A closer look at Tucumcari Mountain

 

January 2, 2019

Ron Warnick

A snow-covered Tucumcari Mountain is seen Sunday afternoon from Highway 209 just south of Tucumcari. The unique peak has become the subject of many stories over the years, including made-up ones.

How much do you know about Tucumcari Mountain?

The uniquely shaped mesa just south of Tucumcari remains the most recognizable natural landmark in Quay County and a symbol of the city itself. Tucumcari Mountain is shown on the city's and county's websites and has sold countless postcards over the past century.

Native Americans knew about the mesa for several millennia before white settlers arrived. Traiblazers wrote about it during the 18th and 19th centuries. Spanish conquistador Francisco Coronado almost certainly saw it when his party passed through during the 1540s.

Most of what is known about Tucumcari Mountain comes from local lore. But what other information about it has been lost to time or overlooked?

That's where this article comes in. Information about Tucumcari Mountain came from contemporary sources, newspaper archives, local author Debra Whittington's "In the Shadow of the Mountain" and other books.

How tall?

According to the U.S. National Geodetic Service, Tucumcari Mountain has an elevation of 4,957 feet. The city of Tucumcari is listed with an elevation of 4,091 feet.

That means the mountain rises 885 feet above the city, give or take a few feet due to the city's varied terrain.

How big?

According to the Quay County assessor's office, Tucumcari Mountain encompasses 646.08 acres, a tiny bit more than one square mile.

June Cooper owns the very top, known as the biscuit, that is 41.5 acres. Thomas Morris owns 320 acres of the mountain's east side. Billie Owen Walker owns 41.46 acres on the west side.

The remaining 243.12 acres and most prominent part of the mountain that includes road access to the peak were purchased in February by Ronald Mueller of Truth or Consequences.

Sanitarium site

Tucumcari Mountain at least twice was proposed as a site for a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients.

In 1910, a newspaper report stated George Mindiman wanted to build a trolley line from Tucumcari to the mountain for his proposed sanitarium.

In 1917, the Rev. A.L. Maddox of the city's Baptist church also proposed a sanitarium for the mountain.

Neither plan ever became a reality.

It wasn't the first time lofty, but unfulfilled, ideas were floated for the mesa. According to a 1997 article in the Albuquerque Journal, an amphitheater, a restaurant and an aerial tram were proposed at one time or another for Tucumcari Mountain.


Indian village

In 1957, the local chamber of commerce built a short-lived Native American village of 14 teepees on the shoulder of the mountain in an effort to bolster tourism.

The chamber enlisted members of several New Mexico pueblos to help run the site.

The chamber also offered a horse or Jeep rides to the top of Tucumcari Mountain.

National park?

During the early 1960s, the National Park Service considered whether Tucumcari Mountain could become part of its system.

After a study, the agency ruled the mesa "does not merit national status."

Peak's early use

Local Native Americans used Tucumcari Mountain as a lookout point, and Tucumcari residents eventually saw the mesa's high vantage point as useful, as well.

Radio towers and other structures have peppered the shoulders and top of Tucumcari Mountain for decades. The first probably was an airplane beacon, installed in 1932. The flashing light helped guide Transcontinental, Western Air and other planes flying through the region until the beacon was taken down in 1964.


In 1962, New Mexico State Police used a Cannon Air Force Base rescue helicopter to lift new radio equipment to the top of the mesa. One state police spokesman said the chopper was needed because the mountain road was so rugged, "a burro can't even get to the point."

The Big T

Tucumcari High School students hold a long tradition of painting rocks that form a big "T" on the north face of the mountain.

No one seems sure when the tradition started, but Tucumcari resident Yetta Bidegain, who once owned that part of the mesa with her late husband for many years, said local students were painting it annually when she was in high school there during the early 1940s.


During her time as a co-owner of the mountain, Bidegain said she and her husband always dealt with trespassers and vandals. But she praised Tucumcari students who went up the mountain each year to repaint the "T."

"The kids who've painted the 'T' always have been very accommodating," she said. "They always called before making the trip up there."

Misadventures

Climbers on Tucumcari Mountain occasionally have needed rescuing, and a couple met tragic ends.

As recently as 2012, a 14-year-old Tucumcari boy became stranded on a narrow ledge about midway up the mesa. A rescuer rappelled down the mountain's face, took the boy from the ledge, and authorities transported him to Trigg Memorial Hospital for treatment.

In 1954, an 18-year-old Tucumcari youth died when he was accidentally shot while climbing the mountain.

Gilbert Gonzales and two companions were climbing the mesa when one stumbled while carrying a rifle. The gun discharged, and the bullet hit Gonzales above the left eye, killing him instantly.

Nineteen-year-old Earl McIntyr of Tucumcari died after a fall from the mountain in 1918.

A newspaper account stated McIntyr was hanging over a cliff, looking into an eagles nest, while another boy was trying to take a photograph of him. McIntyr's hold gave way, and he plummeted to the rocks below.

He died of his injuries at a hospital days later.

Fireworks flub

Mary Ann Froede's memoir, "Where the Hell Is Tucumcari," details a botched Fourth of July fireworks show from atop Tucumcari Mountain during the 1950s.

"The show started with the usual small sky rockets and seemed to be gradually increasing when suddenly, the whole sky was lit with rockets, starbursts, sonic booms and in about five minutes, the show was over!" she wrote. "It seems that one of the National Guard helpers couldn't give up his cigar smoking for a period of time. He had leaned over the box of fireworks to choose his next rocket, dropped the cigar and the whole 'shooting match' went up with a blaze of glory, short lived to be sure."

Odd findings

In Froede's book, she said her husband, while hiking up Tucumcari Mountain, found the wreckage of a biplane that crashed on the mountain during a storm in the 1930s.

During a UPI wire-service story in 1968 about the U.S. Navy's dedication of the Tucumcari hydrofoil gunboat, a resident showed the crew a Native American ax estimated to be 1,200 years old. It reportedly was found on Tucumcari Mountain.

Another report said mammoth bones were found near the mountain in 1930, and locals recalled finding seashells at Tucumcari Mountain's summit - evidence of a time millions of years ago when the region still was under water.

A social center

Tucumcari Mountain periodically pops up in early newspaper articles as a spot for social gatherings or even a picnic.

In 1908, a local kindergarten teacher hosted an Easter egg hunt on the mountain.

In 1910, the New Mexico Baptist Convention conducted a sunrise meeting atop the mountain.

A 1913 newspaper article told about how a Mrs. J.A. Street and her daughter hosted a lunch on the mesa's peak.

In 1968, a torch parade was led down Tucumcari Mountain during the city's annual Piñata Festival.

Trespassers

Keeping trespassers off the mountain has proved to be a challenge for more than a century.

"We had a difficult time with keeping people from tearing down the gate and taking down the 'posted' signs," Bidegain said.

In 1907, a "Notice to Mountain Climbers" was posted in the Tucumcari newspaper.

It stated: "Tucumcari Mountain is a nice place to climb. To go there you must go by the public highway or hire a baloon (sic), for we the undersigned, offer a reward of $15.00 for evidence that will convict any party or parties of trespassing on our property." It was signed by J.A. Street, R.P. Donohoo, S. Anderson and John Henry.

That $15 in 1907 would be equivalent to more than $400 today.

The big gouge

The north side of Tucumcari Mountain contains a large fissure in its lower half, leading some to believe locals had mined it decades ago for gravel or other material.

However, century-old photographs, including those hanging in the Tucumcari Historical Museum, clearly show the same scar on the mountain before the area saw much development from white settlers.

Instead of it being man-made, the gouge likely was caused by simple erosion.

Origin of the name

Tucumcari Mountain's name predates the city for which it is named. The origins of the word "Tucumcari" remain murky and may never be confirmed.

The New Mexico State Record Center and Archives states Oklahoma linguist Elliott Canonge said the name may be derived from the Comanche word "tukamukaru," which means "to lie in wait for someone or something to approach." It further stated the mountain was used as a lookout point by Comanche war tribes.

Fray Angelico Chavez also discovered a 1777 burial record of a Comanche woman and child who were captured in the battle of Cuchuncari, an early name for the mountain.

The state record center also theorized Tucumcari may be a Kiowa word for "breast" because of the mountain's shape.

Amateur historian Herman Moncus in a 1966 article in a Tucumcari newspaper said he found a Jemez Indian who could sing a song titled "Tucumcari Buffalo Hunting Song." The Indian told Moncus that Tucumcari meant "place of buffalo hunt." Moncus said he gave the tale credence because Jemez Indians hunted in the region before the 19th century.

A 1950s article in a newspaper theorized Tucumcari translated to "squatty mountain" in the Native American language.

The legend

Whittington stated in her book the so-called "Legend of Tucumcari Mountain" was "fabricated" by a local Methodist preacher in 1907.

The story, which resembles William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," of the star-crossed Native American lovers has been circulating ever since, especially on postcards.

The short version: An Apache brave named Tocom loved the chief's daughter Kari, but another brave, Tonopah, wanted to marry her. The two braves fought to the death with knives. When Tonopah's blade plunged into Tocom's heart, the girl rushed forward, stabbed Tonopah, then killed herself in grief. The Apache chief, seeing the bloody scene, screamed "Tocom-Kari" and killed himself with Kari's knife.

In 1941, local writer Stu Morrison wrote a 400-line poem titled "Legend of Tucumcari," using the same story line.

 
 

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