West by Southwest – March 2014

Arthur Thomas Hannett: The Man Who Took the Kink Out of Route 66

By Ernie Bulow

My parents moved to Texas in 1948.  I refuse to take responsibility for that questionable act since I was only five at the time.  In 1948 there was no air conditioning in cars or houses.  Movies did a thriving business because they had a new-fangled way of cooling air.  Unfortunately, a person couldn’t stay in the theatre all the time.

It wasn’t just the heat that was bothersome; it was the one hundred percent humidity, the bugs and the deadly snakes in assorted sizes.  There are only four poisonous kinds of snakes in America and Texas has all of them.

My mother, thinking as much about herself as her two boys, would drive us to my grandfather’s farm in Idaho every summer.  The first couple of trips my father drove.  When we got past the New Mexico state line a curious thing happened: The road turned into a carnival ride.

Route 66 was a two lane road at the time and the pavement amounted to the hope that nobody came from the opposite direction and forced a game of “chicken.”

The best part was that the builders of the road hadn’t been able to afford any culverts or bridges.  Luckily rain was infrequent.

That meant that every arroyo, gully and wash was what they euphemistically called a “dip.”  These dips seemed to average from one mile to half a mile of separation.  There were lots of them, and the drops and rises were quite abrupt.

Bowlin's logo was seen throughout New Mexico.

Bowlin’s logo was seen throughout New Mexico.

At forty miles an hour they were just mildly nauseating.  Over fifty they were a thrill.  Only a fool drove faster than that.  I pushed my dad to take his Henry J. (that was really the name of a compact car made by Kaiser) to its limit.  The Henry J. was very small and rather light and would leave the road without much prompting.  Across a long stretch of New Mexico desert I had the time of my life.

The last of those trips, 1943, the same year Hank Williams died, my mother drove us in a 32 Dodge Coupe.  We took out the back seat and put in a mattress, but the dips were only fun if you saw them coming.

The other fun thing was the occasional gas stop at a place billed as “Cobra Gardens” or something similar.  These gave was to “Curio Stores” and later yet, “Tourist Traps.”  The really cool ones are long gone.

When I came to Gallup in 1966, less than half of the distance between Flagstaff and Albuquerque was four lane and many of those monuments to tourist boredom still lined the road.  I was grown and most of the thrill was gone.

So much has been written about the Mother Road over the years that it would seem there are no stories still to tell, but that wouldn’t be quite true.  We owe a great debt to Arthur Thomas Hannett, mayor of Gallup and later New Mexico governor.  Hannett wrote a wonderful, but somewhat disappointing, autobiography titled Sagebrush Lawyer.

It is wonderful because it gives a picture of Gallup when it still had many elements of a frontier town.  Disappointing because most of the book is about Hannett’s political life in Santa Fe.

Hannett, a lifetime Democrat, arrived in Gallup in 1911.  He came on the advice of a traveling salesman he met in Salt Lake City.  Surely the guy was having a little fun with this Eastern tenderfoot.  Arthur checked into the Page Hotel, not knowing he would soon be a deadly enemy of Gregory Page, the Republican boss.

Deadly isn’t much of an exaggeration:  On one occasion Page and another man had a shootout in the street.  Page was struck in the face and lost some teeth.  On another occasion he beat a man severely with a walking stick.  When the man later died of his injuries Page said it was his own fault.  “He should have had a stronger constitution.”

Gallup Journey Arthur Hannett

Arthur Thomas Hannett

Hannett comments, “The old timers of Gallup told me never to carry a gun because it provided a good excuse for your enemies to shoot you.”  A few days after he landed in Gallup as he sat in a bar relaxing, the man next to him had his head blown off with a shotgun.  That’s a hard memory to shake.

What is truly amazing is that the young lawyer didn’t just get back on the train and go a little further down the line.  For a rather mousy looking little man he turned out to be pretty tough.

While Hannett was trying to organize the Democratic voting base, a group of Laguna Indians showed up to cast their ballots.  It is well known that at that time Native Americans had no vote.  Less well known was a law that declared that those who had moved off the reservation were no longer wards of the government and thus citizens.

In 1916 Page pistol-whipped one of the Lagunas named Charlie Chi. Gregory wasn’t arrested for that act of violence, but later had to pay Charlie the magnificent sum of $3,000.

Mine workers and common folk were soon backing Hannett against Page and the mining corporations.  He became an expert in injury law, even traveling back east to try cases of negligence originating from Gallup area mines.

By 1914 he was city attorney and in 1918 was elected mayor.  At that point the mayhem turned into actual war.  His last year in that office, Page and his cohorts managed to convince the governor of New Mexico to declare martial law and send in troops to put down striking miners.  There are photos of soldiers manning machine gun emplacements in the streets of Gallup.

The martial law came to an end in September, just as the first Gallup Inter-tribal Indian Ceremonial took place.  There are so many great stories in Sagebrush Lawyer they are hard to do justice to, like the time Hannett failed to get the famous Elfego Baca to serve a warrant on the outrageous bad man from the Quemado area, Henry Coleman.  Coleman is the most neglected gunslinger in Western history.  That’s another story.

Gallup Journey Trading Post

Continental Divide Trading Post was a typical tourist stop, minus the snakes.

One thing that comes out in the book is how confusing and uncertain law enforcement was at the time.  Gallup, surprisingly, had a decent sheriff named Tom Tully.  But Tom had a ranch out by Crownpoint where he spent most of his time.

Tully had one deputy sheriff, also a good man, named Pat Dugan.  That was the whole roster.  But the mines had their own law enforcement and considerably more guns.  There doesn’t seem to have been the equivalent of a police department.  As seen in old Western movies, pretty much anybody could be deputized in about any quantity.  On one occasion, more than one hundred twenty men were sworn in at the same time.

In 1924, by some miracle, Arthur Thomas Hannett was elected governor in a state that had been almost solidly Republican since territorial days.  The infamous “Santa Fe Ring,” which had been active since Billy the Kid was a youngster, was sworn to destroy him.

Predictably, Governor Hannett wasn’t in office long, but he pulled off two amazing feats.  He built a decent road from Gallup to Shiprock, and he took the kink out of Route 66.

The Shiprock road was his real priority and, once built, they just had one problem with it.  Tumbleweeds would pile up in huge drifts around bridges which seldom had water in them.  The local Navajos liked to set these impromptu fireworks on fire.  Of course the bridge would burn as well.

Perhaps that was the reason for all the dips on 66 – the locals liked to watch flaming tumbleweeds.  At any rate the road got built, though it would be another decade before it was paved.

Hannett’s term as governor was an interesting one but he was defeated for re-election and Richard C. Dillon replaced him.  Since there is a brief lag between the election and the inauguration, Hannett wanted to give the Santa Fe Ring one last lick.  He decided to run the transcontinental highway through Albuquerque instead of Santa Fe.

At the time, it was a trip of three hundred and fifty-two miles of badly maintained dirt road from Santa Rosa to Gallup.  The western progress of the highway stopped at Santa Rosa and it turned north to a town called Romeroville, which wasn’t even in line with Santa Fe.  Then it turned back south through the capital city and eventually reached Albuquerque.  The ousted governor had one month – December at that – to build a highway from Santa Rosa to Moriarty.  Impossible by anyone’s calculation.

It was out of the question to get heavy road equipment from the New Mexico road department so he commandeered whatever he could find – mainly some World War I bulldozers.  He also gathered up local road graders, tractors and anything he could borrow.

A man named E. B. Bail, writing for an obscure engineering publication, penned the following:  “From start to finish of this fantastic stunt the grader and tractor operators looked upon themselves as participants in a vast joke.”

The men expected to be fired as soon as the new governor took office, but he kept them on because of their courage and ability in accomplishing the impossible.

Then the weather turned bitterly cold and the snow flew.  The Santa Fe Ring sent saboteurs to put sugar and sand in gas tanks so the men slept under their machines in the frigid weather.  They actually ran a couple of days over the time they had, but the cease and desist order hadn’t been served.

The weirdest thing about this whole story is that Arthur Hannett never obtained right of way for the highway.  Building could have been halted at any time.  Apparently only one land owner had threatened retaliation.  Route 66 was a done deal.

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