Sunlight and silence – mountains shrouded in autumnal haze; such are the days of late fall and Indian summer in the Sangre de Cristos of northern New Mexico. Two centuries ago, before the arrival of Europeans in the area, this was the time of year for the celebration for the Moache Utes, a nomadic people who gathered to renew their ancestral ties with the Great Spirit.
As legend says, from these autumn celebrations during the 1780’s, came the name and event called “Angel Fire.” Early on the first morning of the ceremonials, three young braves who had been on a hunting trip returned to the camp with news of a strange glow at the tip of the peak named Agua Fria. The Utes were uneasy as they gazed at the mysterious tongues of red and orange flickering in the northern sky.
One of the elders broke their awed silence: “It is an omen – the fire of the gods – blessing our annual celebration.” The Utes, though still awed by this sign, accepted the explanation. From that time on, the Moreno Valley was a sacred place and whenever the rosy glow appeared above the mountains, it was called the “fire of the gods”.
Following the trails of the mountain men who searched for the abundant beaver, Franciscan friars entered the Sangres searching for converts. These educated gentlemen of the church were quick to learn that they could most easily explain Christianity to the Indians by using old legends, substituting Christian terminology for native phrases. As a result of their influence, Agua Fria became known as “the place of the fire of the angels.”
Although the Utes rejected most of the Christian influence on their native beliefs, the legend of “Angel Fire” now bore the imprint of both the Indians and the Spanish culture. The formation of the Maxwell Land Grant, that colossus whose imprint was so strongly felt on the land, was formed in 1884, and the trappers and Spanish visitors from beyond the Sangres told of the strange lights above the mountains surrounding Agua Fria.
Kit Carson, then a resident of Cimarron and agent for the Utes, reported to his friend Lucien B. Maxwell, owner of the Grant, that he too had seen the angel fire at dawn and at dusk, particularly during the fall and winter months. He accredited the glow to sunlight striking hoar frost on the branches of the trees. Agua Fria was commonly referred to as Angel Fire Peak by early residents of both Cimarron and Taos.
The discovery of gold in Moreno Valley directed attention away from such legends as Angel Fire. The winter of 1863 found folks all over the west talking about Indians bringing pouches of gold nuggets to the soldiers at Fort Union. The stories moved east and many a coal miner in Pennsylvania and farmer in upstate New York prepared to pick up and move to the fabulous strike. Miners first reached the gold fields in April of 1864.
By 1867, Captain W. H. Moore had opened the valley’s first store. By the end of July that same year, the settlement had grown to over 400 permanent residents. The newly established village was named Elizabethtown after Moore’s first child.
Three years later, Elizabethtown had increased to 7,000, and the city was the first incorporated city in New Mexico Territory. When Colfax County was established by the New Mexico Territory Government, it named Elizabethtown as the County Seat. The city was a roaring, booming, gambling and mining town, with saloons, gunfighters and gunfights; it also had several newspapers, a Masonic Lodge and a telegraph station.
Although the Moreno Valley became the most productive gold mining district in New Mexico, securing $6 million in gold between 1866 and 1907, the surface ore was rapidly depleted. A tunnel was started through the mountain in an effort to locate the mother lode. The tunnel was completed, but they never found the mother lode. Water for dredging operations ran low in the valley and a multi-million dollar flume was built from Red River in an attempt to furnish water for more dredging operations. The flume leaked and was abandoned. The population dropped and Elizabethtown almost disappeared. By the mid-1930’s, the town was a ghost town and all gold mining had ceased.
The only thing that kept the valley alive was the creation of a dam near Eagle Roost Rock that had been built between 1916 and 1921. The resulting impoundment of water became known as Eagle Nest Lake. The small community of Therma located at the north shore of the lake changed its name to Eagle Nest. The town of Eagle Nest was incorporated in 1976.
The area known as Angel Fire was part of the Monte Verde Ranch. The Moreno Valley was well known in the 1930’s, ‘40’s, and ‘50’s for its fine fishing at Eagle Nest Lake, and fall and winter hunting. The phenomenon known as angel fire was seldom noticed or commented upon.
In the summer of 1964, a year-round residential and sports area was developed in the area around Agua Fria Peak. Spearheaded by Mr. Roy LeBus, owner of the Monte Verde Ranch, the first nine holes of the golf course were laid out and the ski runs and trails carved out of the forest. This was the start of Angel Fire.
History of the Moreno Valley and Angel Fire
The Angel Fire area and the Moreno Valley were within the range of some of the most ancient peoples in the Americas – Folsom Man roamed to the Northeast of Angel Fire near Raton. More recently it has been the home of Ute and Apache Indians. Spaniards visited the area as early as 1540 when Coronado was searching for the Seven Cities of Gold.
Angel Fire Resort was once part of the Mexican Government Land Grant issued to Carlos Beaubein and Guadalupe Miranda of Taos. Beaubein’s Son-In-Law, Lucian Maxwell first settled on the Grant in Rayado in 1847. Rayado is East of present day Angel Fire Resort. Maxwell established a profitable ranching business in Rayado supplying goods to the US Army and eventually gained control of the entire Land Grant – over 1,600,000 acres. Many ranchers and farmers settled on Maxwell’s property in return for a portion of their crops. He moved his home to Cimarron in 1857 after the Rayado Creek began to dry up.
The United States gained control of the New Mexico Territory after the Mexican American War in 1848. US Soldiers were assigned close by to protect travelers on the Santa Fe Trail which passed through Cimarron and Rayado.Fort Union, about twenty-five miles south of Rayado became the largest US Army supply post west of the Mississippi River. Lucian Maxwell often hosted travelers and soldiers at his ranch. He also supplied local Indians with food goods and supplies.
In 1867 gold was discovered on Mt Baldy and this lead to an influx of prospectors and miners to the region. Maxwell allowed the miners on his property in return for a percentage of their discovery. This policy made Maxwell wealthy. Eventually more than seven million dollars in gold was mined from Baldy. Maxwell added more property to his ranch with the acquisition of a portion of the Sangre de Cristo Grant in Southern Colorado. At the time Maxwell was the largest private landowner in US Territories west of the Mississippi.
In 1870, Lucian Maxwell sold the Land Grant to a English Land Company that became known as the Maxwell Land Grant and Railroad Company. Many farmers and miners who had settled on Maxwell’s land tried to continue their occupation. The resultant conflict became known as the Colfax County Wars. Frank Springer, a local lawyer, defended the Maxwell Land Grant and Railroad Company’s claim. He won the claim before the US Supreme Court in 1874. The Company gave him a portion of the property for his legal services.
Despite winning their claim, the Maxwell Land Grant and Railroad Company was not able to control the land and they sold the property. Today the Maxwell Land Grant property is owned by a number of large landholders. Angel Fire Resort occupies 80,000 acres on the southwest corner of the Grant. The Vermijo Ranch owned by Ted Turner is over 500,000 acres and is located between Cimarron and Raton. The CS Ranch owned by the Davis Family, descendants of Frank Springer, is over 200,000 acres on the north side of Angel Fire, the UU Bar Ranch to the east of Angel Fire is 130,000 acres and Philmont Scout Ranch to the northeast of Angel Fire is 138,000 acres. The State of New Mexico and the US Forest Service also control large tracts in the area.
Geology of the Moreno Valley
Sangre de Cristo Range
The Moreno Valley as we see it today has its foundation in the uplift of the Rocky Mountains which began between 70 and 40 million years ago. The Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range was formed during this time. The Range is 130 miles long and 32 miles wide between Santa Fe and Las Vegas, New Mexico. Peaks in the Range in Colorado reach over 14,000 feet and the highest in New Mexico, Mt Wheeler, at 13,161 feet is visible from Angel Fire on the western side of the Moreno Valley. Faulting, volcanic activity and erosion has altered the landscape to the present day. After the Rocky Mountain uplift the earth’s crust in New Mexico began to spread causing faults along the base of the Sangre de Cristo Range.
Rio Grande Rift
The most evident result of this faulting is the Rio Grande Rift. The Rio Grande Rift is a series of faults in the earth’s crust extending from Southern Colorado into present day Mexico. About 20 million years ago the base rock within the rift sunk into the earth up to five miles. The Rio Grande Valley has since filled with lava, dirt, rock and sand from the surrounding mountains. The Rio Grande River found its way within the Rift about 600,000 years ago.
The Moreno Valley has a similar origin to the Rio Grande Rift on a smaller scale. The faults bordering the valley tilt eastward. The mountains on the west, the Taos Range, show rocks of Precambrian Granite that are over 1700 million years old. Sedimentary rocks cover the Cimarron Range on the Eastern side of the Moreno Valley. These mountains are volcanic in origin. Igneous, molten rock filled cracks in the sedimentary layers forming sills, dikes and laccoliths. Both Baldy and Touch-Me-Not mountains have some of the most impressive laccoliths as their core.
Angel Fire Mountain
Agua Fria Mountain is a Shield Volcano that was formed about 4 million years ago. Shield volcanoes have gentle slopes and resemble a Roman soldier’s shield. Lava flows from Agua Fria, called the Ocate Field, extend eastward and southward toward Wagon Mound. Lava from shield volcanoes is very fluid and flows until restricted by other landforms. Another example of a shield volcano is San Antonito Mountain northwest of Taos.
Rock fields on the sides of Angel Fire Mountain are called ”Malpais” for the Spanish word for badlands. These lava flows are called “a a” (pronounced aha aha) flows and are more recent in origin.