Oasis in the Desert: The Renewal of Carlito Springs

by Guest on May 6, 2013 Historical 5972 Views

By Denise Tessier

Halfway up the south slope of the Sandia Mountains, opposite Tijeras, the I-40 traveler might notice a shock of deciduous trees—a striking anomaly among the evergreens. Fiery gold in autumn, bright green in spring and summer, this leafy mass is the heart of Carlito Springs, a 179-acre oasis whose lush charm served from the late 1800s through the 1940s as a lure for those seeking recreation and respite. Now, as Bernalillo County open space, Carlito Springs is beginning to host visitors once again.

Architect Baker Morrow, whose firm conducted an assessment of Carlito Springs, recently called it “one of the most amazing landscapes in the Southwest,” and “unique” because of its slope. From the natural spring at the top to the orchards with hundreds of fruit trees below, elevation drops 750 feet. A terraced cluster consisting of a main house, cabins, and ponds sits between the spring and orchards, all situated just above historic Route 66.

In addition to its beauty and decades-long reputation as a mountain getaway, Carlito boasts a fascinating history. Civil War veteran Horace G. Whitcomb discovered the spot while looking for gold and homesteaded it in 1882; the Keleher brothers later brought visitors up from Albuquerque in six-horse stagecoaches for day trips; and Carl Magee bought the property in 1930 for his tubercular wife, naming it Carlito after their son, Carl Jr., who had died in a plane crash while training to go to war.

Carlito’s history as a resort starts with Whitcomb, who started off living in a tent while he cultivated the land and built irrigation canals. According to the county assessment, by 1891 he had built six dwellings, a stable, more than a mile of pole fence, and three-quarters of a mile of graded road. He also planted 30 fruit trees and 80 grape vines and opened the property to visitors as Whitcomb Camp. He apparently lived as a single man, because in 1893 the Albuquerque Daily Citizen reported he had filed for divorce from his wife, Ellen, who lived in Massachusetts and refused to make New Mexico her home. Three years later, another story reported Whitcomb’s marriage to a Ms. S. Parker “before an interesting crowd of about 30 city folks . . . enjoying their outing at the
. . . well-known mountain resort.” The date “1894” can still be seen etched in stone over a window on the oldest cabin at Carlito Springs, part of Whitcomb’s legacy.

In 1898 Jessie Keleher took over the camp and changed its name to Whitcomb Springs. Her two sons shuttled visitors to the site by stagecoach, advertising a full day’s outing at $1.50 a head.

A boy’s school and sanatorium for patients seeking clear, cool mountain air were among the property’s uses before its purchase by Magee, who advertised “Cabins with Meals” in 1932. He also entertained visitors in his grand dining room and tea veranda and supplied fresh fish to local residents and restaurants from his famous trout ponds.

Magee, it should be noted, had already earned his place in history before moving to Carlito Springs. Born, raised, and educated in Iowa, he eventually moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he practiced law and participated in a variety of that city’s civic affairs. He also earned a distinction of international importance: He invented the parking meter, which put him in financial good stead.

He bought the Albuquerque Journal in 1920, but sold it in 1922 and founded Magee’s Independent. A year later he gave it up and became editor of the New Mexico State Tribune (later the Albuquerque Tribune). As a crusading journalist, Magee helped bring down Interior Secretary Albert B. Fall in the Teapot Dome Scandal—repercussions of which led to charges of libel against Magee in 1923 and 1924 and, in 1925, a murder trial.

Magee was acquitted in the first libel case; he was found guilty in the second but was pardoned by Gov. James F. Hinkle. D.J. Leahy, the judge who heard the two cases, developed such an animosity against Magee that he physically attacked the journalist in a Las Vegas, New Mexico, hotel lobby in 1925. Magee, however, was armed. In defending himself, he not only wounded Leahy, but also killed an innocent bystander. The judge who presided in Magee’s murder trial directed a verdict of acquittal.

In 1946 Magee’s daughter Gertrude inherited Carlito Springs and lived there with her husband, Sandia Lab’s atomic scientist Tony Grenko. One of their daughters, Junile Willingham, told this writer in 2001 that her father planted a quarter million tulip bulbs along the property’s mountain paths and added English black walnut, nectarines, cherries, wild plums, almonds, apricot, and fig to the orchards. “Every once in a while a tree will produce an apple as big as a pie itself,” she said. Both her parents were master gardeners who won countless ribbons at the New Mexico State Fair. In her grandfather Magee’s time, Willingham said, thousands of trout were fed breadcrumbs, horsemeat, and beans—“quite a project,” she noted.

Walking around Carlito Springs today, history is as pervasive as the water. One is never far from irrigation channels that flow down from the spring, providing sustenance to a lush variety of flowers, vines, and fruit trees, and filling three ponds that once held thousands of trout. At one time, the spring even served the village of Tijeras as a water source. Over time, the channels have solidified because of limestone in the spring water, creating a natural travertine bed.

Bernalillo County bought Carlito Springs as open space in 2000, adding to its size in 2008. Protection of this special property has been a concern in terms of opening it up to visitors, along with safety, as the fruit brings frequent visits by bears. The county has also done considerable work to stabilize and clean up the site, which was overgrown and littered with years of debris.

Parks and Recreation’s Colleen McRoberts told visitors at a Carlito event in September 2012 that the county is “moving in the direction” of opening Carlito more often to the public, but it is a slow process. Events are limited to once or twice a year because, she says, the entire open space staff is needed to run any event. Chairs are brought up by flatbed truck, tours are provided by staff like senior planner Grant Brodhel, and a van shuttles visitors—one small group at a time—because parking is limited and traffic interferes with the tours and talks.

Parks and Recreation’s Clay Campbell said, the county hopes to buy 10 acres near the base of Carlito so visitors will be able to park and hike up. If all goes well, this historical oasis may once again host visitors seeking respite in the great outdoors.

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By Denise Tessier