On the western edge of Albuquerque stand five calm, reddish black volcanoes, all in a line.
These volcanoes—JA, Black, Vulcan, Butte, and Bond Volcanoes—divide the city from the mostly empty desert beyond, and have long been regarded by New Mexico’s Pueblo Indians as spiritual portals through which creatures of the underworld can enter our world via subterranean cracks and crevices.
Homesteaders in the mid-1800s grazed literally millions of sheep around the volcanoes’ lower slopes. Pilots from Albuquerque’s Kirtland Air Force Base used the volcanoes as practice bombing targets throughout World War II. And modern day motorists speed past them on freeways, barely even acknowledging their existence.
Back in 1947, however, people couldn’t help but pay attention to them.
On a quiet morning in 1947, residents of Albuquerque awoke to see the sky west of the city dense with an ominous red haze. Worse than that, billowing from the crater of Albuquerque’s highest volcano—Vulcan Volcano—were thick clouds of black smoke. (Some reports have said there were two volcanoes smoking.)
“This caused considerable consternation, and people began to wonder whether the volcanoes were awakening from their centuries-old nap,” wrote Kenneth C. Balcomb in the conclusion of A Boy’s Albuquerque, 1898-1912.
“We thought there was a volcano fixing to go off over on the West Mesa over there,” said Robert Mummey, a longtime Albuquerque area resident.
The local media jumped on the story, warning the city’s populace that the volcanoes might erupt. People panicked. Families loaded their cars with supplies and drove away. City officials considered evacuating everyone.
Eventually, a few people grew brave enough to approach the volcanoes and assess the danger. They drove over the sandy open country now covered by the Albuquerque’s sprawling West Side, and hiked the short hike to the smoking summit of Vulcan Volcano.
There, they discovered an enormous mound of burning rubber tires, expertly placed to create the illusion that the volcano was coughing back to life.
The prank was allegedly the work of students from the now defunct St. Josephs College, who apparently had carried the tires up the volcano the night before, doused them in gasoline, and put a match to them. The prank had proved unnerving, and would later be repeated lamely several times, by UNM students with more tires than ideas. It had been unsettling for people to think—even for a moment—that Albuquerque’s volcanoes might erupt, but it wasn’t half as unsettling as the truth: that Albuquerque’s volcanoes really might erupt.
Albuquerque’s volcanoes were formed fewer than 200,000 years ago, when lava from deep within the ground came surging to the surface through a break in the earth. That’s why the volcanoes are all in a line. Geologically speaking, these volcanoes are so new, that all five of them are still cooling, and in heavy snowstorms, no snow will stay on the volcanoes’ flanks due to the volcanoes’ warmth. In 1881—a mere 125 years ago—one of the volcanoes began to puff real volcanic smoke. And throughout the 1900s, people have reported emissions of steam and smoky haze from the volcanoes’ sides.
“The area around Albuquerque remains potentially active, mainly because of its location along the Rio Grande Rift,” wrote Dr. Larry Crumpler in an essay for the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. “A new volcano could erupt, if not along the Albuquerque Volcanoes, at least somewhere within the rift.”