Home News Vision New Mexico coal-mining village once recognized as ‘city of lights’

New Mexico coal-mining village once recognized as ‘city of lights’

About 40,000 lights illuminate the small town of Madrid, New Mexico, in this historic photo. (Photo courtesy of Midori M. Snyder)

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

Imagine, if you will, a dark, tiny coal-mining village in the mountains during the 1920s and ‘30s, far away from city lights.

During part of this time, the roads were not even paved and could be muddy and rutted. Then, all of a sudden, it was like a Christmas miracle happened. The lights came on, the hills were aglow, and people came from around the world to see, share the joy and relish the reason for the season.

Could we make this happen in Roswell? We don’t have mountains, but we do have old, beautiful buildings downtown. Remember when the beautiful angels hanging across Main Street made a lighted tunnel to drive through? Much more could be done, just like in the following story. It could happen again.

This story did not happen in southeastern New Mexico, but it did happen in New Mexico. We could make it happen here, though. Read on for this wonderful story by Harrison Sudborough that first appeared in The New Mexican on Dec. 7, 1983.


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It was a national attraction during coal mining days

A transcontinental airliner diverts from the westward flight path on a snowy December night. It dips in circles. The pilot announces to the passengers, ‘Merry Christmas!’ Below, near the foot of the Sandia Mountains, there is the world-famous ‘City of Lights!’

The plane is circling over Madrid, New Mexico, a town once called “Coal Gulch.”

A web of incandescent glows from the darkness below.

In California, a Christmas visitor to Madrid arrives with an inspiration. He had just seen a toyland of life-size animated figures there. He is Walt Disney, and he will create Disneyland. Madrid inspired him!

An issue of Life magazine features the displays of “The Christmas City.”

Winding roads funnel thousands of automobiles through a blazing archway. A 90-foot Christmas tree stands four hundred feet above the valley floor. (Most don’t notice that 25 evergreen trees are wired to a utility pole.) Over all the great crèches of the nativity scene on the hilltops, over the enchanted town nestled below, shines the star of Bethlehem (about 14 feet across if measured).

The annual Christmas pilgrimage to Madrid is underway! And it will be 100,000 strong from all parts of the world that will pack this town of 1,500 souls. “A traveler,” writes a visitor, “begins to feel he’s entering a holy place.”

The town is illuminated with 40,000 lights. Decorating every building in Madrid demands 500,000 kW of electricity at the cost of $50,000. Some estimate that year as many as 150,000 lights, from small globes to 1500 w spotlights, were used. The coal company power plant is running around the clock to meet the demand.

As a visitor mills about, they see Christmas exhibits everywhere: on the bluffs, the gigantic crèche scenes, a 36-foot Christ figure on a hillside; an adobe and wood re-creation of the town of Bethlehem 75-feet long and 35-feet high. A church facade laced with lights, its red lit cross above, shines against a dark hillside.

Christmas hymns and carols from hillside loudspeakers fill the air. Angels sing from the hilltops. Wise men carrying smoking pots of incense guide burros through the teeming streets.

An Atkinson, Topeka and Santa Fe locomotive, with Santa Claus as its engineer, chugs and puffs in from Waldo, its flatcars loaded with children.

A spot lit trumpeter in medieval dress blows his horn on a hilltop. A huge flower basket of poinsettias among other bright flowers is highlighted nearby.

Choirs are singing throughout town. In one place stand 6-foot high electric candles; in another, eight life-size reindeers pulling Santa Claus. Elsewhere, huge colored light and mechanical displays hum and buzz, wave and nod.

The picture show is free, and all the town kids get free gifts. In the inn, a crèche scene is being enacted by live actors. Two hundred and fifty homes are agleam with strands of lights, their doorways and Christmas trees gaily lit and decorated.

Oh, there is Toyland! Just north of town in the ballpark Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater in a grand orange pumpkin house, The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, and Mickey Mouse, and Popeye, and many others! A dinky train toots its whistle and sends sparks flying. An airplane circles overhead, its bright propeller blades spinning, its red and green lights winking.

This might have been 1930, the year Santa Fe artist Paul Lantz, designer of the art scenes and toyland, invited his friend Walt Disney to enjoy the Madrid displays.

Had we been present early in October of that year, we might have witnessed 300 to 400 miners, on the weekends or after a day’s work in the dark “pigeon holes” that punctuate the slopes, carving roads to set locations, erecting the sets, stringing lights, and hanging decorations. Indoors, the women would be designing, cutting and sewing costumes worn by both mechanical and live participants.

Teachers and children already had been at work converting the school house into a fireplace hung with stockings and with two children on each side peering up the chimney for a view of Saint Nick. They adorned the windows and lined the building with lights.

Had we’ve been in Madrid in mid-December, we would have witnessed the turning on of the lights!

It is just after sundown. Someone pulls the main switch in the company power plant. Darkness descends on Madrid. Then, with thousands looking on, the governor of New Mexico presses the button.

The City of Lights is ablaze! The pageantry begins!

How could such a marvelous spectacle originate in so unlikely a “dowdy mining camp?” Carrie Holbrook in the December 1941 issue of Compressed Air Magazine describes it as follows: “Coal dust eddies around the grimy anthracite breaker and lies heavy on porch and roof. The dinky engine puffs back and forth between Waldo and the mines. Rope trips roar over the knuckle, land on top, and go back down again.

According to Holbrook, individuals who had been decorating their own homes, discovered that their small community had more than the usual number of decorated homes.

Someone suggested a club for the purpose of making the occasion a community project. Part of the plan was a gigantic community Christmas tree, where each child was to receive a gift from the club. Since they all worked for the same company, they called the organization the Employees Club. To finance the ever-expanding undertaking, a “check off’” system was adopted through the company office whereby each of the 750 workers contributed $.75 to $1.75 per month.

Apparently, the company did have a vested interest in the annual Christmas celebration. Kim Fischer in her article “Madrid” (in the Albuquerque Journal, October 18, (1983) reports that Oscar Huber, then president, later owner, of the Albuquerque and Cerrillos Coal Company, encouraged such community efforts. “Miners would not spend idle hours complaining about their work; instead they would be proud of their community and develop devotion and loyalty to the place.”

According to some, the company actually withheld the Christmas costs. Grumbling could be heard. Some thought it coercive. After all, the Albuquerque and Cerrillos Coal Company more or less owned Madrid, lock, stock, and barrel. The depression was being felt. Making Madrid famous for lights did not seem to some all that essential. Still, the spirit of that community at Christmas time sublimated its differences and altogether its members celebrated the birth of Christ with unsurpassed energy and style.

Then war rumbled across the European continent. War conditions prohibited even a curtailed lighting display. The lights of Madrid were seen last, just a few years later, on Pearl Harbor Day 1944, and the tradition that began in 1922 sputtered out. The large painted sets, about 20 pieces in all, and the decorations were stored away in warehouses.

In December of 1941, Dr. M.D. Gibbs published a poem called “Lights of Madrid,” a eulogy that might also serve as its epitaph:

And it came to pass: that through all

the ages, man has taken light as

the symbol of that which is good, and

darkness for that which is evil,

For these two forces, Good and Evil,

have ever existed in the Psychic World;

even as attraction and repulsion exist

in the Material World.


I stood on a hill, where cedars grow,

As they grew in Lebanon, long ago;

‘Twas Christmas night, The holy night,

And I saw a many pictures, framed in light.

For this mountain town, where coal is mined,

Is sending a message to mankind,

And the miners, who work by day in the dark,

Have kindled, for Hope, a brighter spark.

With magic light, they have pictured here,

the stories that children hold so dear.

And the solemn thoughts of older men.

Are made by the light to live again.


Russia’s dictator, Stalin, has said,

‘Tis well proven, God is dead.’

Mussolini, from Italia’s sun kissed shore,

Declares, ‘Religion is no more.’

German Hitler proclaims, in the name of Peace,

‘That man’s faith, in Faith, shall cease.’

But the lights of Madrid this message give,

Religion, Faith, and God, yet live.

After the war, a scarcity of labor, materials and supplies hindered efforts to revive the tradition.

“Since the war we have been hoping from year to year that things would get better. Instead they have gotten worse,” so Oscar Huber, president of the Albuquerque and Cerrillos Coal Company, was quoted in The New Mexican on Sept. 18, 1947.

By 1960 only two families were still living in Madrid. The anthracite breakers were silent. The train engines rusted. Tumbleweeds rolled through the streets. The mine shafts were as empty as the dilapidated miners’ shacks. Oil and gas having replaced coal, the town of Madrid and its mines could not even be sold.

Quiet for 28 years, Madrid became a ghost town where squatters, hippies, photographers, artists, craft persons, and occasional looters roamed its streets. By 1970, the population had grown to 80. Eventually artisans and others begin to refurbish the old clapboard houses they were buying. Madrid came alive again and now boasts a population of 250 in winter and 300 in the summer.

The landowners association was established and has been making an effort to revive the tradition. Shops abound there now for the Christmas shopper. During Christmas season displays have dotted the town; lights, trees, and wreaths have all been on display.

(The article is copyrighted, 1983, by the New Mexican Inc. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.)

Janice Dunnahoo is an archive volunteer at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at jdunna@hotmail.com. 

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