Remnants of ghost town show struggle to survive

By Don McAlavy: Local columnist

Frontiersman Kit Carson told an audience more than 100 years ago: “When you get to Onava … you will be on the edge of tomorrowland, also called the land of manana by the Spanish speaking people there.”

His audience, the members of a wagon train, was encamped for the night on the Old Santa Fe Trail at La Junta, the meeting place, the junction of the Mora and Sapello Rivers.

It was also the junction of the wagon trail that lead through Cimmaron and the one that cut across past Wagon Mound to Fort Union.

Colonel Carson was operating on extended detail from Ft. Union. He continued, “The name Onava won’t mean anything to you. It’s an Indian name separating Navajo land and Comanche territory. It is the only great divide this side of the continental divide. When you camp there tomorrow night look back in your mind’s eye to Franklin, Missouri, and you’ll be on the west edge of the Mississippi Valley. The other side is the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.”

Onava was a necessary overnight stop between La Junta junction and Las Vegas in northeast New Mexico. An ox team couldn’t make the 20 miles in one day and the lakes along the crest of the divide provided water and grass for grazing.

Onava became obsolete as a way station for wagon trains when the Santa Fe railroad reached Las Vegas on July 4, 1879. But Onava is still on the map.

Interstate 25 passes it on one side and a section line of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe R.R. passes it on the other. These circumstances gave Onava a lingering death.

For all intents and purposes, Onava died with the coming of the railroad. Its essential usefulness was gone. But it tried to survive as a town. Twenty-three years later it was assigned a post office; but that convenience was discontinued in 1927.

The yellow railroad station was the last building to fall apart and disappear from the Onava landscape in the late 1950’s.

But the spirit of Onava still lives. And, it is strong.

With the railroad came the nationalization of the livestock industry. The people of Onava were determined to keep the town alive — forever if possible — and they build and maintained extensive stockyards on the railroad.

Today, nobody lives at Onava. The people are gone. But the stockyards they built in their effort to ensure the long life of Onava still stand, and, they are the best maintained of any along the line.

Even the stockyards at Chicago and at Las Vegas are dismantled as obsolete. That’s Onava, a modern ghost town, at the edge of “tomorrowland.”