Our New Mexico Heritage: Taos’ John Dunn was a legend

John Dunn’s Taos residence today hosts shops between the plaza and Bent Street. Photo by Cheryl Fallstead.
John Dunn’s Taos residence today hosts shops between the plaza and Bent Street. Photo by Cheryl Fallstead.
“I’ve lived through the most dramatic period of history the West will ever see.” So said John Dunn in an interview he gave to J. Hogg in 1930. The interview is part of Max Evans’ book, Long John Dunn of Taos — From Texas Outlaw to New Mexico Hero.

Visit Taos today and you’ll find the John Dunn Bridge, along county highway B6. You’ll also encounter The John Dunn House Shops north of the plaza along a pedestrian walkway toward Bent Street. Shoppers nosing through a yarn shops and a book shop, in boutiques, or just enjoying a snack in the Bent Street Cafe may miss the historic significance of the building.

Born in Victoria, Texas, John Dunn worked his late teen years as a cowboy, driving herds over the Chisholm Trail. North of Kansas, pushin’ horn to Canada, the land was still wild. He noted piles of buffalo bones piled 20 feet deep, waiting to be ground for fertilizer, and river bottoms swarming with mule deer and antelope. “A feller learned to use a rope,” Dunn reminisces in Evans’ book, “for more reasons than one. Sometimes it would save miles of hard riding after a steer … and it was handy to drag firewood to the cook, tie up a bronc, or even hang a man … out of necessity. The man, the horse, the rope, the gun became inseparable.”

Back in Texas, Dunn ran afoul of the law. He was accused of killing his wife-beating brother-inlaw in a fist fight. Convicted of manslaughter, he was sentenced to 40 years in the Texas penitentiary. He filed through his leg irons and escaped, evading recapture by hiding under a hay load en route to Taos.

Dunn landed in Elizabethtown, a gold mining camp between Eagle Nest and Red River. There he opened a saloon and gambling house, based on his experience at the roulette wheels and monte tables in Dodge City. From his time on the trail, he also dreamed of starting a transportation business, which he planned to finance from wealth earned from his gambling house.

Said Dunn, “If I could just find a place that was good and isolated and so damn rough it wouldn’t pay to build railroads, I’d have just what I wanted.”

What he found was Taos. The nearest railroad point was Tres Piedras on the Denver & Rio Grande line. Mail got to Taos only when someone happened that way. In 1890, Dunn purchased two bridges across the Rio Grande in the bottom of the gorge, one at Taos Junction and the other at Manby Springs. Both were destroyed by flood, so around 1900 he built a new bridge west of Arroyo Hondo. That one burned and he replaced it in 1908.

Dunn got the contract to haul mail from Tres Piedras to Taos and started a lucrative stagecoach line, hauling passengers and freight. He owned the only stagecoach line in Taos for more than 30 years. When he bought the first automobile to Taos, he offered a taxi service.

John Dunn’s bridge across Rio Grande near Arroyo Hondo around 1900. This was burned and was replaced in 1908. Unknown photo courtesy Wikipedia.
John Dunn’s bridge across Rio Grande near Arroyo Hondo around 1900. This was burned and was replaced in 1908. Unknown photo courtesy Wikipedia.
Dunn charged toll to cross his bridge — a dollar for pedestrian, 50 cents for horses and cattle, a quarter for sheep. He averaged $250 a day in good years. That’s about $6,500 in today’s dollars, making him a wealthy man.

He added to his wealth by building a hotel at the bridge and scheduled stagecoach runs to arrive after dark, making certain passengers would lay over until morning. But he kept his customers happy by providing clean beds, milk from his own cow, and fresh trout his hired man caught for him. Among his patrons were artists, like Ernest Blumenshein and Mabel Dodge Luhan.

Regarding Dunn’s relationships with people, Evans writes, Dunn said, “In handlin’ the public as I’ve been doin’ all these years, a fellow sees a great cross section view of the human animal. I’ve met so many worthless people I’ve often thought the world is bossed by an unjust God. A just God would have put fur on some of the people I’ve known. He’d have put skunk on some and beaver on others. Then they could be hunted in the winter for their pelts and be of some use to the rest of mankind.”

Dunn sold his bridge to the state in 1912 and operated his stage line until the 1930s. He died in 1953. In his obituary which his old friend Doughbelly Price wrote for El Crepusculo, the journalist noted, “He had no education, but what he knowed was plenty and was learned from cattle, horses, natural observation and mother nature, the hardest, most tolerant and wisest teacher humanity ever had.”

Evans writes, Dunn lived through three phases of the West: the gun fighting days, the cattle working days, and the present modern West. “Dunn said, ‘Transportation made the West, not blazing guns as is so often preached — although I know guns played a big part. It was those sweat-stained horses and tireless mules, those worn saddles and creaking wagons and the men and women who were riding them across muddy rivers, rocky ridges and up those long dusty trails.’“

You can visit the old bridge today at the end of county highway B6, but you can’t drive across it. The bridge was closed to cars in 2007 following a rockslide. Still, it’s a great place for a summer picnic in the shade of the Rio Grande gorge, and there are hot springs at Manby two miles to the south.

And while you scurry among the shops of John Dunn’s residence between Taos Plaza and Bent Street, find a bench in the beautiful gardens and reflect a moment on John Dunn — bronc rider, stagecoach driver, saloon keeper, gambler, and lovable rascal … a New Mexico legend.