New Mexico's

"Home on the Range"

 

Mills Canyon

FOR HISTORY BUFFS

The Canadian is usually a tame river, but during wet times it can flood and be treacherous. In late 19th century, entrepreneur Melvin Mills had a fruit and vegetable empire in the canyon called the Mills Canyon Enterprise. It was ten miles long and crisscrossed by irrigation channels and cisterns that fed hundreds of acres of fruit orchards and vegetable gardens. Mills planted 14,000 apple, peach, pear, cherry, plum, walnut, almond and chestnut trees. He also cultivated melons, tomatoes, grapes and cabbages.

He built the Mills Canyon Hotel, now in ruins, but once a popular vacation spot that serviced a stagecoach line. Alas, a flood in 1904 totally wiped out the operation. Mills died in 1925, a broken man. The story is that he was forced to beg to be allowed to die on a cot in his old home, a mansion he had built in Springer, but then sold to his former law partner, Thomas B. Catron.

Hidden heart of Northeastern plains history
Story by Clay Martin

The sweeping view from the rocky rim of Mills Canyon encompasses one of the most striking landscapes of northeastern New Mexico. For those who make the effort to get to this out-of-the-way spot, the beauty of the scene is made more impressive by its contrast with the surrounding countryside: In a part of the state characterized by a distinct horizontality, where gently rolling plains stretch toward a flat skyline, the vertical dimension introduced by an almost thousand-foot-deep canyon creates a welcome diversion for the eyes.

Mills Canyon testifies to the erosional power of the Canadian River, which meanders through most of its circuitous route across New Mexico as a flatlands stream that somehow seems too modest and unassuming to have carved anything approaching a gorge. But for a stretch of about 45 miles, where it forms the boundary between Mora and Harding counties, the river has created unexpected majesty. Below a precipitous, pine-clad rim, the stately, curving canyon walls stair-step down through sandstone cliffs and slopes to a broad flood plain lined with cottonwood and tamarisk thickets that bloom vivid green in spring and mature into a halo of bronze and gold as autumn arrives.

A Scenic enclave in a sea of endless prairie, Mills Canyon possesses a compelling human legacy as well. A fascinating chapter of New Mexico history played out here, and even though nearly forgotten nowadays, it is a tale worth retelling. The story centers on one ambitious individual: Melvin Whitson Mills, Territorial legislator, district attorney, entrepreneur and agricultural empire builder in the stretch of the Canadian that now bears his name. Even today, almost a century later, fascinating remnants of his prosperity and ruin lie scattered along the canyon's winding floor.

Mills Canyon also slipped into obscurity, as the once-imposing stone and adobe structures slowly fell to ruin, and evidence of the Orchard Ranch melted into the red soil. During the Dust Bowl and Great Depression years, large portions of the ranch reverted to public domain and eventually became units of Kiowa National Grassland. Nowadays, the canyon is a peaceful retreat, visited by local residents angling for catfish and occasional outsiders seeking recreation away from the beaten track. Unlike most places, Mills Canyon has a wilder, more remote feel today than it did 100 years ago.

For those who wish to explore Mills Canyon for themselves, the area lies about 15 miles northeast of the small town of Roy, an agricultural center established in Mill's era that today represents the last commercial outpost for those heading to the canyon. Ten miles north of Roy on the NM 39 lies the dwindling community of Mills, onetime headquarter of the Mesteno Ranch, another of Melvin Mills' early ventures that today consists of a few residences and a post office. An unpaved access road heads west from Mills toward the canyon. Although usually well maintained, its conditions can vary widely, particularly in periods of wet weather. Call the U.S. Forest Service in Clayton for the current road conditions at (505)374-9652.

For the first few uneventful miles beyond the pavement, Mills Canyon lies hidden from sight, and the view west reveals little besides endless prairie stretching toward the distant Sangre de Cristo Range. Eventually, however, the defile ahead reveals itself, and the countryside roughens, forcing the road to traverse ravines and rocky benches before plunging down several switchbacks to the canyon floor. Once there, the road continues downriver for another mile or so, passing cottonwood groves, cattle guards and a primitive campground before fading away on a grassy stream bank with a scenic down-canyon view of red cliffs looming above the river.

Not far from the end of the winding road, visitors confront an imposing and unexpected sight: the gaunt, two-story stone skeleton of the Orchard Ranch headquarters building, still standing before the sandstone cliffs after all these years. In the ruins, where birds nest in crumbling fireplaces and wildflowers sprout in rooms now open to the sky, there is a lingering sense of faded elegance and a vanished way of life. Nearby, scattered remains of adobe walls, stone fences and windows of gnarled Osage orange trees hint faintly at the bustling enterprise of years past. Nowadays, Mills Canyon is a scenic gem worth visiting for its natural beauty alone. But for those with an interest in history, the Scattered remains of Melvin Mill's life's work endure as wistful reminders of the human story that played out here a century ago.

Clay Martin is a photographer and writer from Colorado who has explored the back country of New Mexico for the last 25 years.