Tracks Through Time
A historical portal and microcosm of New Mexico history
Part 2: The Lamy Branch Line 1880 to present
by Fred Friedman
Read part I of this history in El Palacio’s Winter 2021 edition, here.
Even with the Iron Steed’s arrival in Santa Fe in February of 1880, railroads came late to New Mexico. The states and territories surrounding New Mexico enjoyed at least some railroading presence prior to that time. Within a few years, however, systems seeking to compete with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe were laying track into and through New Mexico, as well as constructing depots while acquiring economic and political influence.
Territorial legislators ensured that regulatory statutes were accommodating to all rail growth through the forgiveness of taxes, eminent domain implementation, and related statutory incentives.
The later part of the nineteenth century saw the emergence of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, the Santa Fe Central Railway, Texas, Santa Fe & Northern, Cerrillos Coal Railroad Company, and others becoming established. Accordingly, several depots associated with the Lamy branch were built. Such depots were both utilitarian and symbolic. Each of the structures became immediately multi-functional, serving as the corporate presence of each railroad, plus being local meeting and community centers, not to mention serving as the focal points for the railroad’s passenger and freight business.
Structures Along the Route
Several important structures are located along the Lamy branch alignment. They include the depot at Lamy, the former AT&SF depot in the downtown railyard, and the Union depot, which now houses the Santa Fe restaurant Tomasita’s. In addition, two other railroad structures are found near the rail line, although not adjacent to it: the former Kennedy depot and the no-longer-standing United States’ Bruns Army Hospital, located near what is now known as the Midtown Campus on St. Michael’s Drive. Each of these areas and structures have a relationship to the Lamy branch.
Santa Fe Southern Railway’s Lamy Depot
The one-story, 39-by-108-foot rectangular Lamy depot was built for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway and opened to passengers in 1909. It replaced a two-story wood frame structure erected in 1881. When the new passenger station opened, the original was converted into a freight depot and served this purpose into the 1940s.
The structure had a tower built for the purpose of viewing trains approaching from the west and east. Space is now leased to Amtrak for awaiting Southwest Chief Chicago-to-Los Angeles trains. The Spanish Mission style, featuring shady arcades, red tile roofs, and stucco-clad walls drew on the region’s Spanish colonial past to provide the railroad with a cohesive visual identity. It also became an effective marketing tool to lure residents and tourists from the East and Midwest. Constructed of brick covered in stucco, the Lamy depot features a waiting room outfitted with carved wooden beams, handsome wood benches in a Spanish Revival style, and colorful decorative tiles. Common to many depots in the region, it has a covered outdoor waiting room on the east end and a trackside arcade.
The tower over the ticket office was removed in 1933, while a small freight room was added to the building’s west end in 1941. Its function is evident by the placement of small windows high on the wall that admit light but deter thieves, as well as the large wooden doors that allowed station personnel to roll in carts stacked with luggage, boxes, and crates.
Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway Depot
Located in the Santa Fe Railyard, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway depot is owned by the City of Santa Fe and has seen a variety of interests throughout its existence. This building was superseded by a wood frame structure, constructed the same year that the branch from Lamy was built, in 1880. It was converted to a freight depot after the present-day 35-by-92-foot brick and stucco station was built in 1909.
The original stucco color was brown and the pitched roof was originally covered with mission-style tiles. Rail passenger service was provided into Santa Fe until 1928. After that time, the Clarkson Bus Company moved passengers to and from Lamy.
Today, the structure is used by the City of Santa Fe for accommodation of passengers of the New Mexico Rail Runner Express commuter line.
Although not one of the Lamy line’s related structures, the building that now houses Tomasita’s was an important feature. Known as Union Depot, the station accommodated both Chili Line and Santa Fe Central/New Mexico Central Railroad passengers and freight from 1903 until 1941, when Denver and Rio Grande/Chili Line service was discontinued. Railroad employees of different companies often shared equipment and conceivably worked for two or three of the operating systems located in the downtown yard.
Just out of sight of Santa Fe Southern/Sky Railway passengers at Eldorado sits the former Kennedy depot, now used as the residential area’s community center. This station structure was formerly located at the intersection of the AT&SF and Santa Fe Central alignments near Galisteo. It was named to honor Arthur Kennedy, chairman of the Santa Fe Central Railway/New Mexico Central Railroad. Upon service discontinuation of the line, the structure was used as a ranch building. In the 1970s it was transported to Eldorado to be used as a real estate office, prior to its becoming a community facility.
Bruns Army Hospital in Santa Fe
In Santa Fe, the closing of the Bruns Army Hospital in 1945 became emblematic of things changing throughout the area. Opened in 1943, the hospital at one point had more than 200 buildings. It was named after Col. Earl Harvey Bruns, an Army doctor who succumbed to pulmonary tuberculosis in 1933. The hospital was the largest industry in the Santa Fe area, employing 1,000 civilians along with 500 military men
and 100 military nurses. The facility had a bed capacity of 2,500 beds and contributed about $4.5 million a year into Santa Fe’s economy.
Other Railroads Associated with the Lamy Line
After the county and city were served by the AT&SF, other rail companies followed and its years of sole railroad dominance in the community came to an end. The Santa Fe Central (1901-1908) ran from the yards in Santa Fe south to Moriarty, then on to Estancia and Willard. There, it connected with the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific, making national rail travel from Santa Fe finally possible. The Santa Fe Central, thereby, provided an alternative to the AT&SF’s eleven-year transportation monopoly. The Santa Fe Central route was purchased and reorganized by the New Mexico Central Railroad in 1908, itself being restructured in 1918 as the New Mexico Central Railway. Even though the Santa Fe Central, the New Mexico Central Railroad, and the New Mexico Central Railway were essentially the same mechanical system, from a legal and regulatory stance, a total of four railroads had operated in Santa Fe by 1918.
Rail travel to the north from Santa Fe was delayed for several years until terms of the Treaty of Boston (an agreement with the AT&SF prohibiting construction further south than 90 miles from the Colorado/New Mexico border until 1880, when the Texas, Santa Fe & Northern Railroad was incorporated) approved the final link. Thereupon, the Texas, Santa Fe & Northern was established by several of the members of a Santa Fe citizens’ committee, headed by Antonio Ortiz y Salazar. Following the Texas, Santa Fe & Northern, the first of several subsequent roads by the same name, Santa Fe Southern Railway came into existence in 1890.
The Denver & Rio Grande Railway had begun construction of the Chili Line in 1880 and completed it from Antonito to Española. It closed in 1941, mostly due to truck transport competition, and was subsequently abandoned in that year.
Joining the parade of the county’s rail development, the communities of Cerrillos and Madrid were eventually linked by steel, with the establishment of the Cerrillos Coal Railroad Company being established in 1892 for the transport of Madrid coal to Waldo’s coking ovens 5 miles to the north. While the Santa Fe Central, the New Mexico Central and the Chili Line eventually ceased operations, the Lamy branch and its owner-operator, the AT&SF, continued freight operations, hoping also to capitalize on emerging tourism that began capturing the minds and wallets of travelers.
The Harvey Era & Famous Trains Period
The extensive food and lodging empire of Fred Harvey positively affected the Lamy line for more than fifty years in the form of the construction and use of Lamy’s El Ortiz Hotel from 1896 to 1945. The phenomenon of Harvey Indian Detours, streamliner trains, and the sophisticated elegance that the company brought to the line was largely responsible for the branch’s continuance before and for a brief time following World War II.
For a few years, mixed train service prevailed, with often as many cattle and sheep aboard as paying passengers. Before the Second World War, the line was a connection for Harvey hotels in Arizona and other New Mexico locations.
The diminutive El Ortiz established a reputation unique among other elegant railroad posadas and bore the essence of building designer Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter’s (1869–1958) artistic style.
The El Ortiz was a one-story building with ten rooms and an enclosed courtyard. As quoted in Virginia Grattan’s Mary Colter, Builder Upon the Red Earth, one guest described the El Ortiz as a “little oasis among the desert hills, creating the temptation to give up all plans and stay a week for the pleasure of living and resting in such a place.”
Also part of the Harvey offering to travelers were Harvey Detours. El Capitan, Chief, and Super Chief rail passengers detraining at Lamy were delighted to be met by a two-team host of driver and courier at the station. Vehicles were primarily seven-passenger Cadillac and Packard “Harvey cars,” available for $75 per day, which included food and accommodations en route to more than a dozen spectacular New Mexico locations. Often part of the welcome included picnic lunches and several well-planned multi-day itineraries.
Among the famous passenger trains of the past, the Santa Fe Chief (1926-1968), the Super Chief (1936-1971), and the El Capitan (1938-1971) ran from Chicago, through Lamy, then on to Los Angeles. Prior to Amtrak’s creation in 1971, via the National Railroad Passenger Act, these “streamliners” afforded luxury travel accommodations via well-appointed dining cars, observation dome cars, and sleepers. At Albuquerque, Navajos and other Native Americans, dressed in ceremonial attire, provided interesting narrative talks as the trains entered the red rock areas near and through Gallup and McKinley County.
Traveling south on the main line, approaching Lamy, the magnificent Galisteo Basin presents itself to the observer. It is not difficult to imagine Indigenous people and Spanish explorers passing through that landscape. Piñon, juniper, yucca, and related high-desert flora embellish the scene like few other locations in the country. A mile further up the line, a 360-degree vista of the Sandia, Jemez, and Sangre de Cristo mountains mesmerizes even old-timers.
The Lamy line contributed to numerous military campaigns during its existence. The World War I years of 1916 and 1917 were particularly active as troops, vehicles, and personnel shared the line with civilian commodities of passengers, freight, and livestock. Occurring during the same period, the Pancho Villa Punitive Expedition and the United States’ participation in World War I emphasized the line’s importance both locally and regionally. A factor contributing to increased military activity in the Southwest was the interception of the Zimmerman telegram in 1917, which suggested that Germany would support Mexico in regaining “her lost territories” in Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico, contingent upon Mexico’s Axis alliance.
The branch line was used for both personnel and vehicle transport from Santa Fe to El Paso, California, and other locations east and west of Santa Fe. Numerous young local men and women left from the depot platform at Lamy, bound for the training facilities at Camp McClellan, Alabama, Camp Kearny in California, and dozens of other locations.
The Lamy branch also became the link to recovery for many returning service personnel at the Bruns Army Hospital on what was then Santa Fe’s south side. Toward the ending years of the global conflict, war casualties were transported to the hospital. The facility treated many of the 200th Coast Artillery Battalion survivors of the Bataan Death March. The facility, which had 2,500 beds, was in operation for a short period (1943-45), but the wye, where Lamy branch trains entered and exited the hospital property, can still be seen today to the south immediately off present-day St. Michael’s Drive.
The rail line connected travelers to Santa Fe, to 109 East Palace Avenue, and eventually to Los Alamos—those travelers, of course, being the scientists destined for work on the Manhattan Project. Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, Glenn Seaborg, Klaus Fuchs, and others arrived by train from distant localities and universities to the quiet community location of Lamy.
More than 4,500 Japanese-American internees also arrived under military guard by train for placement at the detention camp located in Santa Fe. A monument to that time and place was dedicated at Frank S. Ortiz Park on Camino de Las Crucitas, with a plaque dedicated by the city in 2002.
Decline of AT&SF
The conclusion of World War II brought about several transportation changes that were to become eventually life-threatening for the Lamy line. The 1950s produced newfound affluence among many American families, and vacations in new cars that could go anywhere—not just from depot to depot—became increasingly popular. This, and the gradual decline of railway mail via Railway Express transport, increased truck commodity deliveries, and shrinking levels of luxury passenger train travel of earlier years heralded trouble for American railroads.
Eventually, years of deferred maintenance, system bankruptcies, and competition from passenger airlines contributed to the complex problems of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe, the Southern Pacific, Missouri Pacific, Chicago & Rock Island, and other once-magnificent railroad companies operating in New Mexico.
By 1970, things continued to worsen for railroads, spurring a variety of attempts at cost-cutting. Mergers were attempted—some being temporarily helpful, others disapproved by the Interstate Commerce Commission at the outset of their application. Crew size reductions and a proposal for the elimination of cabooses pitted railroad management and labor against one another and became publicized elements of a shift in American railroad services.
During the early 1990s, in a continued effort to reduce what were viewed as unnecessary costs, railroads nationwide began closing down unprofitable branch lines. Some were bought by short line companies that sought to continue to provide freight services to rail-dependent industries like mining, logging, and similar businesses. Others, where the entire alignment could be preserved, became rails-to-trails candidates. The vast majorities of these railroad branch lines were abandoned with rights-of-way reverting to adjacent landowners, ties going to landscape companies, and rail torn up to be re-used in yards. Such line service discontinuances involved more than the cessation of train operations locally.
Elimination of rail freight or passenger services was and remains a highly regulated and time-sensitive legal process, allowing for public input, examination of proposed substitute uses, analyses of environmental impacts, and a detailed examination of potential alternative commodity transport options.
While both historic and romantic to many, the Lamy branch had, by 1990, become too expensive to operate and maintain for the AT&SF. Its comparatively light revenue-producing traffic, along a twisty incline up from the main line, became increasingly burdensome. It was only one of more than fifty other such unprofitable branch lines. Eventually, in May of 1991, the entire 18.1-mile alignment was placed in an Interstate Commerce Commission abandonment category, the first in a series of legal steps to permit its owner to either sell or scrap the line.
Line for Sale
On the morning of Friday, August 2, 1991, a Santa Fe railway consist, including eight chrome business cars, pulled into the Santa Fe Railyard and hissed to a stop. The train was powered by twin red and silver diesel engines “with Santa Fe emblazoned across their face in the gold letters long etched into western Americana,” wrote the Santa Fe New Mexican. It was a moment out of Southwestern history brought to life, and was to be the final visit of Santa Fe Railway corporate executives to the railroad’s namesake community.
Representatives of the railroad’s legal, real estate, and executive departments had arrived in town for two purposes. One was to participate in the Sunday, August 4 opening at the Museum of Fine Arts’ major exhibition of forty-seven paintings from the Santa Fe Railway’s collection, including the company’s jaw-dropping collection of Southwestern railroad art which incorporated famous artists’ paintings, Mimbres and Harvey-era dining car place settings, and other works of art. Newspaper articles referred to the train and its collection as the “Art Train,” and the Journal North reported:
The magic imparted by the plaintive whistle of a train, stretching across wide open spaces is still very much alive. The sound of that whistle caused some people to stop whatever they were doing and wave from their backyards in the pueblos and subdivisions that snuggle against the train tracks between Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
The Chicago contingency of Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway executives was also in its namesake city for the purpose of attending an announced public meeting to discuss the railroad’s abandonment of the Lamy branch line, a highly regulated and time-sensitive process governed by federal statute for approval of the discontinuance of rail service on specified track segments. That meeting was arranged by the State Railroad Bureau and fell conveniently on the day railroad executives were in Santa Fe for the railroad art activities. The history, present usage, and ultimate disposition of the Lamy branch line had again become front-page news, just as it had 111 years earlier.
The meeting, on the subject of the formal disposal of the Lamy branch, began at 10 a.m. on August 5, 1991. Held in the auditorium of the State Land Office, the gathering was well-attended and included representatives of the railroad’s executive and real estate departments; officers of the railroad’s land development subsidiary, Catellus; citizens from the communities of Santa Fe, Eldorado, and Lamy; city and county officials; potential purchasers of the line; and finally, an executive of A&K Railroad Salvage. That national salvage company specialized in dismantlement of rail lines, and had money in-hand for the purchase of the line.
At the hearing, only two parties expressed interested in acquiring the alignment. One was A&K. The other consisted of a loosely structured group of local entrepreneurs with little practical railroad operating background and about the same depth of purchasing capital, interested in a mixture of possible freight, passenger, and tourist excursion activities. Dreamers, some said.
That lone potential purchaser/operator consisted of an assortment of personalities. Included was Bob Sarr, a former Procter & Gamble executive familiar with corporate management intricacies. Sarr was also a general admirer of railroads, having had an interest in them since adolescence. There was also Neil Carter (1951-2013), a locally respected architect who recognized the potential of continued local rail services. So too did one Brian R.R. Wripple and television actor Michael Gross. The seeds for the line’s preservation were thus sown, and proceedings for the line’s discontinuance temporarily halted while the new investors arranged financing and organized themselves as an operating entity.
Eventually, in March of 1992, the group amassed an amount sufficient ($300,000) for purchase of the line, plus a reserve balance for operating expenses. Relieved that service to shippers would be sustained, the AT&SF loaned the group a locomotive engineer to help get the newly reorganized railroad up, moving freight, and running.
Transfer of the line and its traffic from a class I, multistate, national railroad corporation to a group of inexperienced, albeit enthusiastic, non-railroaders presented challenges both operational and fiscal. The newly established line was named after the railroad that ran from Santa Fe to Española for six years between 1889 and 1895; they called it the Santa Fe Southern Railway.
Through a purchase agreement, maintenance, regulatory, and other responsibilities were transferred literally overnight from a national corporate leviathan to a staff of six with no practical railroad experience. Added to the obligations were those mandated through inescapable county, city, state, and federal regulatory requirements. Atop those requirements were local business issues, parking complexities, environmental matters, and liability questions, plus evolving complexities requiring eventual evaluation, prioritization and resolution, all while keeping trains operating safely and on time—and hopefully even at a profit.
As general manager, Sarr learned the railroad business quickly and became proficient in all primary tasks, plus was available at all hours for dozens of other elements of running a railroad. He learned how grade crossing signals operated, how to deal with Federal Railroad Administration track and locomotive inspectors, and established critical relationships with shippers, politicians, and bureaucrats.
What had not been apparent to the group attempting to raise sufficient capital for the line’s purchase and operation was the awaiting extra baggage that the corporation would soon need to accommodate. Newfound interest in the railroad, its property, and ancillary structures materialized in the form of trail enthusiasts, the City of Santa Fe’s acquisition of the railroad depot, rail yard parking space conflicts, state government plans for commuter train right-of-way usurpation, unusually frequent locomotive, bridge, and track inspections by Federal Railroad Administration staff, and more.
For a period of time, bright spots for the railroad appeared in the form of local citizen support, more numerous excursion trips to Lamy, special event trains, improved schedule coordination with Amtrak, and a small but steady freight element to the business. Freight shippers for Santa Fe Southern included a lumber and home improvement company, a beer distributor, decorative landscaping rock transport, and others. Still, no profit had developed, though interest in the line had by this time become international.
Eventually, in 2010, an Australian firm, STI Global, purchased controlling interest in Santa Fe Southern. STI was a leading company in the development of configuring positive train control programming, which was at that time about to be required by Congress for passenger and freight rail systems throughout the United States. Among other reasons for the selection to use SFSR operations was the proximity of three different rail configurations, all within a small geographic vicinity.
The three track designs included the main line track paralleling Lamy and an active Federal Railroad Administration class 5 track, which permits train speeds of up to 80 miles per hour for freight and up to 90 miles per hour for passengers; the more developed Rail Runner commuter track alignment, which allowed for speeds from 60 to 79 mph; and the Lamy branch line itself, being the least sophisticated trackage among the three, allowing for a top speed of only 15 miles per hour.
For the ten years after STI Global’s acquisition of the branch line, it continued to experience declines in passenger and freight revenues. Mandated track maintenance, safety issues, and remaining in compliance with federal operating standards eventually proved too much. A multitude of ongoing issues added to the burden of running the railroad and included disagreements among Railyard occupants for parking for respective customers, the refusal of the city for use of the historic AT&SF depot for Santa Fe Southern passengers, and ongoing safety issues with the Trust for Public Land’s rail trail adjacent to the active train line.
The New Mexico Rail Runner commuter train’s need for access into Santa Fe via Santa Fe Southern trackage added to accumulating and chronically unaddressed issues facing Santa Fe Southern’s management.
The Phoenix Arises
In 2020, relief was to come for the railroad’s longtime chief executive, Karl Ziebarth, who had kept the railroad from bankruptcy for the past six years. The new saviors were three Santa Fe entrepreneurs—George R.R. Martin, Catherine Oppenheimer, and Bill Banowsky—who, according to Martin’s blog entry from August 12, 2020, were sitting around together one evening, enjoying a pitcher of margaritas and mulling the idea of owning a railroad. Collectively, the three agreed that it “would be fun” to own a railroad. Additionally, each investor was also concerned about the likelihood of the railroad soon disappearing because of an absence of passenger demand, freight orders, and public interest. The management troika immediately set about actions to preserve the system, with subsequent plans for longer-term rehabilitation of track, rolling stock, and train operations.
Re-mortgaging the historic passenger depot at Lamy was a first step, ensuring continued departure and arrival of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief passengers. Getting a general manager on board who was actually familiar with freight and passenger railroad operations was another primary need. That critical acquisition was met through the hiring of John Howell, an industry-respected railroader, able to combine regulatory realities with management’s visions of market appeal.
Once the locomotives are reconditioned, coaches cleaned and seats reupholstered, and track and ties brought up to Federal Railroad Administration standards, a multitude of imaginative excursions are being planned for what is now known as Sky Railway. Possible gourmet dinner trains, evening astronomy excursions, a history train describing the Railyard and significant locations in Lamy, and other innovations are under consideration. It’s also possible that “The Kid” himself may reboard to entertain passengers with protestations of his innocence. So too, there may appear staged “train robberies,” and the presence of historical impersonators in the form of Territorial Governor Lew Wallace and influential legislator Miguel Antonio Ortega, who organized the last-minute community-railroad negotiations with the New Mexico & Southern Pacific back in 1880—the move that effectively brought the railroad up the hill from Galisteo Junction in the first place.
The phoenix has arisen.
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.