Looking back: railroads profoundly altered region


Headlines in The Weekly New Mexican newspaper on Feb. 9, 1880, declared: "Santa Fe’s Triumph: The Last Link Is Forged in the Iron Chain Which Binds the Ancient City to the United States And the Santa Fe Trail Passes into Oblivion. An Immense Crowd Greets the Coming of the Iron Steed Speeches and Congratulation!"

Indeed, it was a momentous day in Santa Fe and for Northern New Mexico — the linking of the isolated region to the nation, which would usher in great changes in the years to come.

Today only fragments of this once-extensive regional rail system still function, but the history of the rail lines, including many short-term lines laid just to haul timber out of various mountain ranges, reveals many vital stories and helps us understand the forces that shaped the region.

The first railroad — a line owned and operated by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway (ATSF) — entered into New Mexico in 1878, coming from Colorado over Raton Pass in the state’s northeast corner. It was soon pushed southward to Las Vegas and then on to Albuquerque in 1880, and within 30 months clear to El Paso. But the main line bypassed Santa Fe. A spur line connecting Lamy to Santa Fe provided limited access to the capital, frustrating civic leaders and the business community. The main ATSF line proved durable and is still in use, today serving both freight trains and Amtrak as a major transcontinental line.

The other major railroad operating in north-central New Mexico was the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad (D&RG). It was notable for several reasons. The system’s many lines and spurs penetrated some of the nation’s harshest mountain terrain, including the booming gold and silver mines of the rugged San Juan range of southwestern Colorado. Inching up canyons with vertical walls, its rail beds often had to be blasted and hacked from solid rock, which led the railroad to develop a rail bed considerably skinnier than standard, leading to the term “narrow-gauge railroad.”

In 1879 the D&RG’s narrow-gauge line reached Antonito, Colorado, just north of New Mexico, and was extended into New Mexico the following year, reaching isolated way stations.

Pamilia, Volcano and No Agua, then the village of Tres Piedras. Continuing south, it then dove down into the Río Grande Gorge to Embudo at a 4 percent grade, chugged along the west bank of the river past Alcalde and Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo and ended at a nearby spot with no name late in 1881. Regional farmers, ranchers and traders flocked to this terminus, and soon a village grew up around it, including a restaurant operated by a woman from Spain nicknamed La Española. The village grew from a population of 150 in 1881 to 1,500 by 1900, and the stop became the town of Española.

D&RG reaches Santa Fe, at last

Civic boosters longed to see the line extended into Santa Fe, providing access to the extensive D&RG system, but the 35-mile-long “missing link” proved elusive, with several companies formed and crushed in the process of seeing it completed. At last the Texas, Santa Fe and Northern Railroad Company (later absorbed by the D&RG) marshaled the necessary funds and agreements, and track was laid down Buckman Wash to the Río Grande, along White Rock Canyon and across the river to Española. The first passengers departed Santa Fe on the morning of Jan. 9, 1887, for the run to Española. With the link, people and freight could depart Santa Fe’s Union Depot — today’s Tomasita’s Restaurant — and ride undisturbed on D&RG trains all the way to Denver on what became known as the Chili Line. 

As late as 1940, the D&RG operated some 400 miles of rails in Northern New Mexico, including lines to Farmington and the lumber towns of Dulce and Lumberton, with a major service center in Chama. However, the Chili Line was never very profitable, and in 1942 the line from Antonito to Santa Fe was discontinued. The line from Antonito to Chama, and on to Durango and Farmington, continued to operate for several more decades. In 1969 the federal government approved the railroad’s request to abandon the line, ending the last use of steam locomotives in general freight service in the United States. In 1971 the states of New Mexico and Colorado purchased 64 miles of rail bed, nine locomotives and 130 passenger and freight cars from the D&RG. The states created the Cumbres & Toltec Railroad, which offers scenic steam-driven train trips. The train today winds between Antonito and Chama, its lonely whistle seeming to cry out for the glory days of yore. The trip makes a great day’s outing, especially in fall when the quaking aspens shimmer in gold waves under a blue sky.

Yet another regional line worthy of mention is the New Mexico Central Railway, which ran from Santa Fe’s other rail station (today’s Rail Runner Depot) southeastward across the Galisteo Basin — past Galisteo, Stanley and Estancia to link up with the El Paso and Rock Island Railroad at today’s Torrence. It was torn up after several decades of operation.

Timber railways

Another class of railroads — temporary narrow-gauge lines laid down to haul timber to local sawmills — also played a major role in the region. Almost all the region’s mountains were clear-cut beginning in the early 1900s. (It is estimated that only 5 percent or less of the mature forests were spared.) Temporary rails were laid — with associated bridges, fill work and grading — to serve cutting operations. In 1919 there were 175 miles of logging railroads in the state, with a concentration in Río Arriba County. 

The Tierra Amarilla and Southern Railroad, a spur of the D&RG from Chama, was operating in 1896. The Santa Barbara Tie and Pole Company worked in the Sangre de Cristos; the Hallack & Howard Lumber Company established a mill near Ojo Caliente, at a village subsequently named La Madera (“The Wood”), for stripping the Tusas and Brazos ranges; and the D&RG built a spur line to La Madera in 1914 to serve these smaller temporary logging lines. One contract with the Carson National Forest called for 117 million board feet of timber. The contract was expected to run for 25 years but was exhausted in half that time. H&H shut its mill in 1927 and moved operations to Idaho, the next frontier in clear-cutting.

Many other railroads crisscrossed New Mexico in the rail-era heyday. These included the Southern Pacific (a major railroad that still operates in the southern part of the state); the Colorado and Southern Railway; the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad; the Texas-New Mexico Railway; and rails serving mining districts. Most are only faint lines on the landscape today, collections of train schedules, flyers and grainy black-and-white photos. But cumulatively they ushered in a period of profound change in New Mexico — large-scale tourism, manufacturing and wholesale export of raw materials, importation of finished goods and an influx of new ideas — forever altering, for better or worse, our national standing and way of life.

Daniel Gibson is a book author and is editor of this and other magazines for “The Santa Fe New Mexican.” He loved trains as a child, from the nightly whistle of freights running through Albuquerque’s North Valley to the occasional thrilling trip on the Super Chief to Los Angeles.


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