When Doug Sylvester was growing up, his mother would share a tale with him and his siblings that he didn’t think much of at the time. She would tell them about their great grandfather being the person to drive the first automobile into New Mexico, when it was a territory, and more than 11 years before it became a state.
“It was an old family story that Mom told to us,” Sylvester says. “When you’re a kid, you don’t care and (you think) ‘Yea Mom, sure.’”
But years later Sylvester got to thinking about that story a lot more. A few years ago, he began making trips from his southern California home to New Mexico to research the story about his great grandfather, Robert L. Dodson, and the first car to come into New Mexico. His research seemed to confirm the story of the role in state history that his great grandfather had played, and Sylvester took what he had found to the state Historic Preservation Division, which got involved.
Sylvester thought the historic drive that his great grandfather — whom he refers to as R.L. — made from Denver to Albuquerque in 1900 was something that should be recognized.
“I had this information and it seemed worthy,” he says.
Tom Drake and others at the state agency worked with Sylvester and his wife Vicki, who live in San Diego, to nail down the research and submit an application for an official scenic historic marker. That marker was installed last week outside the Tourist Information Center at the corner of South Second Street and Clayton Road in Raton.
The marker is similar in design to the many that travelers see along highways and other roads throughout New Mexico. Its text reads:
“Robert L. Dodson bought a steam-powered Locomobile in Denver with plans to drive it to Albuquerque. Accompanied by a Locomobile representative, on November 30, 1900, the pair became the first motorists to traverse treacherous Raton Pass into New Mexico. The trip to Raton, largely on wagon roads, took five days. A few days later the Locomobile arrived in Albuquerque to fanfare and some consternation.”
It is unclear what brought about the consternation.
For Sylvester, it is satisfaction that he feels with the establishment of the new marker.
“It’s important to have the history not lost,” he says.
Dodson’s Locomobile would have been fueled by gasoline but powered by steam, according to The Locomobile Society of America. The website of the Sonoma, Calif.-based organization says the Locomobile “became known as the ‘Best Built Car in America,’” and “was also one of the most expensive and elegant automobiles manufactured in the United States.” However, lacking any substantial underwriting, and with the stock market crash resulting in a disappearing market, the Locomobile company failed and in 1929 closed its doors forever.
In another piece of local motoring history, this year marks the 101st anniversary of the first license plate issued in Raton, according to information archived at the Raton Museum. A story that appeared in The Raton Range in the 1930s remembered W.A. “Chip” Chapman as the first Ratonian with a license plate for a motorized vehicle. Chapman received his authorization for a plate from the city clerk in 1912 and then had to make his own plate to put on his car, a “Babcock electric phaeton” model.
The idea of issuing plates came from a trip Raton’s Dr. J.J. Shuler took to Denver, where he saw license plates being used and inquired about them. When he discovered they were a source of revenue to the city, he returned home and suggested Raton adopt an ordinance requiring license plates for the estimated 19 or so cars in its boundaries. An ordinance was passed and Chapman was the first to pay his annual $1.25 to receive certification to make and install his license plate to conform to the new city law.
He wrapped patent leather over iron and placed on the leather three aluminum numerals — “100” — followed by an “R,” for Raton.
Raton’s ordinance sparked other New Mexico cities to pass their own similar license-plate laws, and in 1914 the state Legislature made it state law, although other articles about the history of New Mexico license plates report the state began issuing plates in 1912 shortly after it gained official statehood.