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May 6, 2016

Clovis, New Mexico Sees Tourist Future in City’s Railroad Past

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For Phil Williams, the news from the New Mexico Economic Development Department is entirely hopeful.

“This is good for us,” says Williams of the announcement made by the NMEDD to award up to $500,000 in New Mexico Main Street funding for a variety of revitalization projects across the state.

One of those projects is the Historic Railroad Park in Clovis, creating what is being called a “destination focal point” inside the city’s Historic Railroad District.

“It’s exciting to see that money coming in,” says Williams, the owner of the Clovis Depot and Model Train Museum at 221 W. 1st Street, “but what happens with that park also has a positive impact on the entire railroad district.”

Lisa Pellegrino-Spear, the executive director of the Clovis Main Street program, is equally enthused, calling the creation of the park, a “very exciting and heartfelt endeavor that highlights the roots of our community.”

 

PHOTO COURTESY OF LISA PELLEGRINO-SPEAR, CLOVIS MAINSTREET EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR

The larger historic district includes not just the park and the big train depot that houses the train museum, but also the old Harvey House hotel at 221 W. 1st Street.

“The Burlington Southern railroad still owns that building,” says Williams of the hotel that was built in 1912 and was one of a string of Harvey House properties around the country built to accommodate railroad passengers and employees.

“It was last used as a hotel around 1969. That’s when the railroad terminated their contract with the Harvey people,” says Williams, adding that “the railroad used the building after that not as a hotel but for their engineering department.”

Dozens of other historic brick structures also comprise Clovis’ railroad district, which itself is graced by brick streets.

“We have a number of warehouses that were built along the railroad tracks during the time when they brought in all the food,” notes Lisa Dunagan, board president of Clovis Main Street.

“These are warehouses where people went and shopped, all the way down to the grain elevators, which is part of the same district,” says Dunagan.

 

PHOTO COURTESY OF LISA PELLEGRINO-SPEAR, CLOVIS MAINSTREET EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR

The district, and its historic importance, underscores how much Clovis has been defined by railroads since its beginnings.

“I honestly don’t know if we would have a city were it not for the railroad,” says Clovis Mayor David Lansford.

Originally called “Riley’s Switch,” the town whimsically got the name Clovis more than a century ago when a daughter of the local station master was reading about Clovis, the Catholic convert King of the Franks.

The name caught on at the very same time that the growing city was beginning to enjoy success as an important railroad stopping-off point.

“And most of the early construction in town was related to the railroad,” says Dunagan.

Lansford agrees, noting “To this day we have a significant railroad population here made up of current employees, retirees, and family members who are descendants of nearly 100 years of railroad workers.”

Undoubtedly the Harvey House structure remains one of the most well-known railroad-related buildings in Clovis, a part of a chain of hotels and restaurants nationally built to cater exclusively to the railroad crowd.

Harvey House restaurants featured fine but affordable fare. The chain, launched by entrepreneur Fred Harvey, was also famous for its waitresses, called the Harvey Girls, who wore uniforms and were known for their gracious manners.

But “the company’s civility wasn’t limited to etiquette,” the New York Times recently said, noting that during the Great Depression a standing Harvey House policy was to never “turn away a hungry person, even one who couldn’t pay.”

The Clovis Harvey House restaurant, along with other Harvey House restaurants nationally, was phased out in the early 1940s as the railroads were beginning to feel the first competitive pressure from airplane travel. The company decided, reported the Clovis News Journal, “that too much time was lost letting passengers off to eat.”

Despite the winged competition, Clovis continued, in the decades following, to thrive as a railroad hub, as seen by the fact that its population is now at a record 40,000—up from just over 8,000 in the 1930s.

PHOTO COURTESY OF LISA PELLEGRINO-SPEAR, CLOVIS MAINSTREET EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR

Today city leaders are pushing not only for the adaptive re-use of several of structures in the Clovis railroad district, but are also preparing for the creation of the park that will surround a 110 year-old locomotive, known as Number 9005.

The NMEDD and New Mexico Main Street funding will be used specifically for lighting, landscaping, fencing, tables, and chairs and signage in that park off of Highway 60/84 across the way from the old depot.

“It will have everything that it takes to make it a true city park,” says Dunagan.

 

By Garry Boulard

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