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McKelligon Canyon: From Cattle to Culture
By Lorraine Herrera
The pride of El Paso is its majestic Franklin Mountains. Among all of the attributes and hidden treasures of the Franklins, perhaps the most important geological feature lies within the mountains: McKelligon Canyon. Theatrical presentations, picnic areas and rock climbing have provided much enjoyment for El Pasoans. But it was not always this way. McKelligon Canyon's recreational features were developed in different phases, making it the place it is today.
Image caption: Patrons can enjoy the spacious remodeled plaza area. Photo by Lorraine Herrera
McKelligon Canyon was named after Maurice J. McKelligon, a rancher and real estate man. According to an article by Chris Fox El Paso banker, ex-sheriff and local writer, “Maurice J. McKelligon was one of those sturdy souls who faced up to the realities of life with great vigor and good heart…he was a remarkable man in many ways, and as a real estate and land explorer of his day, he was a man of clean and clear vision. ( Password vol 21, page 53)
McKelligon came to El Paso from Nebraska in the summer of 1880, shortly after the death of his wife, Agnes. He brought with him three sons, Matthew, Alvin and Maurice, and a daughter, Ella.
It didn't take long for him to notice that El Paso wasn't a place to raise children. El Paso during the early 1880s was a small town of about 300 residents and no schools. McKelligon sent his boys to the Christian Brothers College in Santa Fe and Ella to Loretto Academy in Las Cruces, while he stayed at a boarding house downtown.
According to an article in the El Paso Herald, “He owned a drove of cattle, about 400 head, and developed and improved a spring in what is now called McKelligon Canyon, in the year 1882.” McKelligon housed his cattle in the canyon until 1887, when a drought hit the area, and he was forced to move them.
In the meantime, El Paso had become a more family friendly town. McKelligon had a rock house built for his family in 1888 on what today would be the intersection of Brown and Rim Road. Leon Metz wrote in the El Paso Times that the house was elegant and tastefully furnished, with a grand piano, Brussels carpets and lace curtains. The family traveled in a horse and buggy in town and used horses and a wagon to carry things to and from the ranch in the mountains.
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Some five years later, McKelligon sold hundreds of acres of land to Pete Kern, including the land on which the house stood. Part of this acreage later would become Kern Place. According to Fox, McKelligon left El Paso “shortly before the turn of the century…as his fortunes in El Paso had not been developing as he had hoped, [and he] moved to Arizona and never returned.” The empty house suffered damage from fire and neglect and was referred to as “the haunted house” until it was torn down. From Arizona, McKelligon moved to Nevada and resided there until his death in 1909.
El Paso County purchased McKelligon Canyon for $30,000 in September 1931 from W. E. Cantrell. According to an Oct. 31, 1934, El Paso Herald Post article, the state relief commission approved three El Paso projects, one of which was the pavilion in McKelligon Canyon. The cost of the pavilion, including labor, was $12,110.
The new facility was 50 by 100 feet, with 18-inch rock walls and cement floors. The pavilion site was also selected to include a museum and storm shelter structure as well as facilities for entertaining. The pavilion has been used for dinners and dancing by various organizations.
For many years, McKelligon Canyon itself served the El Paso area as a beautiful natural setting for family picnics and other gatherings. And, for many young people, the canyon was a great place for lovers!
More than 40 years after the construction of the pavilion, the amphitheater was built. Nestor Valencia, former director of planning and development for the city, designed the amphitheater at McKelligon canyon. It was inaugurated on July 4, 1976, to commemorate the U.S. Bicentennial, highlight the multicultural history of the region and employ local residents.
The amphitheater was used back in the late 1970s for the newly created production named “Viva El Paso!” created by Hector Serrano, head of the Drama Department at El Paso Community College. Serrano directed “Viva El Paso! ”” for 25 seasons until 2002. Except for 2005, the musical has continued to be held in the Canyon and once again was held there during summer of 2006. Performances of “Viva!” began the evening of June 23 and ran through July 30, with shows on Friday and Saturday nights.
Serrano also brought the Shakespeare on the Rocks theater festival to McKelligon Canyon from 1981 to 1984, and revived it in 1993. For 10 years, thousands of El Pasoans enjoyed A Midsummer Night's Dream and three other Shakespearean plays under the stars every September. Before the plays, many theatergoers had dinner outdoors while taking pleasure in the spectacular views. When Serrano left the project, the El Paso Association for the Performing Arts continued producing the festival at McKelligon Canyon. Shakespeare on the Rocks is now at home at the Ysleta Performing Arts Amphitheater, once more under the direction of Serrano.
Image caption: A completely renovated amphitheater greeted El Pasoans the summer of 2006. Photo by Lorraine Herrera
At the beginning of 2005, the renovation of the facilities at McKelligon Canyon put on hold the use of the canyon. Rick Miller, who works at F. T. James Construction Company and was the project manager, said in a phone interview that the amphitheater stage was completely redone, as was part of the theater seating and all woodwork around the amphitheater. There are many additions to the interior of the amphitheater such as a new gift shop, a first aid section, additions to the old dressing room for the performers as well as a scene shop where theater sets will be stored. The exterior of the amphitheater has also been remodeled.
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The pavilion, too, received a facelift. It was turned into a building with air conditioning and heating, a new electrical system and landscaping, and improvements to restrooms, parking, walkways, ramps and stairs. The pavilion opened on March 30, 2006, and is available for public use for retreats, weddings, parties and quinceañeras.
The total cost of the renovation was about $1.6 million. In a telephone interview, Pifas Silva, the communications manager for the El Paso Convention and Visitors Bureau, spoke about the distinctiveness of McKelligon Canyon . “It is a wonderful venue for entertainment … it's an outdoor amphitheater where you can enjoy our great weather and beautiful sunsets. It's in the Franklins ― you're surrounded by mountains on all sides. This is a unique venue.”
It has been 74 years since El Paso County purchased the canyon. Even though the setting has been underused over the years, McKelligon Canyon has been developed ultimately to provide El Pasoans years of enjoyment.
Once upon a time, rustled cattle were driven through the canyon and over its wall to the Rio Grande. Today we can drive into the canyon on a newly paved road to see the story of our history performed in song and dance on an outdoor stage. But through it all, the mountains stand as sentinels, the moon shines down upon natives and tourists alike, and the soft breezes and rare autumn rains remind us why we live in a city with a mountain range in the middle of town. This place should not only be enjoyed, but cherished by all El Pasoans.
- Hector Serrano video interview from EPCC's Along the Rio Grande TV series.