San Elizario Walking Tour
Welcome to the Self-Guided Tour of the San Elizario Historic District, listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1997. While the stops on this tour do not show every historic structure in San Elizario, they are a representative sample of the buildings and sites that formed one of the oldest villages in the United States.
In 1598, Don Juan de Oñate, a Spanish nobleman from Zacatecas, Mexico, led a group of 500 colonists and 7,000 head of livestock (including horses, oxen and cattle) from southern Chihuahua to settle the province of New Mexico. The caravan traveled a northeasterly route for weeks across the desert until it reached the banks of the Río Grande in the San Elizario area. The thirsty travelers drank the cool water and then celebrated with a Thanksgiving Mass and enjoyed a feast of fish, fowl and deer on April 28, 1598. This is considered to be the "First Thanksgiving" celebrated in the present-day United States. Oñate performed the ceremony of "La Toma" (Taking Possession) in which he claimed the new province for his King, Phillip II.
One of the four original haciendas in the area, Hacienda de los Tiburcios, is attributed to Tiburcio de Ortega, a refugee from the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. The hacienda contained 6,000 acres and 200 residents before Apache raids forced its abandonment by 1787
In 1789, Spain sought to protect its interests in the growing Paso del Norte region. A presidio named after San Elcear, the French patron saint of the military, was established at the old hacienda, and the settlement that grew up around it became known as San Elizario.
San Elizario was second only to El Paso del Norte (today's Ciudad Juárez) for most of the 19th century. The unpredictable Río Grande changed course in 1830, placing San Elizario and its neighboring communities on "La Isla" (The Island), between the old and new channels of the river. Following the U.S.-Mexico War (1846-1848), the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo established "the deepest channel" of the Río Grande as the boundary between Texas and Mexico, and San Elizario became a part of Texas
By 1850, it was a bustling village of 1,200 residents, and it was named county seat for the newly created El Paso County. San Elizario was a major point on the way west to the gold fields of California. It was also the site of the Salt War of 1877. The conflict began when Austin lawyer, Charles Howard, laid claim to the salt flats located near the Guadalupe Mountains east of El Paso, disrupting the free harvest of the mineral that locals had enjoyed for decades. Armed residents confronted Howard and a company of Texas Rangers, then defeated the Rangers and executed Howard and his associates.
San Elizario was later home of St. Joseph's Academy operated by the Sisters of Loretto from 1879 until it was moved to El Paso in 1892. In 1881, the railroad was constructed to the east through Clint, and the village of San Elizario began a slow decline. With the movement of the county seat to El Paso in 1883, its demise was ensured, and it reverted to a semi-rural village. Though San Elizario is a rapidly-evolving community, its rich history remains the cornerstone of its identity. The architecture on this tour reflects the culture, politics and indomitable spirit of the early settlers of this colorful town.
Stop 1. LOS PORTALES (CASA GARCIA) - (Late 1850s) 12751 Church St.
"Los Portales" was constructed in the 1850s by Gregorio N. Garcia for use as a residence. Garcia was a prominent citizen of the community who served as Captain of the Texas Rangers in 1870 and County Judge of El Paso in 1877. His son of the same name served as Justice of the Peace.
The structure has an adobe brick foundation and walls. The flat roof is supported by cotton-wood rafters (vigas), saplings and thatch. Its principal elevation is marked by a distinctive inset gallery (portal), hence the name Los Portales. Pedimented lintels on the window and door frames, along with milled wood supports, display the best example of Territorial Style on the tour.
"Don Gregorio" donated Los Portales to the town for use as a school in 1870. The first teacher, Octaviano Ambrosio Larrazolo, later became governor of New Mexico (1919-1921) and a U.S. Senator (1928-1929). The building was converted into apartments in the late 1930s and later served as offices for the San Elizario Independent School District. Owned by El Paso County, Los Portales was renovated in 2000, and it currently serves as a museum and information center operated by the San Elizario Genealogy and Historical Society.
Stop 2. SAN ELIZARIO PRESIDIO (FORT) - (1789)
Granite Texas Historical Centennial Marker at Los Portales The presidio was an important fixture in the Spanish colonization of the New World. Presidio soldiers provided protection for travelers and settlers of nearby villages, usually from hostile native tribes. The fort itself was surrounded by double adobe walls measuring 13 feet tall by seven feet wide. Within the fort were quarters for officers and barracks for soldiers, family residences, a chapel, corrals and storerooms.
The presidio was abandoned by the mid-1840s and, over time, most physical evidence of the presidio walls has disappeared. A common practice among local settlers was to use adobe bricks from the presidio to build their own homes. After the Río Grande flooded in 1829, destroying the San Elceario Chapel, the new church was also reconstructed with adobes from the Old Presidio. Many of the structures on the walking tour are believed to contain portions of the original presidio.
Stop 3. SAN ELIZARIO MEMORIAL PLACITA - (1790) Corner of San Elizario St. and Church St.
The plaza, along with the adjacent chapel, was the center of presidio and community life. San Elizario Plaza remains today a place that hosts festivals, political rallies and other events. The plaza is dedicated to the many military veterans that call San Elizario home. The benches throughout the plaza pay tribute to some of the original settlers of San Elizario and were dedicated on behalf of their descendents. The kiosko (gazebo), although remodeled several times, is one of the most recognizable structures in the town.
The plaza was also featured in the 1985 Hollywood film, Fandango, starring Kevin Costner and Judd Nelson. Take time to read the numerous historical markers located throughout the plaza.
Stop 4. THE ADOBE HORSESHOE THEATER - (1971) San Elizario Memorial Placita
Janet Esta Protzman constructed this building in Territorial Style in 1971 on the site of the original county courthouse complex of 1850. The theater played host to traveling shows and local performances. The massive wooden doors are the original gates of the walled Mexican village of Lagunilla, Michoacan, and once measured 18 feet tall.
Stop 5. PRESIDIO BARRACKS - (1854) 1500 Church St.
Edward Lafayette owned the building in 1854, which is near the presumed northern entrance of the presidio and may date to that period.
Stop 6. OLD COUNTY JAIL - (1850) Main St.
On January 3, 1850, El Paso County was created by the Texas Legislature from Bexar County. San Elizario was the largest, most prosperous town in the area and became the county seat. The adobe building before you was chosen to house the first jail. Commissioners Court approved the purchase of prefabricated wrought iron cage cells able to hold six prisoners. They were manufactured in Chicago and survive to this day.
The rear of the building may have formed part of the original defensive wall of the presidio. The jail continued to be used until the 1940s, even after the county seat moved to El Paso.
According to oral tradition and Pat Garrett's Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, this is the only jail Billy the Kid broke into. In the fall of 1876, the Kid left from Mesilla, New Mexico to break his friend out of the jail. Although there is no official documentation to support the claim, details of the incident are compelling and the event itself is generally acknowledged as approaching the truth.
A manuscript written in 1880 by Charles Rudolph (a member of Pat Garrett's posse, that captured the Kid in December 1880) states that, "Billy the Kid in (Mesilla) learned that his friend Melquiades Segura had been arrested in San Elizario. He then set out on horseback and arrived in San Elizario about three o'clock in the morning. He knocked on the door of the jail, waking up one of the guards, who asked, 'Who is it?' 'Texas Rangers,' Billy answered in Spanish. 'We have two American prisoners.' The guard opened the door, peered out, and found himself face to face with Billy's .44 revolver. He then relieved the other guard of his gun, found the key to the cell, released Segura, locked the two jailers in the cell and threw away the keys. They then crossed the (Río Grande) into Mexico."
Stop 7. ACEQUIA AND COTTON FIELD - (mid-1700s) Behind Old County Jail
Varying in width from two to six miles, El Paso's Mission Valley was a corridor for movement and agricultural settlement dating to prehistoric times. The Río Grande changed its course frequently as a result of flooding until the completion of Elephant Butte Dam in 1916 stabilized the river's course.
Once planted with diversified crops that sustained the presidio and the community that remained after its abandonment, surrounding fields are now primarily planted with cotton. Today, irrigation canals follow the same alignments of the historic community ditches, known as acequias.
Stop 8. OCHOA STORE (SALAZAR HALL) - (Early 1800s) 1501 Main St.
Near the presumed northern entrance of the presidio, this building is of unusual size and shape and may date to late 18th or early 19th century Spanish and Mexican presidio period. It housed a general store operated by Ismael Ochoa around 1900. It was later acquired by Joaquin Salazar and operated as a store, family dance hall, cantina and handball court during the early 1900s.
Stop 9. EL CAMINO REAL DE TIERRA ADENTRO - (1598) Corner of Glorieta Rd. and Main St.
In San Elizario, the route follows Glorieta Road straight into the heart of the Old Presidio. Beginning in 1851, the town also assumed an important role for east-west stagecoach travel on the San Antonio-El Paso road, and later (1858) with the Butterfield-Overland Mail Line between St. Louis, Missouri, and San Francisco, California.
Stop 10. LUJAN STORE (CASPAR GIRON HOME) - (1855) Located on Main St.
This building may have been constructed near the main entrance to the presidio. After the presidio was finally abandoned in the mid-1840s, the property was acquired by Jesus Lujan. On it, he constructed a large hacienda encompassing the existing structure and adjacent field. His son, Juan, built the structure you see before you in the 1880's. The Lujan family operated a general store from the corner building and used the other portions as a residence until the late 1800s. Later, the building was acquired by the G.N. Garcia and Giron families for both residential and commercial purposes.
Stop 11A. GRIST MILL - (Early 1800s) Main St.
This bed stone remnant of an old grist mill is a long-standing monument to the people of San Elizario. Area farmers had regularly ground wheat in the grist and roller mills since the early 1800s.
Charles Ellis, followed by Caspar Giron, operated the mill and sold several brands of flour, including the popular "Eagle Brand."
Completion of Elephant Butte Dam ushered in the invasion of cotton to the Mission Valley. Fields of corn, wheat and several varieties of fruit gave way to a new era in agriculture, and the mills became idle. Site #11B is the building directly behind the Grist Mill.
Stop 11B. LALO'S GROCERY - (1830, altered 1910) Main St.
This building may date to the late presidial period and may have housed Spanish or Mexican troops and formed part of the presidio wall.
Some evidence also suggests this location served as a stop on the San Antonio-El Paso road, and later as a stop on the Butterfield-Overland route. It functioned as a mill in the 1870s, and then served as a grocery store during the early part of the 20th century.
Stop 12.BORREGO BUILDING - (1905) 1425 Main St.
The current building served as a general store operated by Eligio Borrego through the 1940s, playing an important role in the commercial and social life of San Elizario. The structure is adobe and exhibits Territorial Style details with three principal entries.
Stop 13. GIRON MILLING CO. (EL MOLINO) - (1870s) 12496 Socorro Rd.
This building has served the community since the 1870s. Company N of the Texas Frontier Forces used it as a headquarters when the San Elizario group of Texas Rangers was formed.
In 1894, Gaspar Giron used this building as a molino (mill) and granary. The building was sold in 1922 and the space converted into apartments and a filling station. It has since served as a U.S. Post Office, gift shop and church.
Note: The school adjacent to El Molino was built in 1936 and designed by Henry C. Trost, El Paso's foremost pioneer architect.
Stop 14. THE OLD CEMETERY - (1770-1896) 1556 San Elizario Rd.
The Old San Elizario Cemetery served the community for over 100 years. Many of the people who struggled to build the town of San Elizario found their final resting place in this camposanto (blessed field). Because early grave markers were made of wood, all above-ground evidence of this cemetery's existence has eroded completely.
In 1871, District Judge Simon Newcomb ordered it closed for sanitary reasons. Sheriff Charles Ellis served Padre Antonio Borrajo with papers forbidding the burial of any more people in this cemetery, as the new camposanto had already been established a few miles west of town.
The first to defy the order was Borrajo himself. The very next day, Padre Borrajo led a funeral procession to the old cemetery and buried a child there. Some families followed his example and insisted on burying their relatives at the old site until 1896.
Stop 15. SAN ELIZARIO PRESIDIO CHAPEL - (1882) 1556 San Elizario St.
The chapel of San Elizario (Capilla de San Elcear) was established along with the presidio in 1789. The present structure may be the fourth chapel on or near this site to have served the presidio and community.
The building before it was completed in 1882. Its relatively high elevation suggests efforts of the townspeople to assure that their new chapel would withstand flooding from the nearby Río Grande. Since 1882, the exterior of the building has had only small changes, such as the alteration of the front facade from an angular to a curve linear bell tower. The interior of the church has had dramatic changes due to a fire in 1935. The original ceiling beams are covered by a pressed tin ceiling, and the plain wood columns supporting the room have been boxed in by decorative neo-classical posts.
The present decoration dates from 1944 when the church was repainted to honor local soldiers who fought in World War 11. Notice the beautiful stained glass windows and their representation of flowers, patriotic symbols (the star of Texas on one side of the door and crossed flags to the other side), and religious symbols (Sacred Heart, Crown of Thorns and Union of God and Man).
The San Elizario chapel is an outstanding example of late adobe church architecture in West Texas and New Mexico. It reflects the influence of European architectural styles on the earlier, simpler box-like missions of the region. The plastered adobe walls and strong buttresses catch the Southwestern sunlight at its best, as all adobe structures tend to do. This large elevated structure anchors the plaza, and its imposing presence exemplifies the influence of the church on the surrounding community.
Stop 16. HACIENDA AND STAGE STATION - (1840s) 1500 Paseo del Convento
In an era when Indian incursions were common, such houses were fortresses in a very real sense. The gates were strong and the placita and corral large enough to contain the family's horses and cattle in case of emergency.
The Gorgonio Gandara family lived in the hacienda through the 1840s. According to oral tradition, a portion of the complex was used by the Butterfield-Overland Mail Line as a rest station in the late 1850s. By 1883, Teodora Alarcon Ellis purchased the property.
The house underwent a major restoration in 1969 and today is a private residence. While the original vigas and ceiling remain, wood windows from the old Amador Hotel in Las Cruces were added. The house also contains a large safe that was used in the County Courthouse when San Elizario was the county seat in the mid 1800s.
Stop 17. CASA RONQUILLO (ELLIS HOME) - (c- 1830s) Off Alarcon Rd. behind Stage Station
This site was initially owned by Jose Ignacio Ronquillo in the 1830s. Ronquillo was the first commander of the presidio during the Mexican period (1821-1848).
The property was subsequently acquired by Charles Ellis and his wife, Teodora, in the 1860s. Ellis, a prominent merchant, was killed during the Salt War of 1877. After his death, the home was looted and ultimately sold to offset heavy debts.
While only a single wing remains, in its original state the house constituted a fine example of a large adobe hacienda. Of eleven total rooms, five are still standing with their latilla high ceilings, round vigas and moldings which once held painted canvas cloth murals, suggesting the grandeur of the original building.
According to folklore, the home was once thought to date to colonial Spain, when a viceroy buried his gold in the house. This is unlikely, since there is no record of travel by any viceroy to the El Paso region. Nevertheless, the floors were dug out by treasure seekers, while others simply avoided the "Viceroy's Palace" altogether, fearing to see the restless spirit of some past inhabitant through its dark windows.
The building has been unoccupied since 1959 and has suffered from the effects of weather and neglect. In 2000, the remaining rooms were stabilized and the property awaits restoration.
This is the end of the Walking Tour of the San Elizario Historic District.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: The San Elizario Genealogy and Historical Society wishes to express its sincere gratitude to the following individuals and organizations for their time and effort in making this project possible. A hardcopy version can be picked up at any El Paso Visitors Information Centers.