Tucumcari is a small town located in eastern New Mexico, most famous
as a stop on Route 66. It is the seat of
Quay County, and lies on the east side of the
Continental Divide, in high plains country.
The name Tucumcari is an anglicization of tukamukaru, a
Comanche word for "to lie in wait." This refers to Tucumcari Mountain,
which the Comanches used as a scouting point for the surrounding plains.
Another (almost certainly apochryphal) etymology suggests
it comes from
"an old Indian story" (uh oh) about the warriors
Tocom and Tonopah who fight for the hand of the maiden, Kari. However, Tocom
and Kari were already an item, so when Tonopah kills Tocom,
Kari kills Tonopah and herself, and the tribal chief Wautonomah kills himself,
uttering "Tocom-Kari" as his dying breath. We'll stick with the
first definition, I think.
Tucumcari had its origins during the territorial days. The nearest (anglo)
outpost was called Fort Bascom, established during the American Civil War.
of Liberty was founded near the Fort for settlers moving to the area.
The modern city of Tucumcari was founded on November 22, 1901, as a stop
on the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad. The legend of the town's
founding says that two railroad men were stranded in a snowstorm in 1900, and
were given refuge for three weeks at the ranch of A.G. Goldenberg. In return
for his kindness, they tipped Goldenberg off that the railroad was coming.
Goldenberg and his business partners Max Goldenberg (his brother), J.A.
Street, Jacob Wertheim, and Lee Kewen Smith bought land they believed
well-suited as a railway, and sure enough the rail went right through it.
Given that the railroad was the only efficient and economically viable way
to cross the country in the territorial days,
railroad towns had the potential to make
their founders and property owners lots of money. The railroad was built
through the town by 1902, with daily passenger stops starting on March 12
of that year.
Eventually, it became a major shipping center for regional ranchers and
With the rise of the automobile, and the establishment of national
highways starting in 1921, many of the old railroad lines and
railroad stops became logical places for auto highways as well. By 1930,
the famous Route 66 was built through the town, and Tucumcari became a
famous (if tiny) stop on this highway from Chicago to Los Angeles. It
really was an oasis in the middle of nowhere, and highway signs proclaiming
"Tucumcari Tonight!" lured drivers there. The garish, neon-lit motels and
restaurants probably served to make the town larger than life. Tucumcari even got a mention in Bobby Troup's
song about the highway, though Nat King Cole
left that verse out (it does apparently appear in Perry Como's version on his Como Swings LP). The town
had its own hit song, "Tucumcari," by Jimmie Rodgers,
which made it to number 9 on the Billboard charts in 1959,
and got mentioned again in Lowell George's "Willin'", and more recently in
Better Than Ezra's "Coyote".
Famous landmarks in Tucumcari include the Blue Swallow Motel and the Texaco
station. The former is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the
latter is the longest-operating gas station (still open) on
Route 66. Route 66 through New Mexico has been replaced by I-40, which
runs just south of Tucumcari. The town also hosts the
Mesalands Dinosaur Museum, as the region is a rich source of
fossilized creatures and footprints dating from the Triassic.
A few scattered locations in New Mexico were volcanically active as recently
as a thousand years ago, but the entire state is touched by ancient volcanism
in one way or another and Tucumcari is no exception. Tucumcari also sits in the Tucumcari Basin, a
geologic region with petroleum deposits from the early Pennsylvanian
period. It lies north of the Permian basin of west Texas and southeastern
Borrowed heavily from:
and others. I never did make it out to Tucumcari when I lived in New Mexico.
I will have to fix that.