No Room at the Inn
Who closed the park gate on the Radium Springs Inn, a historic structure lovingly restored by gay partners, and why?
By Jeff Berg
"All calculations based on experience elsewhere, fail in New Mexico."
— Lew Wallace, former governor
of New Mexico
The Radium Springs Inn was originally built in 1928-31 by the Santa Fe Railroad as a way to get tourists from El Paso and more distant places to stay over and soak in the hot mineral baths the inn provided. Lovingly restored over five years by business and life partners Jeff Goacher and David Steen, the elegant Radium Springs Inn boasts over 9,000 square feet of facilities. Its 15 rooms include a couple of lavish suites. The remodeling included a 4,500-square-foot bathhouse, which contains five of the original soaking tubs where guests could enjoy the naturally 112-degree water from a newly sunk well. Atop a hill sits a meditation gazebo, built in the 1920s, set back in the rock formations, offering resplendent views of the surrounding desert and the Rio Grande.
David Steen (left) and Jeff Goacher, whose plans to reopen the Radium Springs Inn ran into a roadblock — literally.
(Photo courtesy David James Baker)
The rooms are pleasantly furnished with some handmade wooden furniture and some antiques. Each is quiet, private and simple. A patio overlooks a shaded plaza, where two old lazy dogs wile away the afternoon.
It is hard to imagine something as stylish as the Radium Springs Inn out in the desert north of Las Cruces.
The Web site for the inn offers an array of photos, bits of history and contact information. But you will not find a link that will allow you to make reservations, nor will you find rates.
That's because you really can't get there from here — or from anywhere else, for that matter.
There is not a road to the inn. A combination of bureaucratic nonsense, confused politicians and perhaps a dose of homophobia have kept the inn from opening. David Steen passed away in July before realizing his dreams for the inn, and his partner Jeff Goacher is now in failing health. So the Radium Springs Inn will probably go up for sale without ever having hosted a single paying guest.
The former entrance to the facility required guests to go through the main entrance of Leasburg Dam State Park. That road became a single lane and was built partially atop a diversion dam. But a few years ago, in 2001, without warning or explanation, Goacher and Steen came home one night to find an iron-pole gate had been installed across the road, ending any kind of access when the park was closed.
Any number of calls and visits by the two men to various agencies — the Elephant Butte Irrigation District (EBID), New Mexico State Parks, elected officials, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) and others — all resulted in the same response: We didn't do it. I don't know. Who, us?
A letter to Henry Magallanez, an engineer with EBID, from Stan Ellis of the state Natural Resources Department says in part that "State Parks are very much in favor of closing the dam access for the public, via the canal road." But it gives no hint of who started the whole mess or how it led to the gate across the once-open road.
The springs here have an interesting and varied history, and are supposed to be the strongest radium springs in the world. American Indian tribes are said to have made pilgrimages to the spot. The springs became sacred, and no one on horseback was allowed within a mile of the spot. Geronimo, the noted Apache leader, was among Radium Springs' many guests (pre-hotel, of course).
In 1912, the Fort Selden Hot Springs Resort, National Spa and Improvement Co. was formed to develop the springs. Cabins were added, a road was built and in 1928, once access was guaranteed, the construction of the first hotel began. Along with that, the town's name changed from Selden Springs to Radium Springs, and a post office was opened. The little postal facility, just off the lobby of the hotel, was part of the restoration done by Steen and Goacher. Though no longer serving as an actual post office, the site would give guests an idea of what it might have been like back in the old days when locals could come by for a stamp and a soak.
Sometime later, in the early 1930s, a wooden bridge was completed that traversed the Rio Grande. Traffic on Hwy. 28 could come up the road, cross the Leasburg Canal at the diversion dam and drive up to the hotel. In 1935, the wooden bridge across the river was completed.
After the wooden bridge burned in the mid-1960s, however, it was never replaced. Oddly, the burned stubs of the bridge's supports still stick out of the river like ancient charred wooden candles. The road over the canal was allowed to fall into disrepair, and soon hotel business began to decline.
It was also sometime in the 1960s that an effort was made to turn the hotel into a place for gay men to relax and refresh. The new owners of the inn at that time apparently were not at all secret about their plans. But the proposed spa never really happened, and the fate of the handsome old adobe building once again started to be in doubt.
In 1979, the resort was leased by the then-owners to the New Mexico Criminal Justice Department for use as a minimum-security women's prison. The agreement lasted for four years, and was not renewed by the state when it came due in 1983. Suits and countersuits evolved from this, with neither side gaining anything, as the cases were all dismissed.
The once-booming resort sank to its lowest ebb until its purchase by Goacher and Steen in 1995. Goacher says that when they came there, the roof was caved in, cows roamed through the building, and the complex was in a nearly complete state of ruin from weather, vandalism and lack of maintenance.
The two were not deterred. Restoring the Radium Springs Inn was not their first such endeavor, after all. Before coming to New Mexico, they had bought and restored failing properties and houses in Austin, Texas.
In 2000, a massive flood brought over three feet of water into the nearly restored hotel and bathhouse. The flood was caused in part by the new road that Do¤a Ana County built to accommodate a greenhouse business that sits just north and east of the inn. Although that facility has a "real" road that leads directly to it, one has to make a left turn near the end of that road, go under an aging railroad trestle, and proceed up a sandy wash to get to the hotel. This is the only access to the inn, since the gating of the Leasburg Dam entrance.
Goacher points out that this "road" is impassable during a rain, and also helps direct water into the hotel during flash floods.
David James Baker is a filmmaker and visiting professor of arts and applied technology at Western New Mexico University in Silver City. This past summer, his 45-minute documentary about the Radium Springs Inn road issue, entitled "Road Closed," was aired on KRWG-TV. It is the fourth film in Baker's ongoing series of documentaries about unique people or situations in the Southwest, entitled "Portraits of the Southwest."
Baker says about this part of the country, "Every rock you turn over, there is something fascinating there."
He goes on, "The series is about ordinary people in challenging environments who don't have access to the media. With 'Road Closed,' I had heard about a reporter who was looking into the situation, and who didn't see anything."
Baker saw a lot, and his work has helped open the door to public awareness about the Radium Springs Inn issue.
"It was interesting that these two guys had spent five years restoring the inn, and 10 or 11 years trying to be cooperative with different government agencies," he says. "There were probably lots of reasons to close the road, but they are hard to find. I found that the local politicians wanted the road open, but going beyond that is what made it interesting."
Baker also noted that there were multiple reasons for someone to step forward with leadership and integrity to say that what was being done was wrong.
The issue went beyond county officials and up the ladder clear to the office of Governor Bill Richardson. In the 2005 legislative session, State Senator Mary Jane Garcia proposed $300,000 for refurbishing the Leasburg Dam Road from Capital Outlay funds, but the governor vetoed the proposal.
Since Baker's documentary aired, the filmmaker says he hasn't heard a word about the situation, except for this: Immediately after the airing of "Road Closed," Stan Ellis, the Leasburg Dam State Park manager, who lived on site in the park, transferred. The home for the park manager sits atop a small knoll overlooking the park, inn and the Leasburg Dam Road.
For Baker, this heightened his thinking that the issue is part of the good old boy system that far too often still runs the state of New Mexico. Says Baker, "I have an ongoing fantasy that Bill Richardson brings his limo down to Radium Springs and takes a ride across the 'road' to the inn."
I am met at the turnoff from the exit for Radium Springs on Interstate 25 by Rebecca Amati, a friend of Goacher and Steen, who has long been involved in advocating for people who find themselves embroiled in situations such as this. I had missed the turn once, as the first road sign sits oddly parallel to the Radium Springs exit road. I follow her car for a couple of miles down the paved road, and then we turn off on the side road that will eventually lead to the inn. As I'd been told, the road is fine as long as you are going to Masson Farms greenhouse, but after that, it is nothing but a sand-filled arroyo that passes under the rather unstable-looking ancient railroad trestle.
Amati takes me on a walk up to the gate that now blocks the Leasburg Dam Road. It is about 300 yards from the inn, and the pavement it protects is overgrown with weeds and brush.
"The Baileys (the owners previous to Goacher and Steen) donated land to the state," she says with a sweep of her hand, "with the condition that it be made into a park."
The old one-lane road over the diversion dam is also overgrown and gated, and would certainly no longer be safe to travel without some kind of rehab work.
"The gate went up in 2001, and no one was ever notified." To this day, responsibility for this has gone unclaimed.
"I first came out here in 2003," Amati goes on, "and volunteered to see if I could find out who put up the gate. I went to the county, EBID, BLM, Bureau of Reclamation, and never once have I seen where anyone had any legal right to put the gate up to begin with. I kept running around in circles.
"State Parks insinuated that having the gate open all the time would lead to vandalism, crime and mischief within the park."
Amati has also been told that the dam road wouldn't hold the big fire truck that is employed by the local volunteer fire department. "But I was told different by someone at the fire department."
We walk some more as Amati shares the history of the inn with me, until we get to the burned bridge.
One story that surrounds this mishap is that a cigarette flipped out of a car lit some brush that was being cleared by the road department and piled near the bridge. Given that this was in the 1960s, when the previous gay owners attempted to operate the inn, others have a more sinister interpretation of the blaze.
"The inn used to be a meeting place for local charities and groups such as the Lions Club," Amati tells me. "But David and Jeff never charged anyone to meet here while they were going through the hassle of getting a business license."
This is another story in itself, since it took about 12 years for the two businessmen to procure the license. The business license was finally granted last year, after Gaucher and Steen were required to put in a sprinkler system that is not inside the ceiling of the inn. Every room is afflicted with a thin, garish-looking pipe running along it. Often such requirements are waived, the places "grandfathered" in by entities that enforce such things, but apparently this was not possible for the Radium Springs Inn.
The floods that devastated the Radium Springs area in the summer of 2006 were kinder to Goacher and Steen. Although the river did damage a small cottage in the rear of the property, for the most part they escaped unscathed.
Amati is clear when she is asked if she thinks the bureaucratic hassles are rooted at least in part in homophobia. "The stigma remains from the 1960s when the previous gay couple tried to open the hotel," she says. "The county commissioners closed it down at that time."
Amati feels that there is a homophobic attitude from the state parks office and that the good old boy system is alive and well, but behind the scenes.
Recently, several elected officials have taken a close look at the problem of the inn and its road. Amati and Goacher have received invaluable assistance from State Senator Mary Jane Garcia, State Representative Jeff Steinborn and Do¤a Ana County Commissioners Oscar Vasquez Butler and Karen Perez.
Garcia, a long-time advocate for the inn and its owners, says that things are starting to change. "In the last legislative session, I was able to procure $95,000 to start the project, and will try and get more in 2008," she says. "I think it really hurts the economic development of the area by the inn not being open."
The original business plan for the hotel had Goacher and Steen hiring local people only whenever possible.
Garcia goes on, "The governor vetoed the initial funding because it was thought that there would be too much impact on the park by having the road open. I disagreed with that, and feel that this historic place needs to be shown, so I am trying my best to get more funding."
Two identical memorial bills were approved in the 2007 legislative session, which in essence sought relief for the inn. SM 76 was sponsored by Garcia, and was passed, as was HM 90, which was introduced by Steinborn. Although they hold little weight legally, memorials are a way of bringing up issues that need attention by the legislative branches and governor.
Another setback for the inn came in July, when Steen accidentally drowned on the property. Even though he had been very discouraged, Steen had remained optimistic about the idea of someday opening the inn. He had stated that he would never sell the inn until the road was open.
Sadly, Steen did not have a will when he passed away, and this has put Goacher into a bind concerning property and Steen's family. Discussions are under way to sort things out, but it might be years before everything can be settled. New Mexico does not view domestic partnerships the same way it does marriage. And Steen's kin have no interest in keeping the property, which according to www.findthedevine.com is on the market for $3.4 million.
Goacher's health is also another issue, as he had just been released from the hospital the day of my visit. He is up and around, but says that he tires easily. Goacher has long had emphysema, and in Baker's film, a 911 tape is played where EMTs are trying to figure out how to get to the inn through the sandy wash that serves as its "entrance." The paramedics made it on time, but listening to the tape is a harrowing experience. This was for an earlier medical crisis suffered by Goacher.
As for the inn itself, even the placement by the county or state of some road signs would help, as would some signs with an arrow pointing down the road to the Radium Springs Inn. Perhaps someone could volunteer to make some signs for the inn and help place them in prominent places.
After the screening of Baker's documentary on KRWG, an email sent by Ronald and Violet Cauthon of Las Cruces received a written reply from Dave Simon, the state parks director. He writes that Baker did not try to "seek out State Park staff or present alternative perspective for their piece."
Simon goes on to relate the story from the State Park department viewpoint, while pointing out that the county, Bureau of Reclamation, EBID and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad are also involved as stakeholders. His email notes that the diversion dam bridge is owned by EBID, and crosses property owned by the BOR. He cites numerous meetings about the access, in which the discussions included flooding concerns, emergency response, and compliance with building codes and state historic preservation law.
According to Simon, upon the paving of DeBeers Road — the road that leads almost to the hotel — which leads to CRD-061, State Parks closed the Leasburg Dam Road in January 2001, "with the full support of EBID, BOR and the County."
Simon goes on, "State Parks believes that the railroad crossing access to the east of the hotel is the best solution" — noting that the trestle does need replacement. "A cooperative agreement with the Railroad, County and State to construct a new trestle may accommodate the hotel's needs — but again this would involve a major expense of funds for this one business. But if the parties are successful in crafting this alternative, we think this could be a win-win situation for all involved."
Simon's email does not address why Goacher and Steen weren't involved in this process, or why the road is graded and maintained to Masson Farms. Nor does he explain why the original proposal for the state to pony up $300,000 for this project to get rolling was knocked down by the state parks department.
Meanwhile, Amati remains adamant about her quest to get this issue resolved once and for all. A New Mexico native with a criminal-justice background, she feels that besides someone, anyone doing something about the road issue, "there should be some financial responsibility for their loss of income."
She argues, "This is deliberate indifference. The government needs to know that whatever they do, it is affecting everyone's life. If we see an injustice and don't step up to the plate, then we are just as guilty."
Author's note: Jeff Goacher chose not to be interviewed for this story. Stan Ellis of the State Parks Department referred questions to the office of State Rep. Jeff Steinborn, who did not respond. Attempts to contact Oscar Vasquez Butler and Karen Perez were not responded to by deadline. Byron Wilson, the new manager of Leasburg State Park, who transferred here from Eagle's Nest State Park north of Taos when Stan Ellis moved to the Mesilla Valley Bosque Park, had no new information and said that at this time no meetings were planned to discuss the road issue.
Senior writer Jeff Berg lives in Las Cruces.