See photos of a journey down the Old Rio Grande

Through the lens of the people who lived near and were shaped by the river.

  • The early road along the Rio Grande River from Santa Fe to Taos, New Mexico, even though made of rough dirt, brought new life to isolated settlements. A sunny afternoon drew adventurers in convertible cars to the narrow canyon south of Taos in 1910.

    Horace S. Poley, The Denver Public Library, Western History Collection (P-1417).
  • West of Santa Fe, The Rio Grande flowed between the railroad and the Jemez Mountains, rich in timber and lush meadows. Entrepreneur Harry Buckman built a bridge across the river in 1900 to transport timber. Here, sheep are driven to join thousands of others in high mountain pastures in 1922.

    Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.
  • This young Mexican boy sold water to households near Presidio, Texas, in an ingenious contraption in the days before water delivery in 1917. The burro carries a canvas water bag sealed with wax, with a spigot devised from fitted pieces of cow's horn sewn into the bag. Customers left the water, muddy from the river, to stand in containers until clear enough to drink.

    Wilfred Dudley Smithers, Photography COllection, Harry Ransom Center, the University of Texas at Austin.
  • Two women from San Juan Pueblo, now known as Ohkay Owingeh, clean baskets of wheat by submerging the grain in an acequia, allowing water to carry off straw chaff and dirt in 1905.

    Edward S. Curtis, courtesy of the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives, New Mexico History Museum
  • A pioneering farmer smiles over a patch of leafy greens, irrigated with waters from the muddy lower Rio Grande in the early 1900s.

    Robert Runyon, Robert Runyon Photograph Collection. RUN03420, the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, the University of Texas at Austin.
  • These picnickers were among the first to seek pleasure in the breathtaking scale of Santa Elena Canyon in 1915. The popularity and beauty of he landscape eventually inspired the establishment of Big Bend National Park.

    Thomas Verner, Archives of the Big Bend, Bryan Wildenthal Memorial Library, Sul Ross State University, Alpine, Texas.
  • Fishermen proudly display their catch, a kind of ray called a sawfish, on a pier in Port Isabel, Texas, just north of the mouth of the Rio Grande, in 1920.

    Robert Runyon, Robert Runyon Photograph Collection, RUN08898, the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, the University of Texas at Austin.


The Río Grande snakes its way through the Southwest, telling the long, rich history of the Puebloan, Spanish, Mexican and Anglo settlers who lived and worked along its banks. In Río, geographer and conservationist Melissa Savage has assembled a tribute to the river and its people.

The book follows the course of the 1,900-mile-long waterway, exploring floods, crossings and cultivated fields, ultimately confronting the river’s end at the Gulf of Mexico. A variety of essayists help illuminate the black-and-white photos, which document river life from the 1800s through the 1900s.

Río is a celebration of place, of how the people who lived there shaped the river, and were in turn shaped by it. As Savage writes in the preface, describing her own experience living by the river in northern New Mexico: “I have become who I am because of where I have been.” 

Río: A Photographic Journey Down the Old Rio Grande
Melissa Savage, editor
144 pages, $29.95.
University of New Mexico Press, 2016