Long John Dunn 1857 - 1953
John Dunn - bronc rider, stagecoach driver, saloon keeper, gambler, and lovable rascal - is a legend in Northern New Mexico.
John's lanky six-foot-four frame, spicy vocabulary, broken-nose twang and wide ranging humor left a lasting impression on everyone he met. For over 30 years, because he owned the only bridge and the only stagecoach (later the taxi) business into town, that included just about everyone who came to Taos.
John was born in Victoria, Texas in 1857 on what he later described as 'a slow-starvation farm'. As a young man he made several trail drives up into Canada over the old Chisholm Trail, a distance of nearly 2,000 miles, with as many as 5,000 cattle. In those days Caldwell, Kansas was the last white settlement after Fort Worth, and there wasn't a house or a fence from there to Canada. Buffalo herds were small but bones were sometimes piled twenty feet deep over an acre of ground and collected as fertilizer. The river bottoms swarmed with mule deer and there were hundreds of thousands of antelope.
"A feller learned to use a rope," John reminisced, "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." Trail drives toughened John - long nights guarding the herd, a few hours of sleep on the hard ground, days of eating dust and watching for Indians.
While John was in Dodge City waiting for quarantined steers, he caught the gambling bug. Bat Masterson was Marshall. John also knew Buffalo Bill, Calamity Jane, Billy the Kid ("he was as ugly as the devil with his teeth sticking out in front like a mad beaver," John said) and Pat Garrett, Billy's killer. John himself was in trouble with the law. He had accidentally killed his wife-beating brother-in-law in a fistfight. He was imprisoned in Texas and escaped by filing through his leg irons and floating down a river.
Evading the law in Texas by hiding under the hay load of a Taoseno, John landed in Elizabethtown, NM (named for a miner's beautiful daughter) where a gold boom had started in 1866. There he opened a saloon and gambling business that prospered with the mine. He became friends with Dr. Martin, an Easterner who arrived around the same time and was credited with healing more bullet holes than illnesses.
Long trail rides and his escape from the law fueled Dunn's dream of starting a transportation business. John said, "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."
In 1887 John rode from Elizabethtown through Eagle Nest and down to Taos. Burros loaded with wood and teams of wagon horses tied to hitching posts encircled the plaza. Silent, blanketed Indians watched. John said, in a 1930 interview, "Taos was set up here then just as it is now, in a little world all by itself. Our nearest railroad point was Tres Piedras on the Denver and Rio Grande, and we got mail when someone happened to be coming out to bring it."
It was some years before Dunn had enough money to finance his transportation business. During that time he shipped venison from Montana to Minneapolis; delivered cattle to an Indian Agency in Standing Rock, North Dakota; dealt monte in Rapid City and Cheyenne; and traveled with a carnival to Santa Barbara, California. He ran a prosperous saloon in Goldfield, Nevada, started two gambling houses in Taos, and when gold was found in Red River, opened another there before he had the funds needed for his dream.
In the 1890's John bought the bridge at Taos Junction from a man named Meyers, and the bridge at Manby Springs from Miller and Gusdorf. Both bridges were soon wiped out by floods. He built a new bridge in Arroyo Hondo that still stands. "I put in a bid with the Post Office Department to establish a mail line from Tres Piedras to Taos and got the contract for daily service. There was also quite a passenger and freight business to be done, but first we had to get some sort of road better than the pack trail that was our only line of communication. I put $2500 of my own money into the road fund and raised another $2500 by passin' the hat among the people of the valley. Men who couldn't contribute any money put in labor, and soon we had the road built - a road such as it was."
John Dunn's toll bridge across the Rio Grande near Arroyo Hondo gave him a monopoly on road travel in and out of town. He charged $1 per person, 50 cents for horses and cattle, 25 cents for sheep, and averaged $250 a day in good years. He also erected a hotel at the bridge, which he called a 'road ranch', and it is said that he timed the arrival of the stagecoach so that darkness would keep the travelers there overnight. He prided himself on clean beds, kept a milk cow on the premises, and hired a man to fish the Rio Grande for a constant supply of fresh trout. On his mail route, which included Embudo and Taos Junction, much of the parcel post was paintings and painting supplies for the artists who had recently begun arriving - Sharp, Phillips, Blumenschein and Couse.
John hauled all of the artists and others who came to Taos until 1930. He was a good friend of Mabel Dodge and met Will Rogers and Vice President Dawes. He 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."
John owned the first car in Taos, which he bought from Mace MacHorse who had opened a Ford agency. He bought brake lining by the hundredfoot roll, and when starting down a steep grade, he made his passengers get out and push up to save the brakes. He disliked the coming of the mechanical age and the roads that were eventually built from Santa Fe and Raton to Taos because, he said, "they changed peoples' personalities - friendships broke up when folks no longer needed to depend on each other for company, sympathy and entertainment."
"I think I've lived through the most dramatic period of history the West will ever see. This is an age of specialization, one-track jobs and one-horse minds... I look back over the days I've seen and I feel like the parrot that chewed a stick of dynamite and got blowed up; the parrot looked at his scattered feathers and said, 'Since it ain't no better, I'm damn glad it ain't no worse'."
The man affectionately known as Juan Largo de Taos died on May 21, 1953. His old friend, Doughbelly Price, a little pot-bellied ex-bronc rider, newspaper columnist, and realtor (whose sign read, 'Doughbelly's Clip-Joint') covered most of the front page of El Crepusculo with John's obituary. "The early part of his life was rocky and uphill... He was caught in the web of law and Texas gave him 40 years in the State Pen... 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 . . . John Dunn was at his best behind a roulette wheel or a monte table where you never got more than was coming to you and if you didn't watch it was less."
Long John Dunn lived through three phases of the West: the gun fighting days, the cattle working days and the present modern West. John said about the making of the West, "Transportation made the West, not blazing guns as is so often preached - although I know the 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."
"I invested everything I had in Taos County. I built a home, opened up four saloons, a gamblin' hall and a livery stable." John Dunn's home still stands today between Bent Street and Taos Plaza. It is the centerpiece of a beautiful garden courtyard and pedestrian walkway, and home to Taos' finest shops.
Sources: J. Hogg's interview with John Dunn, 1930. El Crepusculo, 1953. Max Evans, Long John Dunn of Taos, Westernlore Press, 1959