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Borderlands: Downtown El Paso Is Monument to Anson Mills 18 (1999)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Downtown El Paso Is Monument to Anson Mills

Article first published in Vol. 18, 1999.   Updated 2017.  View article

By Theresa Seañez and Juan Aleman

Surveyor. Army officer. Inventor. Developer. Boundary Commissioner. One of El Paso's foremost pioneers, Anson Mills is known as the "Father of El Paso" because of his many contributions to the area.

Mills was born in Thorntown, Indiana, on August 31, 1834, the first of nine children. His parents valued education and sent him at age six to a long school furnished with benches made of sawmill slabs with four legs and no back.


Image caption: The Mills Building is an El Paso landmark. Photo by Danny Martinez

At sixteen, Mills traveled by rail for five or six days to attend school at the large, coed Charlottesville Academy in New York. His classmates called him the "Russian Ambassador from the Woolly West" because of his country dialect and his large, dark mustache. Accepting a nomination to West Point, Mills found that he continued to be teased. After two years, Mills dropped out because of low math scores.

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Too embarrassed to return home, Mills traveled to the real "Woolly West" and tutored the children of Judge R. L. Waddell in McKinney, Texas, in 1857. A year later, he arrived in El Paso, a small settlement then named Franklin. It was across the river from a large, thriving town known as Paso del Norte. Even then, Mills recognized the valley would become an important place. Soon after his arrival, the Butterfield Overland Mail Company hired Mills to build its stage offices in El Paso, the halfway point of the Trail. The building, completed in September 1858 and located on two acres, remained the most imposing structure in El Paso for forty years. Historian W. H. Timmons says it was the largest and best-equipped office on the Butterfield Trail.

On the recommendation of several acquaintances from West Point then at Fort Bliss, Mills became district surveyor. He surveyed Fort Quitman, Fort Stockton, Fort Davis and Fort Bliss for the military.

The El Paso Company, a group of prominent citizens developing the land originally known as Ponce's Rancho, hired Mills to survey the settlement known as Franklin. Leon Metz notes that Mills completed a plat or map of the town that looked much like today's downtown.

Mills noticed that the streets resembled a cow trail. Houses were built at random, and few streets were parallel or at right angles. One reason for this is that William Smith who had purchased Ponce's Rancho in 1854, sold property to his friends without marking boundaries, and lots were shaped irregularly. This made it impossible to straighten streets.

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Mills named the principal streets for the stage lines of the Butterfield Overland Mail. St. Louis and San Antonio Streets headed eastward toward those cities; San Francisco pointed west, and Santa Fe headed north. Overland Street led to the stage office.

Anson Mills is responsible for changing the name of Franklin to El Paso. In his autobiography, "My Story," Mills says: "As this was not only the North and South Pass of the Rio Grande throughout the Rocky Mountains, but also the feasible route from east to west crossing that river for hundreds of miles, I suggested that El Paso would indicate the importance of the location." Mills received $150 plus the title to several lots for surveying the town.

For a while, Mills pitched a tent on a lot and set up housekeeping. Later, Mills and his two brothers, William Wallace and Emmett, built a ranch 18-miles north of El Paso. They named it "Los Tres Hermanos." While building his house, Mills supervised the building of other neighbors' homes.

When the Civil War broke out, Mills and his brother William were the only two in El Paso who voted against the secession of Texas from the Union. In 1861, Mills left town to join the Union Army. He became a career soldier, retiring as a brigadier general. He invented a woven-web ammunition belt that would make him wealthy. After the war, he returned to El Paso.

In 1883, Mills along with Josiah Crosby built the Grand Central Hotel, which was "the acme of luxury and comfort," according to the January 1, 1885, El Paso Times. A spectacular fire destroyed it in 1892 because firemen could not get water to the fourth floor.

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Leon Metz says that in 1910, Mills built the "tallest concrete monolith in the world" on the same site of his hotel, but this time with fireproof materials. A storefront first floor of the Mills Building housed the White House Department Store, the Modern Cafe, the United States Public Defender and, later, the El Paso Electric Company. Located on the corner of Mills Avenue and Oregon Street, the Mills Building continues to be a landmark in downtown El Paso.

Among the most important of Mills' contributions to the area include his work on the International Boundary Commission to which he was named in January 1894. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had set the Rio Grande as the border between Mexico and the U.S. but had not considered the results of flooding which frequently moved land from one country to the other. In 1895 Mexican farmers sued to reclaim some 630 acres of land from the United States.

After the two countries could not agree on a settlement, the "Chamizal" dispute was submitted to arbitration by the International Boundary Commission. Anson Mills, representing the U.S., rejected the decision to return the land to Mexico, and this area would remain in limbo until 1962 when the land in question was divided, with the U.S. receiving 190 acres and Mexico, 437 acres.

Mills was successful in 1905 in negotiating a treaty for the elimination of "bancos," horseshoe bends in the river that shifted water channels, often clouding international boundaries. Metz says that engineers sliced through the necks of the bancos, and those loops extending into Texas belonged to the United States and the ones falling below the river belonged to Mexico. By 1970, 30,000 acres of land had changed ownership, and 241 bancos had been eliminated.

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Because settlements in Colorado and New Mexico used so much water from the Rio Grande, El Paso and Juárez farmers often ran short of water. In 1888, Mills suggested building an international dam one mile north of where ASARCO is located today. It would regulate the flow of the Rio Grande, provide irrigation water for about 20,000 acres of valley land and fix boundary problems. Mills went to Washington to win approval for his idea, but the Secretary of Interior had licensed a private company to build a dam in Elephant Butte 120 miles north of El Paso. Mills tried proving that a dam there would dry up the Rio Grande, making it too shallow for navigation, but in spite of his efforts, his idea was rejected. However, Mills was able to negotiate a treaty called "An Equitable Distribution of the Water of the Rio Grande" in 1906, which guaranteed Mexico 60,000 acre-feet of water annually from Elephant Butte Dam.

Anson Mills' accomplishments were many, not the least of which were in the field of politics. Mills' vote against secession symbolized his viewpoints on important topics: he disagreed with many in town and held opinions considered ahead of his time. Leon Metz writes that Mills considered war the most destructive of man's evils. He supported women's suffrage and racial equality and backed prohibition.

In 1913, the city council honored Mills by changing the name of St. Louis Street to Mills Avenue. In 1918, Anson Mills wrote his autobiography, My Story.  On November 5, 1924, at the age of 90, he died at his home. He was buried with honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. Downtown El Paso serves as a fitting tribute to this man of vision.

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