Border Studies at EPCC
NW Library and EPCC Links
Other Local Libraries
We do NOT have the resources to assist with genealogical research.
For GENEALOGICAL RESEARCH please contact:
*El Paso Genealogical Society
Tom Charles Wanted World to Know White Sands
By Adrianna Alatorre with research by Diana Milian
Graduating from Kansas State University in 1897, Charles served as editor for the Belleville, Kan. newspaper until 1907. According to an online history of White Sands published by the National Park Service, Tom Charles homesteaded from Kansas into dry, sunny New Mexico in 1907 with his first wife Rachel, who had tuberculosis. The family tried dry land farming but soon moved into Alamogordo, a town of about 3,000 people in 1910.
Charles became editor of the Alamogordo News and in 1917 purchased the Hughes-Tinklepaugh insurance agency. Tom and Bula Chares, his second wife, ran the family insurance business for 50 years. they had six children, and while they ran a business, farmed and wrote for area newspapers, they still found time to lead the cause in establishing the monument.
Others had earlier promoted White Sands for both tourist and industrial uses. In 1903, Governor Miguel Otero in a report to the Secretary of the Interior "praised the use of the 99-percent pure gypsum for agricultural fertilizer, plaster of Paris, and even sulphuric acid". He also recognized that a cement plant in Alamogordo depended on White Sands gypsum, evidence that the area "may some day be utilized in commerce and have found a great source of wealth." And sure enough, by 1907, a plaster of Paris batching plant had been established about half a mile from the current monument headquarters. In 1912, after New Mexico became a state, Senator Albert B. Fall introduced a bill that would include a small 640-acre section of White Sands and a large amount of territory throughout southern New Mexico as a recreational park.
According to Charles, Fall's plan was too ambitious. It included the lava beds between Carrizozo and Tularosa, the elephant Butte Dam, part of the present White Mountain Wilderness, Ruidoso, and parts of the Mescalero Indian Reservation . His intentions were also to establish a highway connecting the territory, running the road by his ranch, Three Rivers, as a bonus. "The thing had gone wild, had spread over too much territory in hands of overenthusiastic friends," Charles said. He continued, "The natural enemies of conservation and the park service soon put out the cry of "Wolf, Wolf' and the cause was lost for several years to come."
Over the next 10 years, Fall ran into opposition from the Mescalero Reservation and the U.S. Congress, among others. In 1921 when Fall became Secretary of the Interior, some thought his plan might succeed. But his dreams were cut short in 1927 when he was indicted in the infamous Teapot Dome scandal , accused of selling U.S. Navy oil reserves in Wyoming to Sinclair Oil Company. That would end Fall's involvement in the White Sands project for an extended time.
Tom Charles and local supporters of White Sands proceeded carefully. The Alamogordo Chamber of Commerce sought to enlist the aid of influential politicians such as Holm O. Bursom of Socorro , Fall's successor in the Senate. Bursum promised to increase federal spending in New Mexico as part of his reelection platform. Charles knew that Bursum had been involved in many of Fall's failed attempts in the past, but his political expertise would be a benefit.
According to the online history of White Sands, Charles realized that funds from the federal government were needed in order to New Mexico to prosper. But how to go about generating interest? Charles focused attention on "the impending collapse" of Otero County's economy. In the initial stages of Tom Charles' involvement, he wrote a letter to New Mexican Congressman John Morrow in 1923.
He complained that public land ownership was constituted unfairly in New Mexico. Only five percent of the land in Otero was owned privately (269,337 acres) and only 16,000 acres of that was not classified as "arid or semi-arid". A mere 4,509 acres were irrigated. He pleaded for help because "we have a denuded range, eroded watersheds, silted reservoirs, flooded farms and busted stockmen."
Charles sent similar letters to other prominent officials like U.S. Senator Sam Bratton , H.L. Kent , president of the New Mexico State College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts, (NMSU) and regional directors of the U.S. Forest service and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The online history of White Sands said, "His message at all times was the same: the need for less federal control of public lands (so as to increase local tax revenues), while expanding general investment in the transportation and communications infrastructure."
Tom and Bula Charles also wrote extensive articles for travel magazines such as the New Mexico Highway Journal, the precursor to New Mexico Magazine , emphasizing the wonders and beauty of central New Mexico landscapes, including White Sands.
Opponents of Charles voiced the opinion that the sands would be a much more lucrative resource if the gypsum were used for "building purposes", according to a May 1923 El Paso Times article. Gypsum could also be used as a chemical cleaning agent for wool. Twenty years prior to this article, the J. W. Fitz Company had processed the sand into hollow tile building blocks, plaster and other artificial interior finishes. Houses were even built with gypsum blocks. The possibility of commercial use for the sand was obvious, even to Charles.
One of the loudest protests came from William Austin Hawkins, aging politician and El Paso judge. He believed that the establishment of the monument would impede the "resource potential of the dunes." He wanted the state to control only a fraction of the dunes as a recreational facility without any federal involvement. Because of his interference, Secretary of Interior Ray Lyman Wilbur , a supporter of Charles, was warned to tread lightly.
By the late 1920s, state officials had agreed to build U.S. Highway 70 from Las Cruces to Alamogordo, past the dunes. Charles called this gravel road the "White Sands Road."
A problem arose when Thomas Boles , superintendent of the Carlsbad Caverns, was unable to make an inspection trip in 1931, necessary for White Sands to be considered for national park status. Boles later recommended a park of 17 or 18 miles long by two miles wide, while the National Park Superintendent expanded Charles' initial idea of 27,000 acres to nearly 150,000 acres, still only half of the dunes. New Mexico Senator Bronson Cutting also told Charles that a monument would be much easier to attain than a national park. Charles felt his dream was close at hand.
In January 1933, Charles received a telegram from Bronson Cutting simply stating:
I am sure that you will be interested to know that the President [Hoover] on January 18, 1933, signed the proclamation establishing the White Sands National Monument, New Mexico. Congratulations.
Tom Charles held the first post of Custodian (Superintendent) of White Sands with a token salary of $1 per year, having to furnish his own car, gasoline and stamps until money was available for full-time National Park Service employees. The WPA built the park headquarters complete with museum, rangers' residences, utility quarters and parking areas.
The New York Times ran a five-column banner across the front page of a Sunday edition announcing the victory. National Geographic ran a 17-page spread on the new monument. White Sands became known all over the world for its amazing beauty. Photographs of the dunes have graced travel magazines for years, and paintings of the wonderland have won contests. most importantly, millions of children and adults have had the time of their lives playing in the sand during every season of the year.
Throughout years of perseverance and dedication, Charles and his supporters never lost their focus. A statue of Tom and Bula Charles stands in Founders Park in Alamogordo. These kindred spirits are immortalized in stone, reminding all that dreams are reachable through hard work and diligence. Because of Tom Charles, the White Sands Monument is something for the whole world to enjoy.
- Bulah and Tom Charles Papers. Ms 18. Rio Grande Historical Collections. New Mexico State University Library.
- Dunes and Dreams: A History of White Sands National Monument