon in the water holes so the wheels would not crack.” He went on to describe a flood: “The water was halfway up our windows. When the lightning would strike, it looked like an ocean with waves crashing against our home.”

Even attitudes have changed. Bobby Padilla described his childhood as working throughout the summer while kids that lived in town used the summer for recreation. As a young man, he could hardly wait to get away. As an adult, he appreciates his childhood memories as the fondest ones he has. His love for the mountain is second to none.

Cruz Gallegos, 62, spoke of the cutthroat trout he used to catch in the tributaries and Gallinas River. He claims not to have seen a cutthroat in 50 years.

Many old-timers in the canyon remember swimming in the deep pools of the Gallinas River and fishing along its banks.  Those pools seemed to have disappeared over the years, they say. Numerous beaver dams and ponds throughout Porvenir, Beaver Creek and Gallinas River are largely gone but fondly remembered by Pat Galligan and others.

The late Antonio “Tony” Roybal was a third generation landowner in the canyon. When people would ask him how much land he owned, he would reply, “I don’t own any; I am just the caretaker.” Tony knew that if you took care of the land that it will take care of you.
Living off the land was commonplace, even 60 years ago. Tending backyard gardens and fields of corn, peas, squash, beans, and hay, as well as yards and pastures with pigs, cows, chickens and horses, happened rather than trips to town. Visits to the grocery store were rare treats rather than a daily occurrence, older residents say. Harvesting and milling timber were also mainstays, especially during the railroad building days.

Working on the land, while there are a few stalwart souls, is now a rare occurrence in the Gallinas. Most residents travel to Las Vegas and beyond to work.  

A common thread, with longtime year-round residents, summer residents or visitors alike, is that they keep coming back to their beloved Gallinas Canyon. This deep connection to the place is what will keep the land and its people healthy.

Next week: The Gallinas as a water delivery system.

The Hermit’s Peak Watershed Alliance may be reached by visiting its website at hermitspeakwatersheds.org or by calling 505-425-5514.