Magdalena The Centennial that wasn't


Sometimes, the best historical research, and some newly found stories, come from confusion. Such is the case with this month's column.

This started out being an article on Magdalena's centennial. After all, many historical references cite that "Magdalena was incorporated in 1913" — 100 years ago. Time for a party — maybe a parade. But wait, other sources say 1918. The proof, the original charter for township, is missing. Even Santa Fe has questioned Magdalena's legitimacy more than once. Turns out, lots of people are confused.

The answer has been found! Magdalena is for real.

1913 Incorporation

Many of New Mexico's smaller towns were not incorporated when statehood was gained in 1912. That is, these towns did not have a government, a ruling body or a mayor. With no municipal revenue, community needs were often provided by the town's affluent business families or a fundraising event.

After statehood, there was ample money and interest, to bring New Mexico out of the wild west and into the 20th century. Priority for the disbursal of government funds was often given to incorporated communities. Unincorporated towns lagged behind these early government handouts. This generated a push by many communities to incorporate in order to become recipients of federal and state money.

Perhaps this is the reason many historical sources cite that Magdalena became incorporated in 1913. It was simply assumed Magdalena was one of those towns seeking, and gaining, incorporation following 1912 statehood.

In searching Socorro County documents, there is no evidence Magdalena attempted to incorporate in 1912-1913, nor are there any articles in the Socorro Chieftain newspapers at the time of any attempt. Apparently, Magdalena just wasn't interested.

And, likely for good reason. In the early 1900s, Magdalena, and her sister town, Kelly, were all doing well. These were the heydays for both towns. Between the mines and smelters, the railroad, a thriving sheep and wool industry, and, of course, the famed cattle drives and stockyards, times were good. Most people had jobs, money was easy and both towns were rapidly growing. Who needed a mayor and city Council?


All the development in the Magdalena area started with the mining town of Kelly. Silver was discovered in 1866, although mining in earnest did not begin until the 1880s. The Kelly Mine opened in 1883, as did the Billings Smelter west of Socorro. By no longer having to send ore to distant smelters at a great expense, the local smelter helped profits to soar for the Kelly mines.

The Santa Fe railroad built a spur line from Socorro to Magdalena, in 1884, to service the mines. The first trains arrived in January 1885. Every day, carloads of ore left the Kelly mines for the Billings Smelter near Socorro.

In 1893, the price of silver crashed. Silver mines across the country closed, no longer able to make a profit. Socorro's Billings Smelter was one of the casualties and forced to close.

Kelly and Magdalena largely escaped the silver calamity. They were saved by the rich veins of lead and zinc also hidden in the mountain. By 1900, more than $8 million of these two ores had been extracted from the mines. This put a paycheck in the pockets of hundreds of miners, and even more money in the pockets of the mining operators and local merchants.

These ores kept the Kelly mines opened through the 1930s, and in smaller spurts through World War II. Lead and zinc is used in paints and other industrial items. This is the reason the Sherwin-Williams Paint Company was the dominant force in the region. They owned and operated the Graphic mine and built the Ozark Smelter south of Magdalena to process the ores for their paints. Certainly you've heard of lead-based paint?

In 1912, new ore bodies discovered in the Waldo and Nit mines further boosted operations. The Tri-Bullion Smelter was built to process these ores. The abandoned concrete tower near the Kelly Mine is a remnant of this smelter.

By now, the population of Kelly was estimated to be around 2,500 people, larger than Socorro. It was a busy company town, primarily run by the Tri-Bullion and Sherwin-Williams companies. There is no indication Kelly had any desire to form a municipal government and incorporate.


Magdalena began as a small camp at the base of the mountain in support of Kelly. That quickly changed, in 1884, when the tracks of the Santa Fe Railroad reached the small town. Real estate investors arranged the lots and streets typical of most railroad towns. This is why Magdalena is laid out in equal sized square lots leading away (south) from the tracks. The streets were named after trees, such as Pine, Spruce and Oak streets. I guess they were planning on planting a forest someday.

The prosperity in Kelly trickled down the mountain to the growing town of Magdalena. However, it didn't stop there. The arrival of the railroad changed everything.

As the mines at Kelly grew, so did the cattle trade. This period of time witnessed the rise of large cattle ranches in western Socorro County and eastern Arizona. Huge herds numbering in the thousands were driven to wherever the livestock could be sold, often to the slaughter houses in Amarillo, Omaha or Denver. These cattle drives meant months on the trail, to deliver the cattle to market at great expense.

With the arrival of the railroad, Magdalena became the "trail's end" for the cattle drives. From 1885 through the 1960s, the number of cattle going through Magdalena's stockyards and shipped by the Santa Fe Railroad was measured in the tens of thousands.

Magdalena's "trail's end" also meant pay day for the cattlemen and the cowhands. For many cowpokes, every last penny was spent in one of the town's saloons.

Soon, the Santa Fe Railroad was making more money shipping livestock than they were from hauling ore. In fact, the Magdalena spur, often called the "Maggie Line," remained the most profitable 26 miles of track in the Santa Fe system.

Magdalena at Statehood

By the time of 1912 statehood, Magdalena was a booming modern town. With the railroad, it was easy to bring in carloads of bricks, lumber, windows and other materials. Magdalena's hotels, mercantiles and warehouses were all built with the best materials and construction techniques of the time. Some of the beautiful brickwork and decorative façades can still be seen on Magdalena's surviving historic buildings.

According to Polk's Business Directory for 1912, some of the major businesses in town were the Bank of Magdalena, Becker-Mactavish Company, Wilson Hotel, Salome General Merchandise, Torres General Store, Craig Livery Stable, and Kane and Wildenstein Blacksmiths. Also, the Datil National Forest headquarters was being built in town.

The following year, 1913, the Ilfeld Store and Warehouse, the Wool Warehouse and First National Bank were built. With all these businesses and attractive brick buildings, Magdalena's Main Street rivaled anything found in the West.

It is unfortunate that major fires in 1922, 1930, 1956, 1965, 1983, and as late as 1999 has leveled more than 80 percent of these historic buildings. The main problem: Magdalena has always suffered from a chronic shortage of water.

In spite of Magdalena's population exceeding 1,000 people at the time of statehood, there still seemed to be no interest in incorporating as a town. It had no municipal government. To keep the peace in town, a Socorro County deputy sheriff was assigned to Magdalena.

Under statehood, unincorporated towns were allowed to elect a justice of the peace and a constable to enforce law and order. In 1917, for example, Magdalena elected Mauricio Armijo as town marshal and Estevan Flores as justice of the peace. It worked like this: Marshall Armijo would arrest those who broke the law, no matter how minor, and Justice Flores levied the fines. The fine money collected became their wages. Law and order didn't cost Magdalena a penny.

1917 Petition

Magdalena finally decided to incorporate in early 1917. It is not known what inspired this change of heart, although circumstances at this time make a strong suggestion.

Socorro and Magdalena had about equal populations of 1,500 residents, plus another 2,000 people up the hill in Kelly. With the superior population, a rivalry developed between Magdalena and Socorro for county dominance.

The Socorro Chieftain contained small quips, such as complaints about those who took the train to shop in Magdalena. The Becker-Mactavish and Charles Ilfeld stores seemed to have better goods and cheaper prices than the stores in Socorro. Many would spend the night in one of Magdalena's grand hotels and enjoy a luxurious dinner in the hotel restaurant.

The minutes of the Socorro County Commission meetings gives strong hints of this rivalry. At the Jan. 4, 1917, meeting, the First National Bank of Magdalena approached the board to ask for the county's business. The minutes report that the bank "applied to be designated as a county depository of Public funds for the sum of $25,000, which application was duly considered and approved subject to the filing of a Bond by said bank as required by law."

The Socorro State Bank was also represented at this meeting and submitted an application for the same $25,000 of Socorro County funds. This is odd in that the Socorro State Bank was already the bank for the county. Just as there was rivalry between Magdalena and Socorro, there was a stronger rivalry between these two banks.

Over the next several weeks, the Socorro Chieftain contained ads from both banks promoting their worth and stability. Both banks listed assets and deposits of about $500,000 — about $8 million by today's value. That is an impressive worth for a small town bank. Magdalena had two banks at this time — the second, the Bank of Magdalena, had assets and deposits of another $200,000.

Apparently, the issue of Magdalena's lack of incorporation became an argument on why the Socorro State Bank should remain the county's exclusive bank. It seems Magdalenans replied with, "Oh yeah? Watch this."

A petition was immediately circulated throughout Magdalena and collected the signatures of about 800 town residents in favor of incorporation. It was presented at the next regular meeting of the county commission on Jan. 16. The minutes tells the story: "A petition for incorporating the town of Magdalena under the Village Act was presented by a committee of residents of said town composed of Mr. E.A. Mayo and H.L. Beagle. Same was left to be taken up at the next regular meeting of the Board of County Commissioners to be held April 2nd, A.D. 1917."


Magdalenans could hardly wait until the April meeting. A good number of townspeople filled the chambers when the commissioners again met for the historic event. After considerable discussion, the county clerk recorded the outcome. "The matter of incorporating the Town of Magdalena was taken up by the board, and the petitions filed were considered, arguments for and against incorporation were had and after giving the matter full consideration, the petition for incorporation was rejected as for not complying with the statutes." (Italics added.)

Magdalena must have been fully determined to become incorporated as they did not sit idle long after the defeat. Magdalena attorney C.B. Sedillo agreed to be the legal representative for the town. He was the senior partner of Sedillo and Sedillo law firm of Magdalena and Kelly.

It is not known what legal irregularities Sedillo felt the commission committed against the town. Nor could any details be found as to what statutes were supposedly not satisfied. It must have been substantial, as he also retained the services of the Bray and Bunton Law Firm in Socorro. Whether to assist the cause, or give the town more legal horsepower, they were ready to present their case and give a good fight if it came to that.

The team of attorneys, and a host of Magdalena's prominent businessmen, showed up at the regular commission meeting on Oct. 6. The minutes reveal their presence and the legal intimidation was hardly overlooked.

The county clerk recorded: "A committee composed of Jose Y Aragon, Chairman, Jose Garcia y Ortega, Aldofo Torres, J.S. Mactavish, W.W. Benjamin, and Alan Falconer, represented by Brag & Bunton and Sedillo & Sedillo as their attorneys, petitioned to the board of County Commissioners to incorporate the village of Magdalena of the County of Socorro, New Mexico, and the inhabitants therein as a Village, and the said petitioners have made an advance deposit of $75, the board ordered the petition and plat filed and appointed Clemente Castillo of Magdalena, N. Mex. as enumerator to take the sensus (sic) of said town and H.M. Neighbor County Surveyor, to survey the described Territory proposed to be incorporated, and the above named enumerator and surveyor to file their report with the County Clerk at the next regular meeting of the Board."

Sounds like things went fairly smooth. Who says a team of attorneys and heavyweights doesn't come in handy? What I found curious is there is no mention to the non-compliance statutes that killed the petition for incorporation in the first place. Regardless, things got ironed out with everyone remaining gentlemen.

1918 Incorporation

Everyone met again at the next regular County Commission meeting on Jan. 7, 1918. An order was issued by the board stating that the petition for incorporation, signed by qualified voters, was duly and properly submitted, and "said Board of County Commissioners were satisfied with the genuineness of the signatures."

The census of Magdalena was duly made and accepted, although the population count was not recorded in the minutes.

The town survey had also been completed and "marked the same by substantial stone monuments and set a like monument at the center of said village … and survey and plat duly filed as required by law." (If you know where one of these stone monuments is today, please contact the author.)

In the Minutes of Socorro County Commissioners, Book A, Page 610, the Order of Incorporation appears.

"ORDER: The people of the territory embraced in said village are hereby declared to be an incorporated village and an election is hereby ordered to be held within said village for the election of a Board of Trustees consisting of a Mayor and four (4) other trustees and a Clerk to be held on the first Tuesday of April in the year 1918. Done this 7th day of January, A.D. 1918."

The proclamation was signed by Francisco Padilla, Anastacio Baca and A.H. Hilton for the Board of County Commissioners, Socorro County.

First Election

The people of Magdalena must have been impressed with how the above mentioned men supported their town, since Jose y Aragon was elected as the town's first mayor, and attorney C.B. Sedillo was elected city clerk in the April election.

On April 10, 1918, a special meeting of the Socorro County Commission was convened to canvass the ballots. Jose y Aragon received 274 votes against challenger W.M. Borrowdale, 147 votes. The four trustees elected were John S. Mactavish, Justiniano Baca, Milo Burlingame and Jose Ortega. There were 421 ballots certified – but you might recall that women did not gain the right to vote in the United States until 1920.

The above elected officials took the oath of office in May and held their first "Village of Magdalena" trustee meeting shortly thereafter.

Is Magdalena Legitimate?

The above documentation well proves that Magdalena's incorporation occurred, not in 1913, but on Jan. 7, 1918. A little after the 2 p.m. recess of the Socorro County Commission to be exact. The months of proceedings and Proclamation of Incorporation are duly recorded as legal instruments at the clerk's office in the Socorro County Courthouse.

Sealed in cement, case closed, end of story. Well, not quite.

In June 1964, the village of Magdalena received a letter from Santa Fe. Addressed to Magdalena Mayor Walter Brunson, the letter was from Secretary of State Alberta Miller. It seemed Santa Fe could not find the records of Magdalena, and a few other communities, ever being incorporated. They requested a copy of the original charter to prove the town was "legitimate."

Protocol called for the county to forward the Petition and Charter of Incorporation to Santa Fe. It is not known if this was done, or if the documents were lost by Santa Fe. I'm guessing the latter.

The question of legitimacy has serious implications because without proof of incorporation, future federal and state funding could be in jeopardy. Such funding was important for things like maintaining the village water system and the volunteer fire department.

Socorro attorney J.C. "Carrie" Enloe was hired to address the matter. After a thorough search, Enloe replied to the Secretary of State that the original Charter of Incorporation could not be found. He did find the order for the 1918 town elections, adding in his letter: "… this appears to be the only recorded reference to the election to incorporate the Village of Magdalena." Apparently, he missed the Order of Proclamation in the county records by a few pages.

On Aug. 6, Miller thanked attorney Enloe for the information. Her letter did not state whether the matter was considered settled or not, it just concluded with, "Your letter will be placed on file for future reference."

Mayor Brunson, and the village trustees, rightfully found Santa Fe's response unsettling. So much so, the Socorro County Commission was asked to help. On Aug. 26, County Clerk Julius Fraissinet sent a letter to Santa Fe certifying the Petition for Incorporation was filed Oct. 6, 1917, an election was held in April 1918, and the results canvassed by the Board of County Commissioners. He also seemed to miss the Order of Proclamation in the 1918 county records.

Legitimate At Last

No further communications on the matter came from Santa Fe. Finally — sealed in cement, case closed, end of story. Well, not quite.

About 20 years later, in early 1983, Magdalena received another letter from Santa Fe. You guessed it. It seems they lost or could not find any documentation of incorporation and requested such proof. Magdalena sent copies of all the previous 1964 correspondence.

In addition, they sent copies of the 1918 minutes from the village trustee meeting, which clearly substantiates this was the first meeting of the incorporated village. Unfortunately, the immaculate typewritten minutes somehow omitted the date of the historic meeting. However, the next trustee meeting is clearly dated July 15, 1918, implying the first village meeting was held in June, or perhaps in May when the mayor, clerk and trustees were sworn in.

Santa Fe responded with an official certificate from the Secretary of State with a gold-leaf "Great Seal of New Mexico" embossed on the document. It reads, "I, Clara Jones, Secretary of State of the State of New Mexico, do hereby certify that the attached documents are true and exact copies of documents on file in the Office of the Secretary of State pertaining to the Incorporation of the Village of Magdalena, New Mexico. Dated on this 11th day of March A.D. 1983."

Finally, Santa Fe recognizes Magdalena as a legitimate incorporated village. Sealed in cement, case closed, end of story. Well, not quite.

Just last year, another inquiry of legitimacy from Santa Fe was received by Mayor Sandy Julian. It seems they were reviewing pertinent documents for the occasion of New Mexico's Centennial for historical purposes. Guess what they couldn't find? Magdalena Clerk Rita Broaddus wasted no time sending a copy of the cute 1983 Secretary of State certificate with the gold seal.

Nothing has since been heard. I'm guessing Magdalena will receive another letter from Santa Fe in another 20 years. Somehow, I just don't think this story is over. When the next letter from Santa Fe arrives, I suggest a copy of this article also be submitted. Magdalena's legal documentation for incorporation are listed in the references.

While Santa Fe obviously has an issue with Magdalena's legitimacy, rest assured, Socorroans know our neighbors to the west are alive and well, and very real.

I suggest Magdalena have a centennial party and parade this year to mark the fictitious 1913 incorporation date, just to confuse Santa Fe even more. Then, of course, have another one in 2018 — the real centennial.

All images by Paul Harden unless otherwise noted. Some of the references used in this article:

"Gustav Billings, the Kelly Mine, and the Great Smelter at Park City" by Robert Eveleth; "Magdalena Ranger District" by Matt Basham; Socorro Chieftain, various issues; Minutes of the Socorro County Commissioners, Book A, pages 526, 529, 545, 584, 595, 610 and 611, Socorro County Clerk's Office; Village of Magdalena, Mayor Sandy Julian and Clerk Rita Broaddus; and field work by the author. References to the 1913 incorporation are found at sources such as U.S. City Data, Wikipedia, and several tourism and history websites — although no evidence is offered to substantiate this claim.

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