Placemaking Spotlight: Socorro, New Mexico

Former Mission Town is a Hub for Technology, History & Scenic Beauty

Socorro, New Mexico, courtesy nmtech.edu

The town of Socorro, New Mexico, takes its name from the Spanish word for “help” or “aid”—a moniker that reflects its history as well as its evolution into a contemporary community with character.

Juan de Oñate and his team of Spanish explorers arrived in this part of the Rio Grande Valley in 1598. The people of the Teypana Pueblo who inhabited the area welcomed the expedition with food, shelter, and assistance, prompting Oñate to name the pueblo “Socorro.” Two Franciscan priests traveling with Oñate’s expedition established the Old San Miguel Mission on the site of the modern-day town. Spanish families settled in the area, establishing ranches and farms.

Oñate’s arrival ushered in a flurry of trade activity along El Camino Royal—the “Royal Road”—a strategic route that connected the New Mexico Territory to Mexico and the Spanish settlements (and now designated as a national scenic byway). When a rebellion broke out among many of the Pueblo peoples in 1680, the Teypanas and settlers left the area, and the town was not re-established until more than a century later, in 1816. 

Noting the strategic importance of the area and of protecting the trade route, in 1854, the U.S. Army established Fort Craig nearby. The fort served as a Union post during the Civil War and was later home to the Buffalo Soldiers, regiments of Black soldiers who continued their service after the Civil War. 

Socorro County experienced a boom in the 1880s with the arrival of the railroad and the emergence of a mining industry, a grain mill, brewery, and more to complement the thriving cattle ranches and ongoing trade activities. The area’s first university, the New Mexico School of Mines (now New Mexico Tech), opened in 1889. During World War II, Socorro County earned another claim to fame when the first atomic bomb was tested at White Sands Missile Range on July 16, 1945.  

Today the town serves as a charming example of placemaking excellence, preserving its indigenous and Spanish heritage while earning acclaim as a center for technology. In Socorro’s historic district, which is home to one of New Mexico’s 13 designated state scenic byways and centered on a plaza, the Elfego Baca Heritage Park tells the story of the town through an art wheel and a series of interpretive monuments. The historic San Miguel Catholic Church continues to operate as one of the oldest Catholic churches in the nation and an enduring example of mission-style architecture.

San Miguel Catholic Church, courtesy New Mexico True

To complement this rich past, New Mexico Tech is a leading center for science and research. The university just launched a new hydrologic innovation center, which will focus on developing water systems that optimize usage of the Earth’s water resources. New Mexico Tech is also home to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) Radio Telescopes, which includes 27 radio telescopes arranged in a Y pattern across the plains 50 miles west of Socorro. Visitors can learn more about radio astronomy at the impressive site, which has been used by more astronomers and mentioned in more scientific papers than any other radio telescope in the world.

VLA Radio Telescopes, courtesy National Radio Astronomy Observatory

In addition to the growing focus on technology, local, small businesses are readily embraced by the residents, students, and visitors that discover Socorro, as well as by the New Mexico Economic Development Department. For example, Capitol Bar & Brewery, a Socorro mainstay that has been owned and operated by the same family for fifty years, recently received an economic development grant to add a new small-batch craft brewery and morning coffee shop. A popular draw in the community, the business itself dates back to 1896. In the 1900s, the town’s justice of the peace managed the bar while performing his official duties, using the bar’s back room to detain unruly prisoners.

Courtesy socorronm.org.

Beyond the built environment, nature lovers are drawn to Socorro and the surrounding area for its scenic beauty and fascinating wildlife. During the winter, the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is home to bald eagles and thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese.

Bosque del Apache, photo by Kayla Zagorsky

Combining history, emerging technology, local business investment, and scenic beauty, Socorro’s appeal as a place to live, work, and visit makes it a prime example of a community with character.