The history of Socorro is told in its architecture, and the Socorro Historical District Scenic Byway is the visual embodiment of that history. The oldest existing structure in Socorro, the San Miguel Mission, is a cornerstone of the Byway and the foundation of Socorro's history. A leisurely drive through Socorro's old streets will give the traveler a glimpse of its progression from a quiet colonial town, to wild mining town, to the modern settlement of today.
Two Franciscan priests who entered New Mexico with the Don Juan de Onate expedition in 1598 built a small church at the site of the Piro Indian Pueblo of Pilabo. This was replaced by the present building between 1615 and 1621. The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 forced the abandonment of Socorro, but the massive adobe walls, huge vigas, and supporting corbel arches of the church saved it from complete collapse. When the Socorro area was finally resettled in 1815, the church was dilapidated, but the walls and beams were still standing. They are the frame of the present church.
Other buildings dating to the Spanish Colonial period still stand in Socorro, especially in the area of the mission. A good example is the adobe Juan Nepomuceno Garcia House, with its flat roof and courtyard (108 Bernard). Portions of the home may date to 1816. Another example is the house of Juan Jose Baca, the grandson of one of the original Socorro settlers, built at Abeyta Street and Plaza about 1870.
Fertile land and a good water supply made Socorro a desirable place to settle, and by the late 1850s about 600 people lived there. The population grew gradually until the 1860s, when lead and silver were discovered in the nearby Magdalena Mountains. With the arrival of the railroad in the 1880s, Socorro became a wild boomtown, growing to over 4,000 people. Miners and business people flocked to the town to make their fortunes.
Many of the buildings on the Byway date to this period, including the Opera House Juan Nepomuceno Garcia built at the corner of Terry Avenue and California in 1886. Many famous performers appeared at the Garcia Opera House in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it was the site of local social events such as dances, political rallies, marriages, and basketball games. Socorro's largest brick dwelling, la Casa de la Flecha ("the House of the Arrow" after the weathervane on the roof), was built the same year (407 Park Street).
The French Quarters (Park-Church-McCutcheon streets), one of the most affluent areas in town during this era, is still the place to see elegant homes. The Bursum and Chambon houses (326 and 324 Church, respectively) are rare examples of the Eastlake Style, and both are on the National Register of Historic Places. Holm O. Bursum was leader of the Republican party and very politically powerful in the New Mexico Territory. E.W. Eaton, the leader of a group of vigilantes called the "Committee of Justice", built a home at 403 Eaton Avenue.
Many of the commercial buildings built during the boom years are still in use. The brick Hilton Block on the east end of the Plaza, named for relatives of hotel magnate Conrad Hilton, replaced earlier adobe buildings. On Manzanares Street, east of the Plaza, the Loma Theater (107 Manzanares Avenue) and the Knights of Pythias Hall (106 Manzanares Avenue) add charm to the town. The Theater was originally the Price-Loewenstein Mercantile Store, built by Jewish brothers-in-law fleeing oppression in Europe. The Knights of Pythias Hall is identifiable by the Owl Cigar advertisement painted on its side.
The Hammel Museum (Neal Avenue and Sixth Street) features the history of the Illinois Brewing Company. Jacob Hammel settled in St. Louis with his friend Eberhard Anheuser, who wanted him to go into partnership in a brewery. Jacob decided to start his own brewery, the Illinois Brewing Company, instead. Anheuser's business became the Anheuser-Busch Company. Jacob's sons brought the family business to Socorro in the 1880s, where it flourished until shut down by Prohibition.
The silver crash of 1893 ended Socorro's boom years. The population dropped, and ranching and farming rose in importance as mining declined. But the town could still support a new California Mission style hotel, the Val Verde (203 Manzanares Avenue). The Hotel is almost unchanged since it was built in 1919.
During the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration contributed several new buildings and many sidewalks (still marked "WPA") to the town. The Victorian courthouse was torn down and replaced with the California Mission style building still in use today (200 Church Street). Many buildings on the Plaza and Manzanares Street, including the Hilton Block, were remodeled in the California Mission style.
Socorro's long history is illustrated on the Socorro Wheel of History. This bronze sculpture a block north of the plaza tells the whole story: the original Piro Indian pueblos, the Spanish Colonial settlement, the mining boomtown, the present center of science and technology. It neatly ties together over four hundred years of history on the Socorro Historical District Scenic Byway.