By Mike Smith
In May of 1866, Albuquerque resident Dr. W. T. Strachan claimed to have discovered the skeleton of a giant in a cave at the southwestern end of the Sandia Mountains.
At the time, Albuquerque was still 14 years away from the arrival of the railroad, in a state that was still just a U.S. territory. Its name was still spelled Alburquerque, and there wasn’t much more to the city than part of what we now call Old Town. To the east of Alburquerque lay only El Llano (“the plain”) or the East Mesa, a rolling sagebrush sea of rabbitbrush and cactus and dirt in which the little Villa de Alburquerque was merely an island.
To the east of this wide desert expanse were the Sandia and Manzano Mountains, split by Tijeras Canyon, which itself was defined only by its creek and a rough, Army-graded wagon road. Most days, all you heard was the wind as it blew across and around the Sandias’ foothills and its scree of boulders. Apaches and Comanches occasionally rode through on horseback; Hispanic stockmen grazed goats in the area; and prospective miners poked around the rocks in search of silver, lead, gold, gypsum, whatever earned them money.
In 1866, Dr. W.T. Strachan was one of Albuquerque’s small minority of non-Hispanic residents. He was a local entrepreneur, a member of the Bernalillo County legislature, and—according to volume two of George B. Anderson’s 1907 History of New Mexico: Its Resources and People—a founder of the Albuquerque Bridge Company, which maintained the only structure across the Rio Grande, a rickety toll bridge that would later wash away in a flood.
Strachan had been out prospecting, he told the Santa Fe New Mexican, when he noticed a small cave entrance among the mountains’ sloping granite boulder fields. This cave, he alleged, opened up into a sizeable cavern, large enough to contain an enormous, human-like skeleton later reckoned to be around forty feet tall and nine feet wide.
The skeleton was so large, he said, he could only easily remove and carry out the tip of one of its little fingers—“the first phalanx of a little finger of a man who must . . . have weighed 3,600 pounds,” as one unnamed 1866 Albuquerque medical professional said.
Strachan had a friend up in Santa Fe, Frank Green, of the notoriously rowdy El Dorado saloon, and during his next journey to the capitol city, he showed the bone to Green who put it on display in his bar, to attract business. Hundreds of people came to see the alleged giant’s alleged fingertip, and would then stop to buy a drink and talk about the oddity with the other patrons.
This unusual story seems to have been preserved only in a small number of May 1866 articles in the Santa Fe New Mexican and in a March 4, 1977 Albuquerque Tribune column by Howard Bryan. “The New Mexican in Santa Fe reported that Dr. Strachan was a ‘gentleman of the strictest veracity’ since he was a member of the New Mexico Legislature,” quipped Bryan. “Need I say more?”
Another problem with the story is the involvement of a 40-foot-tall human giant. (Oh, that.) In the 1860s and 1870s, evolutionary theory was extremely young, biblical mentions of giants were often taken literally, and a small number of other purported giant remains turned up periodically around the country. New York’s carved-stone Cardiff Giant hoax, in 1869, was the most famous of these.
Also, if a large cavern exists anywhere around the Sandias’ southern end, it remains unknown today; the mountains’ geology doesn’t seem to support the possibility of one since the few caves there are in the hard granite and limestone, are very narrow. There is also the mountains’ fossil record, which leans heavily toward the much older and simpler, the sorts of basic vertebrates that would have been swimming about when the tops of the range were still the floor of an ancient sea and had yet to begin tilting upward.
Finally, there’s the matter of the skeleton’s discovery. Only one bone was recovered from this potentially revolutionary find, the skeleton appears never to have been revisited or recovered, and the sole professional opinion on the matter seems to have come not from a paleontologist, but from an unnamed worker in an unnamed medical field. Even the evidence, the so-called finger bone, was exhibited not in a museum but in a saloon, and studied not by scientists but by drunk people.
Giants may never have roamed the Sandias, but it may be that something once left its bones in the mountains and that Strachan found them and honestly mistook them for something else. Or he may have made the story up entirely. Either way, this story of the Giant of the Sandias tells us much about how we interact with our world: the places we live help shape us, but with our stories and our lies and our daydreams, we in turn shape them, reinventing them in our minds for ourselves.
Strachan may not have found the skeleton of a giant, but perhaps he did wander through the Sandias, and perhaps the mountains, as remote and as lonesome as they were, did feel like the sort of place that giants would have roamed, had existence only given them such an opportunity. In that ascending wildness, in that rocky desert, the idea may at least have felt true, have felt possible enough for Strachan to project that feeling back onto the mountains.
He wouldn’t have been the first to do so, either, and he wouldn’t be the last. Before him, there were gods who emerged from the mountains’ highest summit, and there were lost mines. After him, there would be other lost mines, and the urban legend of a murderous hobo whose ghost still haunts another unknown cave in the same southwestern foothills. Or maybe it’s the same cave.
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