Sunlight and silence – mountains shrouded in autumnal haze; such are the days of late fall and Indian summer in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of northern New Mexico. Two centuries ago, before the arrival of Europeans in the area, this was the time of year for the celebration for the Moache Utes, a nomadic people who gathered to renew their ancestral ties with the Great Spirit.
As legend says, from these autumn celebrations during the 1780’s, came the name and event called “Angel Fire.” Early on the first morning of the ceremonials, three young braves who had been on a hunting trip returned to the camp with news of a strange glow at the top of the peak named Agua Fria. The Utes were uneasy as they gazed at the mysterious tongues of red and orange flickering in the northern sky.
One of the elders broke their awed silence: “It is an omen – the fire of the gods – blessing our annual celebration.” The Utes, though still awed by this sign, accepted the explanation. From that time on, the Moreno Valley was a sacred place, and whenever the rosy glow appeared above the mountains, it was called the “fire of the gods”.
Following the trails of the mountain men who searched for the abundant beaver, Franciscan friars entered the Sangres searching for converts. These educated gentlemen of the church were quick to learn that they could most easily explain Christianity to the Indians by using old legends, substituting Christian terminology for native phrases. As a result of their influence, Agua Fria became known as “the place of the fire of the angels.”
Although the Utes rejected most of the Christian influence on their native beliefs, the legend of “Angel Fire” now bore the imprint of both the Indians and the Spanish culture. The formation of the Maxwell Land Grant, that colossus whose imprint was so strongly felt on the land, was formed in 1884, and the trappers and Spanish visitors from beyond the Sangres told of the strange lights above the mountains surrounding Agua Fria.
Kit Carson, then a resident of Cimarron and agent for the Utes, reported to his friend Lucien B. Maxwell, owner of the Grant, that he too had seen the angel fire at dawn and at dusk, particularly during the fall and winter months. He accredited the glow to sunlight striking hoar frost on the branches of the trees. Agua Fria was commonly referred to as Angel Fire Peak by early residents of both Cimarron and Taos.
The discovery of gold in Moreno Valley directed attention away from such legends as Angel Fire. The winter of 1863 found folks all over the west talking about Indians bringing pouches of gold nuggets to the soldiers at Fort Union. The stories moved east and many a coal miner in Pennsylvania and farmer in upstate New York prepared to pick up and move to the fabulous strike. Miners first reached the gold fields in April of 1864.
By 1867, Captain W. H. Moore had opened the valley’s first store. By the end of July that same year, the settlement had grown to over 400 permanent residents. The newly established village was named Elizabethtown after Moore’s first child.
Three years later, Elizabethtown had increased to 7,000, and the city was the first incorporated city in New Mexico Territory. When Colfax County was established by the New Mexico Territory Government, it named Elizabethtown as the County Seat. The city was a roaring, booming, gambling and mining town, with saloons, gunfighters and gunfights; it also had several newspapers, a Masonic Lodge and a telegraph station.
Although the Moreno Valley became the most productive gold mining district in New Mexico, securing $6 million in gold between 1866 and 1907, the surface ore was rapidly depleted. A tunnel was started through the mountain in an effort to locate the mother lode. The tunnel was completed, but they never found the mother lode. Water for dredging operations ran low in the valley and a multi-million dollar flume was built from Red River in an attempt to furnish water for more dredging operations. The flume leaked and was abandoned. The population dropped and Elizabethtown almost disappeared. By the mid-1930’s, the town was a ghost town, and all gold mining had ceased.
The only thing that kept the valley alive was the creation of a dam near Eagle Roost Rock that had been built between 1916 and 1921. The resulting impoundment of water became known as Eagle Nest Lake. The small community of Therma located at the north shore of the lake changed its name to Eagle Nest. The town of Eagle Nest was incorporated in 1976.
The area known as Angel Fire was part of the Monte Verde Ranch. The Moreno Valley was well known in the 1930’s, ‘40’s, and ‘50’s for its fine fishing at Eagle Nest Lake, and fall and winter hunting. The phenomenon known as "angel fire" was seldom noticed or commented upon. In the summer of 1964, a year-round residential and sports area was developed in the area around Agua Fria Peak. Spearheaded by Mr. Roy LeBus, owner of the Monte Verde Ranch, the first nine holes of the golf course were laid out and the ski runs and trails carved out of the forest.