Tracks Through Time

A historical portal and microcosm of New Mexico history Part I: The Lamy Branch Line 1862–1880

By Fred Friedman

Confessions of a Trespasser

Even before I was familiar with the Lamy branch line technically and historically, I was attracted to it. From the first time I stood in that 56.5-inch-wide space between the rusted rails, I seemed to have had a connection with it. It was easy, while walking on those old wooden ties, to imagine people and things moving over them more than one hundred and forty years ago. It carried apples and sheep from Española, pianos from back East, and even blocks of limestone to construct the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi located just off the Plaza. Later, passengers on the line included movie stars, young Santa Fe men going off to war, wounded vets returning in army hospital cars en route to the Bruns Army Hospital, kids going off to new adventures as college students, and thousands of vacationing families. Each individual had a story and a reason for being on the line. That’s partly why it’s important, because of the stories and the legacies that the Lamy branch embodies.

Almost immediately after its construction in 1880, mixed trains began moving up and down the alignment with both passengers and freight in the same consist. Initial freight for the Santa Fe Railway Company involved products loaded in Santa Fe and later, after the Santa Fe Central and the Chili Line railroads appeared on the scene, included people and commodities from those roads, funneled down to Lamy and then transferred onto the main line. It naturally functioned both ways, with people and commodities moving north and south.

The walk down the track to Lamy was always beautiful. In places, a vehicle access road paralleling the line provided a break from the natural inclination of stepping on inconsistently located ties. Where the road evaporated into the surrounding landscape, trekkers were obliged to return to the ballast and oak pathway, the faint odor of creosote coming up from below on hot summer days. In the early morning coolness, snakes could sometimes be found, stretched out along the inside of the track, attempting to acquire residual warmth from the steel’s retained heat.

Lamy branch map of the AT&SF Railroad. United States Geological Survey. Santa Fe and Lamy Sheets, October 1894 edition.

Not surprisingly, there was and still is much to see on such an excursion. Area scenery alone is magnificent, especially when, around mile post three, the expansion of the Galisteo Basin sprawls out along the high desert floor. I recall the response from a walking companion to whom I had just pointed out the spectacular view before us. A lifelong New Mexican, she patiently responded that New Mexico was “just showing off,” and for me to watch where I was walking. New Mexico does that on summer mornings.

At ground level, along the rail line, there is much to see as well. The 1880s skills of manual track construction are readily apparent in a line like the Lamy branch, built during America’s railroad expansion era by men with picks and shovels and supplemented by mule power. It is not difficult to imagine a survey crew, carrying heavy instruments uphill, plotting out the course across frequent arroyos and washouts. Then the graders came, with mule-powered plows, leveling where they could, filling cuts and constructing wooden bridges otherwise. The track gangs were a mixture of white, Hispanic, and a few Native people, even though Asian workers had been primarily Southern Pacific railroad employees, starting in southern California and working east, through places like Tucson and Lordsburg, on into south Texas.

As the day heated up, one could hear the occasional, then more frequent, “pop” of rail lengthening as the New Mexico sun warmed the track and it expanded. Railroaders have a name for than phenomenon. They call it rail creep, and compensating for it is one of many skills known to steel gangs and section crews responsible for building and maintaining track.

It is that perspective of historical events associated with the line that warrants broader understanding among everyone even vaguely familiar with the track, placing future, present, and past occurrences into historical perspective. The Lamy branch is a connection to the past as well as a bridge into the future. Knowing something of the origin of this historical portal and how we nearly lost that heritage is fundamental to its appreciation.

Two obviously distinct rail lines come together at a point within the south end of the City of Santa Fe. The Lamy branch line and the New Mexico Rail Runner Express alignments run parallel to each other there, separated by only a few feet of high desert sand and vegetation. At that location, a rare opportunity presents itself, it being possible to set one foot in the nineteenth century, the other in the twenty-first. Those historically attuned can easily imagine a distant steam whistle and almost catch the whiff of coal-burning locomotives.

Compared to the modern New Mexico Rail Runner Express commuter line, with its massive welded rail, electronic signaling, and concrete ties situated only a few feet away, the Lamy branch appears deceptively unimportant and neglected. For years, due to the high cost of railroad maintenance and management complexities, it has been neglected, although the line remains far from being unimportant. Most of its wooden ties are old and split. Weeds have grown up between them and even the rail itself, some of it manufactured in the early 1900s, appears to be exhausted.

Yet, embodied in those rusting, eighty-five-pound-to-the-yard rails are critical elements of United States and New Mexico history. Entire epochs, representing periods of Manifest Destiny, westward expansion, corporate and governmental corruption, labor disputes, and of Fred Harvey’s hotel and restaurant empire reside there. The line also reflects the demise of once-great passenger trains like the Santa Fe Chief, the El Capitan, and the Super Chief, all bound up within that eighteen-mile-long, two-hundred-foot-wide piece of real estate.

Today, events are evolving rapidly for this unique geographic thread of New Mexico history as the line replicates its oddly recurring phoenix-like ability to recover from tragic events, then progress forward as a conveyor of passengers and freight. The Lamy branch line’s quality of arising successfully from disastrous circumstances has been repeated on critical occasions throughout its one-hundred-forty-one-year lifespan. Purchased in May of 2020 by a trio of local investors, the line, which had been recently inoperative, is again on the threshold of becoming a potential regional economic generator and important transporter of freight, passengers, and fun-seekers.

The 2020 purchase reflects the line’s history, which is as long and circuitous as is its high desert serpentine alignment, built by men and mules, up from the quiet town of Galisteo Junction—later renamed Lamy—crossing arroyos with timber bridges and negotiating dozens of treacherous curves before entering the city’s downtown rail yard.

The Lamy line was built as an afterthought, only once county citizens voted to pay for its construction. It has never been profitable for any of its varied owners. Yet it continues to define Santa Fe’s heritage, constructed by a subsidiary of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Rail Road Company in 1880, called the New Mexico & Southern Pacific Company. That company’s management viewed the Territory of New Mexico as a place to get through, rather than as a destination. Upon entering New Mexico from Colorado in 1878, the concept was to build south toward El Paso, where the line would split in two directions; one toward Rincon, the other continuing south through El Paso, then to connect with Mexican railroads and the
potentially expansive markets of that republic. From Rincon, the western leg was to continue in that direction, connecting with the Southern Pacific Railroad and forming the second transcontinental railroad, at Deming, in March of 1881.

The intention of bypassing the territorial capital made considerably more economic and engineering sense than did constructing a branch line over difficult terrain for minimal commodity transport. Fortunately, about a dozen substantial
Santa Fe citizens disagreed with the bypassing proposal. Among them were Governor Lew Wallace, Archbishop
Jean-Baptiste Lamy, railroad promoter Miguel Antonio Otero, the Spiegelberg brothers, and other community stalwarts.

Through coordinated local effort, perseverance, and persuasive dialogue, the line was constructed and has become increasingly important with the passage of time. The branch has hauled not only freight and passengers as originally intended, but also wounded military personnel, livestock, Los Alamos’s Manhattan Project scientists, movie stars, local kids going off to college, and thousands of vacationing families. Its alignment presently also serves as a pedestrian and bicycle trail, accommodates the Rail Runner commuter system’s entry into Santa Fe, provides a pathway for fiber optic cable, and stands as a potential economic generator on multiple new levels.

The line is a physical conduit from the past and into the future. From an historic stance, the Lamy branch is also a
microcosm of United States and New Mexico history, symbolizing the era of westward migration, impacts of the series of Pacific Railroad Acts, the beginnings of New Mexico tourism, and the period of luxurious passenger trains of the past. Even the history and eventual 1996 demise of its legendary operator, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway is a part of the Lamy branch’s legacy.

Lamy railroad junction, Lamy, New Mexico, ca. 1884. Photograph by J.R. Riddle. Courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA), neg. no. 076033.

Birth of the Branch

The creation story of the Lamy branch line begins with President Lincoln’s signing of the series of Pacific Railway Acts (1862-65). Those documents became the implementers of presidential and congressional intent, while the railroad became the personification of the government’s policy of Manifest Destiny.

Railroads were the space program of the 1880s, and the American West was their proving ground. The first transcontinental railroad was completed at Promontory Point, Utah, in 1869, and the second at Deming, New Mexico, some twelve years later. Finally, the disparate array of states that had just concluded a long and bloody civil war were physically connected by steel. The process of “binding up the nation’s wounds” could begin. Corporate rivalry with the Southern Pacific Railroad and others compelled the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Rail Road to temporarily re-organize itself as the New Mexico & Southern Pacific Railroad (NMSPRR) as it descended Raton Pass into former Santa Fe Trail towns of Willow Springs (Raton), Watrous, and Las Vegas. It would be the NMSPRR that eventually constructed the Lamy branch following prolonged negotiations with territorial political, religious, and financial leadership.

 As Santa Fe Trail freight wagon volumes gradually declined, the New Mexico Territory was increasingly viewed by government-financed railroads as a place to get through, rather than to. Lucrative connections and new markets existed elsewhere and the railroads’ intermediate focus became the improbable location of Rincon, New Mexico, in Doña Ana County. Places where rail lines separated toward two destinations were important to railroad companies as natural junctions for maintenance crews as well as being geographical indicators of track moving to new destinations.

Approximately 60,000 square miles of unassessed land lie between Willow Springs, at the territory’s northernmost spot, and the junction point of Rincon.

A Reconnaissance Into New Mexico

Two highly influential executives within the New Mexico and Southern Pacific Railroad were Chief Executive Officer Thomas Nickerson and his chief surveyor and engineer Albert Alonzo Robinson. Both men were New Englanders and no-nonsense administrators, focused on returning profits to the line’s investors. That meant that as the line developed south from Colorado, it was connected, as rapidly as was practical, to other railroads and potential freight centers, capable of providing additional tonnage and accompanying profits.

Even by the time the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe had entered New Mexico, specific details about benefits-versus-costs between line construction and resource acquisition remained obscure. It was generally known that coal, timber, water, and other resources were available in locations throughout the territory, but development of a transport system for their procurement and movement had not, by 1880, been constructed. Nickerson’s solution for necessary clarification was assigning Robinson to personally visit the area, taking note of all elements of potential benefit and those of likely hinderance to the railroad’s construction, and to document those findings with recommendations for accomplishment.

That brief five-year window of time, between 1875 (the year of Robinson’s excursion into New Mexico) and February of 1880 (when the branch was eventually constructed into Santa Fe), was to become immensely important for the territory’s transition to statehood.

While federal legislation in the form of the Pacific Railway Acts and other railroad-related law defined congressional intent of joining the continent by rail, the mechanics of implementing the new mandates was left to company surveyors and engineers such as Robinson and his crews. Significantly, the objectives of congress, of territories such as New Mexico, and of emerging individual railroad companies like the Santa Fe, Southern Pacific, Union Pacific, and
others, were largely parallel and mutually accommodating. It was becoming increasingly apparent that federal and territorial governments subsidized the railroads, secured their rights of way, regulated them, and protected them. Through the passage of federal legislation for land acquisition and resource use, governments provided land for routing, resources for constructing and financial incentive for achieving railroad/governmental mutual objectives of land acquisition and
population growth throughout the West. Territorial statutes were in many instances more permissive than federal law for railroad development through the forgiveness of taxes, free water and timber usage, and implementation of eminent
domain for railroad initiatives.

In 1875, three years before the AT&SF reached the top of Raton Pass and entered the Territory of New Mexico, A.A. Robinson initiated his “trip of inquiry through southern Colorado and New Mexico.” It had three purposes: to examine and describe the terrain in terms of setting a rail route south; to ascertain whether and where New Mexico had the resources the company could use such as timber for rail ties, coal to power the locomotives; and of course, to identify
water availability. Robinson was also to determine potential for townsite development, attitudes of influential citizens
toward railroad construction, and to consider the prospect for rail-transported commodity development of all kinds.

In January, February, and March of 1875, Robinson traveled from southern Colorado, down the eastern plains of New Mexico, turning west across the Rio Grande valley to Socorro and the Magdalena Mountains, continuing further south and west to Silver City.

Reporting back on April 20, 1875 to AT&SF president Nickerson, Robinson provided detailed information, analysis, and estimated valuations of arable, cultivated, and pasture land and of the crops and animals the land could sustain; as well as the availability and quality of timber and lumber for fuel, fence posts, railroad cross-ties, and telegraph poles; the existence, accessibility, and viability of coal, iron, and other minerals. His professional description of the geography of the terrain was also included in his findings.

Robinson’s description and impressions of the local populace says as much about him as it does the individuals he observed. His report described people living in nineteenth-century New Mexico:

“The people of N.M. and of Las Animas County in Colorado are largely Mexicans. Of a population of 124,000 people, N.M. has not more than 9,000 Americans, or whites, as distinguished from the New Mexicans or Natives. This 9,000 is made up from all nationalities, among whom the Jews largely predominate. The natives are all Roman Catholics, excepting one community, the town of Tome, in the Rio Grande valley, which is Protestant in faith. Only the wealthy class of the natives are able to educate their children; the mass of the people are ignorant and very superstitious. All of their modes of life are primitive, but few innovations have been introduced by the Americans. The wooden plow is still used, and the ass, as a pack animal, furnishes the favorite means of transportation. With this people it is sacrilegious to depart from the usages of their grandfathers. …

“Besides this, affecting the governments, it must be remembered that this people have not long been citizens of the U.S. … The present generation is unused to the customs of the U.S. Government and of civil life. They were not subjected to taxation, except in form of fines and licenses, until 1870. … New Mexico has an area of about 77,000,000 acres, is divided into 13 counties of which Santa Fe Co. is the smallest. … Santa Fe, the Capital of the Territory and county seat of Santa Fe Co., has a population of 5,000 or 6,000 people; has an elevation above sea level of 6,850 feet.”

By 1875, the railroad’s practice of financing its expansion through bonds issued by the local governments of the communities through which the train passed was well-established. Robinson related, “By territorial law of 1872, bonds to aid public enterprises can’t exceed 5% of the assessed valuation.” He noted the bonding capacity of several counties, and whether he thought the people of the county would be willing to “give liberal aid in bonds to secure the construction of a R.R. into their county.”

Later, Robinson reported that “Thos. Catron U.S. Dist. Attorney for N.M. who … [has] great influence in the political affairs of the territory, says the odious law in regard to bond limits could be changed at the next session of the legislature.” Robinson concluded that northern New Mexico had sufficient resources to build and run the train, and the territory as a whole had enough mining and agricultural products that “a candid man who examines this subject carefully will say that the business of the [rail]road will at least double in three or four years.”

His assessment of the value of running the line through Santa Fe, however, was blunt and negative: The line should bypass Santa Fe because “it is a place of no commercial importance geographically: it is sustained by territorial and Govt. patronage. Aside from this the county has less resources than any county in N.M. A rail-road will never be built there until people have money to squander.”

Robinson told Nickerson that he was “satisfied the proper route for a R.R. into N.M. lies on the east side of the Spanish Range of Mts. to Anton Chico; thence by Canon Blanco and the Galisteo to the Rio Grande; this strikes high enough in this valley to secure nearly all that is of any value. … By this route we avoid the severe trouble from snow …; secure a line with much the easiest grades and lightest work; and pass through the country giving the most local business.”

In Robinson’s view, although Santa Fe was the capital of the territory and the hub of the Santa Fe Trail, the Camino Real, and the Old Spanish Trail, the city itself was not a destination so much as a connecting point to those other storied trade routes. Most of the trading and settlements of American immigrants happened along those routes, not so much in Santa Fe—partly because of its difficult location at 7,000 feet, in the bottom of a cup of surrounding mountains and because for many trail travelers, Santa Fe was never intended to be the end of their destination.

Both Robinson and Nickerson were also aware that the entirety of Santa Fe Trail annual freighting business amounted to only about $2,000,000, which could be hauled by railroad in a week. Subsequent construction proceeded through Colorado with the focus on accessible markets in Mexico and from other California-based railroads. It was clear that in the minds of rail company management that corporate profitability lay outside New Mexico, not within it.

The Lamy branch line. Photograph by Tira Howard.

A Committee of Substantial Citizens

Railroad construction in Colorado had been meticulously monitored by New Mexico railroad advocates, particularly within the city and county of Santa Fe, where it was well understood that rail service was fundamental to economic competition, survival in a rapidly changing national marketplace, and as a prerequisite for statehood. Communities with rail service generally flourished, while those bypassed soon deteriorated, not only economically, but socially and culturally as well.

Toward the objective of being included in the anticipated developing economy, a committee of fifteen “substantial citizens” was organized. It was guided by the advice of the same Miguel Antonio Otero (1829-1892), who had served as political adviser to the New Mexico and Southern Pacific Railroad during its legislative struggle against the competing Southern Pacific and Denver & Rio Grande systems also seeking entry into New Mexico two years earlier. Because of his successful work in assisting the Santa Fe railroad’s entry into New Mexico, Otero was given the honor of driving the first spike on rail laid in the territory. Otero’s influence within white, Hispanic, and railroading politics was growing.

Photograph by Tira Howard

He was a uniquely qualified railroad promoter with deep personal ties to both Hispanic and white territorial leadership. Born in Valencia, Socorro County, in 1829, while New Mexico was still a province of the Mexican Republic, he was elected as New Mexico’s congressional delegate in 1855. Heavily involved with railroad activities throughout the territory and frequently retained by the AT&SFRR, Otero provided advice on a variety of matters of relevance to the railroad. He grew to be immensely influential in economic, political, and legal issues of New Mexico, all of which were of fundamental interest to railroad development.

The Santa Fe Citizens’ Railroad Committee involved more than a dozen of the county’s “heaviest taxpayers” and businessmen in addition to Otero. Others directly engaged in the effort to attract the railroad included Governor Lew Wallace, Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy, the Spiegelberg brothers, Supreme Court Chief Justice Henry Waldo, A. Stabb, and several other gentlemen whose names remain locally familiar today. The diversity of committee membership is notable for a time when ethnic, religious, and economic classes of society came together infrequently and then usually only on issues of broad concern. Their doing so in this instance illustrates the unity among the committee’s view of the importance of securing local rail service.

As construction crews worked southward from Raton, the committee intensified dialogue with company president Nickerson, chief engineer Robinson, and other railroad executives. Evidently, the committee was successful in its deliberations with the company. An open letter from Nickerson was published on July 19, 1879, in The Weekly New Mexican, detailing three proposals offered by the railroad to the committee toward possible establishment of a connecting alignment for freight and passengers, thereby offering access to all corners of the territory and country. Although not specified in the offers from Nickerson, all scenarios center on the construction of a branch line, as opposed to the initially sought main line construction to Santa Fe. Thereby, in direct opposition to Robinson’s original recommendation to bypass the territorial capital altogether, he settled for construction of the branch line, toward the end of moving on to more lucrative markets further south.

Nickerson’s Options for Rail Service

Nickerson offered three choices to the county via the local committee, as recorded by the newspaper:

The first offer asked that the community donate to the railroad company $175,000 in thirty-year, 7% county bonds, plus sufficient depot grounds for the conduct of railroad business (for a depot, storage, track configuration, and related necessities). In return, the railroad would build and operate the line.

The second offer asked that the county and city build the line “with such grades that can be operated at a reasonable cost” and constructed “to the satisfaction of our chief engineer.” Thereupon, the railroad would furnish rolling stock and operate the line.

The third alternative was that the community of Santa Fe could organize a company, build, equip, and operate the line, and agree to do business with the railroad on its terms.

Discussion followed and a counteroffer ensued, discounting all three of Nickerson’s offers with a new proposal. City and county officials proposed $150,000, as opposed to the $175,000, with the rail company constructing the line and operating the branch. Even though $25,000 under the sought amount, that offer was accepted.

Land for a depot and train operations at the north end of the line was negotiated separately, as it was for related railroad facilities at Galisteo Junction. Archbishop Lamy was directly involved in the ensuing land-use agreement at Galisteo Junction, since he and/or the Catholic Church owned property sought by the railroad. Part of his incentive for local railroad development may have been connected to his long ambition to complete the construction of Saint Francis Cathedral, whose construction began in 1869, eventually completed in 1886. Stone from Cerro Colorado butte was conveniently located at the junction of the railroad main line and the newly built branch up to Santa Fe. Stone blocks for the cathedral could be hauled on flat cars to their appropriate destination, then hauled by wagon from the rail yard to the construction site of the cathedral.

Instrumental in the committee’s dealing with the New Mexico & Southern Pacific Rail Road was Miguel Otero, the recognized politician, businessman, and negotiator. He was no stranger to the array of railroad needs and a welcomed partner for both sides. His amity with A.A. Robinson stemmed from the days in the winter of 1878, when the railroad was in critical need of political allies for territorial authorization and chartering of the railroad to enter the territory at the birth of New Mexico’s railroading odyssey.

Following additional communication with railroad management, the committee’s offer was formally accepted and construction of the line began. Several inaccurate versions of the railroad’s approaching the city have obscured the reality of the event, with some accounts describing local disbelief as the railroad supposedly by-passed the community, continuing west from Glorieta, through Manzanares, and on toward Galisteo. It was then called back, the myth continues, at the urging of Governor Wallace or Archbishop Lamy, who inexplicably presented the necessary funding, the line thereupon being constructed. President Nickerson and chief engineer Robinson were too vigilant as stewards of the railroad’s resources to permit such construction backtracking, especially as the more practical objectives of Mexico and California awaited.

Actual work on the branch line began several months prior to its celebrated February 9, 1880 entry into the city.
Constructed by horse and mule power in concert with men wielding picks and shovels, work on the alignment was a challenge. Uphill all the way from Galisteo Junction, it was necessary to keep the rise in elevation to 3% or less.(Railroad track grade is measured in degrees, reflecting the rise or decline from level to about three degrees above that; a 3% grade indicates a rise of 3 feet for every 100 feet of linear space.) The efficiency advantage of steel wheels on steel rails turned to a liability, as slippage on inclines in excess of that percentage was inevitable. The most common solution for ameliorating inclines like the one between Lamy and Santa Fe was the construction of curves, as is still done today,
totaling fifty-five of them on the Lamy line, along with nineteen wooden bridges. Centuries of downhill water flow had established a multitude of arroyos and gullies, each requiring timber spanning. All the necessary wood for ties and bridges, rail, hardware in the form of tie plates, joint bars, nuts, bolts, and spikes had to be ordered, assembled, and transported to the construction site. Only then could the work begin.

Arrival of the Iron Steed

The headline of The New Mexican for February 14, 1880 ecstatically proclaimed the great event that had occurred five days earlier. The arrival day was February 9, 1880, and there had to have been several earlier work trains coming up from the main line with supplies and track equipment prior to the celebratory entrance of the one described in the paper.

Santa Fe’s Triumph!

The Last Link is Forged in the Iron Chain

Which Binds the Ancient City to the United States

And the Old Santa Fe Trail

Passes Into Oblivion.

An Immense Crowd Greets the

Coming of The Iron Steed

Speeches and Congratulations

In part, the exhilarating newspaper narrative recorded the famous day by declaring, “Hundreds of Santa Feans came out to greet the Iron Steed. A procession formed on the town plaza’s west side, led by the 9th Cavalry band (a Buffalo Solider unit), along with Gen. Edward Hatch and his staff from Fort Marcy. Federal and county officials, members of the territorial legislature, teachers and students of St. Michael’s College, and citizens in carriages followed.

“At the newly constructed depot, speeches of welcome were delivered and the last spike was hammered down by Gov. Lew Wallace, amid the huzzas and loud applause of spectators.”

The age of railroading, for Santa Fe, at long last, had begun.

The second part of this history, from 1880 to the present, was published in the Spring 2022 edition of El Palacio.

Fred Friedman has an extensive background in the state’s railroading past. He oversaw New Mexico railroad issues for decades and is recognized as an authority on the subject. As a board member of the state Historical Society, he lectures on numerous aspects of New Mexico and its railroads.