Tragic end of a tycoon

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Phillip Marques of Gallup contacted me recently to ask about lumbering in New Mexico around the opening of the 20th century and to inquire whether I was familiar with the little logging town of McGaffey in the Zuni Mountains.

I knew where McGaffey stood, 16 miles southeast of Gallup, and that it had shipped much wood by rail to the giant American Lumber Company in Albuquerque. But I knew nothing about its history or its founder, Amasa B. McGaffey.

Marquez, in response, kindly sent me some information on Mr. McGaffey and his company town, and I soon dug up much more. As it turned out, the fellow had an interesting story, now unremembered.

Born, raised and well-educated in Vermont, the young McGaffey came to New Mexico in 1891 and settled in Albuquerque. Being a business-minded individual, he quickly observed how profits could be made by investing in lumbering.

Mastering the workings of the industry, he organized the McGaffey Contracting Company and then became president of the Santa Barbara Tie & Pole Company in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains — a major supplier of logs to sawmills that were producing ties for the fast-expanding railroads.

Along the way, McGaffey married an Albuquerque girl and the couple had three sons and two daughters.

By start of the new century, McGaffey was expanding his business interests into western New Mexico. What lured him in that direction was a lumbering boom in the Zuni Mountains.

By 1903 he was planting a string of stores in the logging camps there and was emerging as a railroad contractor, laying feeder track to carry the timber harvest out of the mountains and up to the main east-west line north of Ft. Wingate.

About the same time, Mr. McGaffey went into partnership with one W.S. Horabin to operate a Navajo Trading Post at Thoreau, then a small mercantile center just east of the Continental Divide on today’s 1-40.

So why would he branch off into a business that was unfamiliar to him? The answer can probably be traced to Thoreau, then being at the center of Navajo silversmithing, which was gaining as a major commercial enterprise.

The Vermonter’s largest achievement was his founding of the town of McGaffey in 1910. Two years later, he established his headquarters there, although his chief residence remained in Albuquerque.

At its peak, the community counted 200 families of lumbermen. The laborers included three ethnic groups, each living in their own neighborhood. They were native New Mexicans, recently arrived European immigrants and Navajos, who provided the main work force for a sawmill and a planing mill.

By the opening of the 1920s, Amasa McGaffey was recognized throughout New Mexico as among its leading businessmen and one of the richest.

His wealthy friends referred to him as an active sportsman. Each fall McGaffey and several of them would go big game hunting, usually in Alaska.

In 1929, however, McGaffey elected to hunt in northern California. One of his sons urged him to go by modern plane, which he had not tried before. In spite of favoring old-fashion means of travel, the father agreed.

McGaffey and his party boarded westbound Transcontinental Air Transport Flight A19 at the Albuquerque airport. It carried five passengers and a crew of three.

Less than an hour after taking off, the airliner lost radio contact with both Albuquerque and its first stop, Winslow, Ariz. In fact, during a severe storm, it had crashed into a wooded side of 11,300 ft. Mt. Taylor, northeast of Grants.

The loss resulted in the largest search-and-rescue mission up to that time in the Southwest. Public interest ran high because the plane had carried New Mexico’s leading lumber baron.

First responders arriving at the scene could find no survivors. One newspaper headlined the tragedy in this way: “Shattered T.A.T. Plane Discovered in Wilds of New Mexico After Vain Battle With Elements.”

Phillip Marquez, who called my attention to the McGaffey story, told me his own remote connection to it. As he wrote: “My grandfather Antonio Marquez was a logging contractor for A.B. McGaffey, and he actually died while logging in the Zuni Mountains.”