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New Mexico’s Lost Scenic Highways

By: Art Scott and Mike Lord

The arrival of the railroad into the New Mexico territory in 1879 created major changes most notably in commerce. Since 1821 the most significant trade route between New Mexico and the United States had been the Santa Fe Trail. The town of Santa Fe had been the main beneficiary. Since the railroad did not pass directly through Santa Fe Las Vegas had become a major railroad terminus and grown wealthy while Santa Fe’s fortunes declined. By the end of the 19th century the idea of tourism as a source of revenue and new immigrants was beginning to take hold.

As America entered the 20th century the "Good Roads" movement, which began in 1880 as a voice for bicycle enthusiasts, accelerated by the growing popularity of the automobile, was in full force. Prior to 1880 most of the country’s thoroughfares were a patchwork of trade routes, trails and wagon roads that, for the most part, had no organized marking or maintenance. In the early 1900’s Las Vegas citizens petitioned the territorial legislature to construct a wagon road from the courthouse of Santa Fe, the territorial capital, to the courthouse in Las Vegas. They envisioned a road through the high mountains of the Sangre de Cristo Range.  In 1903 Governor Miguel A. Otero and territorial prison superintendent H.O. Bursum, requested that the territorial legislature fund this road.[1]  

The act was passed by the 1903 territorial legislature appropriating $5,000 for the construction of a "Scenic Route".[2] It was thought that it would be a major U.S. tourist attraction by providing access to the largely unknown high alpine area of the relatively new territory. Perhaps also a goal was to help dispel the eastern idea of an arid and barren landscape and in turn to encourage immigration to New Mexico. The much heralded highway was conceived, placed under construction, assigned a State Road designation as State Road 22, given a proposed status for a time, and finally disappeared from state highway maps by 1925. The Scenic Highway was lost during the initial 23 years of the beginning of widespread automobile travel.

The Scenic Highway was truly born in 1903 when the territorial legislative assembly appropriated funding and directed that the Scenic Road be constructed using convict labor.[3] In 1904 then Territorial Governor Miguel A. Otero reported to the U. S. Department of Interior that the Scenic Road construction was progressing satisfactorily but that the initial $5,000 appropriation was very inadequateHe stated:  

In compliance with an act of the last legislative assembly for the construction of a public wagon road, to be known as the scenic route from the city limits of Santa Fe, in the county of Santa Fe, to the city limits of Las Vegas, county of San Miguel, and in pursuance thereof, a survey has been made from the city limits of Santa Fe, following through the Santa Fe Canyon to a point about 12 miles from Santa Fe, and from here the switch backs were surveyed over the Dalton Divide and on to the Pecos. On the Las Vegas end a survey has been made and road built from the Hot Springs to Trout Springs, a distance of about 6 miles, continuous road. Of the survey on the Santa Fe end about 7 miles of excellent road has been completed. A great deal of this road has been very heavy, on account of the rock work in constructing the switch backs to get over the Dalton Divide. The maximum grade on all the road built is 5 per cent. So slight is the grade on the switch backs that a vehicle can travel at a good speed, going or coming, over the Dalton Divide.  The scenery along this road is as fine as can be found anywhere.[4]

Because of underestimating the cost of prison labor the territory had completely exhausted the initial $5,000 appropriation during the first 6 months and had borrowed from the penitentiary fund for the balance of the year, expecting to be reimbursed by the legislature.[5]

The Territorial Bureau of Immigration produced 5,000 copies of a give-away book for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis entitled To the Land of Sunshine. Its popularity led to a second printing, which was expanded and republished by the Bureau of Immigration in 1906. The purpose of this book was obviously to dispel the widely held opinion that the New Mexico Territory was an arid, barren and desert wilderness and to encourage immigration and tourism to the New Mexico Territory, which was looking forward to statehood. The Scenic Highway is described in the book thusly:

The Scenic Highway that is being built between Santa Fe and Las Vegas, through the Pecos forest reserve, and over the highest and steepest divides, of the Sangre de Cristo range, opens to the traveling public as beautiful scenery as any in the world. ...In the immediate vicinity is found some of the finest scenery in the West, including peaks with perpetual snow, sylvan lakes, forests, water falls, and trout streams, in most of which the now famous Scenic Highway starting at the city(Santa Fe), is the key.  And The lover of nature has here the opportunity of viewing some of the grandest mountain scenery in all the Rocky Mountain region, the Scenic Highway at present being under construction across the Pecos Forest Reserve to Santa Fe. [6]

This is the first use of the term highway that we found for the Scenic Road.

Fayette Alexander Jones CE, EM, LLD., Director of the NM School of Mines, indicated in a companion volume to the 1904 Exposition that there was interest in mining and minerals along the Scenic Highway, primarily in Santa Fe Canyon and Dalton Canyon.[7]

By 1905 the Scenic Route was recognized as an affirmative use of convict labor and was featured in an article in Good Roads Magazine entitled "The Las Vegas-Santa Fe Scenic Highway," written by James W. Abbott.  Governor Otero was encouraging the legislature to fund a north-south artery through the Territory beginning in Raton and ending in El Paso, Texas. Abbott states:

So gratifying were the results of the experiment that the next legislature, the one which convened the past winter, made a further appropriation of $10,000 to continue the work on this road and also provided for the establishment of a north and south artery through the territory of which the Las Vegas-Santa Fe Scenic Highway should be a part.  This highway thus provided for will have its northern terminus at Raton Pass and its southern terminus at El Paso, Texas.[8]

This artery would later become known as El Camino Real.

New Mexico’s use of convict labor in road construction was a new concept and was favorably considered due to its low cost (35 cents per day per man versus $2.50 per day per man for hired labor.)[9] The inmates enjoyed the work and were constantly petitioning the penitentiary commissioners to be permitted to work on the road.[10]  We are aware of only one escape attempt in 1905 and two of the three escapees were recaptured. The third may have made his way to the Harvey Ranch in Gallinas Canyon, stolen a suit of clothes, and disappeared.[11]

In 1905, the territorial legislature approved a ¼ mill per dollar property tax to pay for road construction throughout the territory and approved $10,000 to the penitentiary to begin construction of El Camino Real, which was to include the Scenic Highway. It also authorized the hiring of a civil engineer from time to time for $5 per day, plus expenses.  No contract labor was authorized. The act also described the approximate route and further stated:

There is hereby established a public highway through the Territory of New Mexico, to be known as EI Camino Real, which said highway shall have for its northern terminus a point in the Raton mountains on the State line between Colorado and New Mexico, where the old Barlow and Sanderson Stage road, known as the Santa Fe Trail,, crossed the State line.[12]

Because the Scenic Route was being built using convict labor, all funding was appropriated to the New Mexico Penitentiary and was administered by the Superintendent.  After the initial appropriation of $5,000 in 1903, the Scenic Road Fund received $6,500 in 1905 and $3,500 in 1906.[13]

From 1903–1906, according to financial statements of the New Mexico Penitentiary, a total of $11,500 was spent on the Scenic Highway.[14]  Financial reports from the 1912 Good Roads Commission show Scenic Highway expenditures from 1909–1912 of $28,808.[15]

In 1906, due to efforts by President Theodore Roosevelt and the first Chief of the Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, all road construction in federal forests was abruptly halted. The Scenic Highway had been completed over the Dalton Divide and down into Macho Canyon on the Santa Fe side and to El Porvinir on the Las Vegas side.  Despite intense pressure from the territory/state and the cities of Santa Fe and Las Vegas over the next 20 years, construction never resumed.

In early June 1907, a letter written by 5 inmates was smuggled out of the Penitentiary and delivered to the Santa Fe New Mexican. It alleged that the Superintendent, Arthur Trelford, was extremely cruel and abusive. This resulted in the removal of the Superintendent by acting Governor J. W. Raynolds on June 28, 1907 due to negligence and mismanagement.  Shortly after Trelford’s removal, another report was filed by Governor Raynolds indicating that the Penitentiary could expect a deficit of $15,000 - $20,000 for 1908.[16]

In 1909, perhaps due to the fiscal mismanagement by Superintendent Trelford, oversight of New Mexico road construction was transferred to a new entity, the Territorial Roads Commission which consisted of the Governor, the Territorial Land Commissioner and the Territorial Engineer.[17]

By 1908, the territory had completed both ends of the road to the Pecos Forest Reserve boundaries. In his First Biennial Report to the Governor, Territorial Engineer Vernon L. Sullivan complained that the Federal government had done nothing except survey the route across the Reserve and estimate the cost to complete the road.  Sullivan also acknowledged the significant expense of pushing the road through the granite backbone of the Rockies, estimating a cost of one thousand to several thousand dollars per mile.[18]

In his Second Biennial Report (1909–1910) Sullivan expands greatly on road construction throughout the Territory, including detailed information on construction techniques, road surfaces, bridges, culvert construction and relative costs. He reports the installation of two American Ingot Company corrugated iron culverts on the Scenic Highway in Santa Fe Canon to test their efficacy.[19]  The original culverts remain today.

His report on the Las Vegas-Santa Fe road also indicates that construction on the Camino Real was proceeding via a route through Glorieta and Canoncito. It would appear that an alternate route to the Scenic Highway was being considered, most likely due to the recalcitrance of the Forest Service to commit to building the road through the Forest Reserve. However, engineering considerations were probably also responsible for the longer south route around the mountains. Although considerably longer, construction and maintenance costs would be far less, in both time and money, than the Scenic Route over the high mountains.[20]  

The July 15, 1910 New Mexican reported,

Territorial Engineer, Vernon L. Sullivan and Good Roads Engineer, C. H. Neal, have returned from a reconnaissance over the Santa Fe–Las Vegas road which follows the historic Santa Fe Trail. Their running time in Mr. Sullivan’s automobile was seven hours and they met with no difficulties.[21]

The Santa Fe Trail route was ultimately declared the official Camino Real. However, in 1911, the new Territorial Engineer, Charles Miller, reported to the Good Roads Commission that every effort was being made to complete the Scenic Highway through the mountains, with an estimated completion cost (using convict labor) of $75,000-$100,000.[22]

By 1911 the automobile was becoming prominent in America as a means of tourist transportation and there was a flurry of road construction throughout the west. The American Review of Reviews magazine published an article titled "New Scenic Highways in the Southwest" by Agnes C. Lant.  She comments on New Mexico’s Scenic Highway:

For instance, from either Las Vegas or Santa Fe, you can strike across the backbone of the Rockies, above the cloudline (sic) at 10,000 feet, close to four feet of snow, into the Sangre de Christo (sic) Canyon, where you may shoot a bear, if you want to or up the Pecos where you can camp and fish, or up the Jemez, where you can take up your camp quarters in one of the caves of the prehistoric cliff dwellers…  These side spurs are not yet complete. For instance, there is a break of some twenty to thirty miles between Las Vegas and Santa Fe, which the good roads propagandists are looking to the National Forest Service to complete; and of the forty miles out to the Canyons of the Cliff Dwellers, there are three miles of a gap, which should be completed at once.[23]

In 1911 Arthur Seligman, the Mayor of the City of Santa Fe, promoted and still held a dream of the completion of the Scenic Highway. In his 1911 Annual Report he states:

A boulevard around the city as outlined by H. H. Dorman. The city possesses the lands over which such a boulevard would run and the vistas and panorama of ever changing beauty which would be obtained from such a boulevard would make it a most popular drive. In this connection, the Riverside Drive should be extended from city limit to city limit, connecting at one end with the Scenic Highway and at the other with the road to the cliff dwellings. Part of the drive is constructed and gives promise of becoming a most beautiful, shady thoroughfare. Its completion should be accompanied by a breakwater along both banks of the river from city limit to city limit, similar to that constructed along the executive mansion grounds. I need not point out how desirable such an improvement would be.[24]

Because of the transition from Territorial to State government, there was no legislative assembly held in 1911. The first State legislature in 1912 created a State Highway Commission composed of Governor William C. McDonald, chairman; Land Commissioner, Robert P. Ervine, secretary; and State Engineer, James A. French, engineer.[25]

Mr. French issued the First Report of the State Engineer of New Mexico in 1914. This report covers the period from July 12, 1912 to December 1, 1914. This lengthy report details the progress, funding, and recommendations for his office’s allocated responsibilities. These included water resource inventory, overseeing all irrigation projects, and state road construction and maintenance. At this time, counties still had primary responsibility for bridge construction. There was no specific mention of the Scenic Highway in this report with most of the emphasis on El Camino Real, the north-south route from Colorado to Texas. He indicates that the preferred route between Las Vegas and Santa Fe for this highway would be the southern route following the Santa Fe Trail around the mountains and through Glorieta pass as opposed to the more direct Scenic Highway over the higher mountains. However, Mr. French assigned numbers to all the state highways and published a map of the state highway system.  El Camino Real is designated as State Road 1 and traverses between Las Vegas and Santa Fe over the southern route. However, the Scenic Route is still included on the map and designated as State Road 22.[26]

In 1914, Sunset Magazine described the Scenic Highway:

Up the Canyon of the Santa Fe, over the nine-thousand foot Dalton Divide and down into Macho Canyon, several hundred gentlemen in black and white suits of a somewhat pronounced pattern are building a very remarkable road. It is to be called the Scenic Highway, and when it is completed it will form a section of the projected Camino Real from Denver to El Paso.  It promises to be to New Mexico what the Sorrento-Amalfi Drive is to Southern Italy or the famous Corniche Road is to the south of France.  By means of switchbacks - twenty-two of them in all - it will wind up the precipitous slopes of the great Dalton Divide, twist and turn among the snow-capped titans of the Sangre de Cristo range, skirt the edges of sheer precipices and dizzy chasms, drop down through the leafy solitudes of the Pecos Forest Reserve, and then stretch its length across the desert toward Taos, the pyramid-city of the Pueblos.[27]

In 2010, we became aware of the following narrative by 87 year old Valentin Valdez from his 2005 autobiography Mi Vida En Santa Fé:

I got very interested in the legends of the treasures and followed a lot of leads. One was the legend of the Camino Fidelú. Prisoners from Santa Fe were building a road. The politicians had said there’d be a road from Santa Fe through the mountains to Vegas. But Juan Ortega said there was no intention to build a road to Vegas, that instead they were building, at public expense and using prison labor, a road to a gold mine called Fidelú.  We got interested and went there, me and Juan Ortega and Jimmy Prada.  We took a horse with our provisions and bedding.  When we got close to the gold mine it started raining hard, then it turned to marble-sized hail and lightning and thunder and the horse got spooked and broke his reins and ran away.  We started back and had to carry our packs on foot.

Juan Ortega knew where there were some old mines where we could sleep. We went in one of them but it was so full of mosquitoes you couldn’t breathe. We built a fire outside and smoked out the mosquitoes. Then, since the cave was very cold, we put some rocks on the fire and when they got hot we pushed them with sticks inside the cave to warm it, so we finally had a chance to get warm and dry and go to sleep.

Before the horse spooked, when we got near the mine we saw tin coffee cups that the prisoners used to drink from, and old tin plates, and when we were looking around we found an iron ball with three or four chain links on it that had been made in a blacksmith shop. Since we were on foot it was too heavy to carry back, so we buried it under a pine tree.  For a long time we intended to go back and get the iron ball and look for the mine, but when you’re working for someone else you hardly have the time to do anything for yourself. [28]

In July, 2013, I met with Judy Allison who has lived in Dalton Canyon for the past 40 years. She told me that she had been on the Scenic Highway (she referred to it as the Prisoner’s Road) several times and that it was completed over the Dalton Divide and down Macho Canyon, where it abruptly ended.  The work camp is still in existence, with the ruins of 15 cabins and a cook shack.   

After 1912 it is likely that the state concentrated construction efforts on the completion of the state-to-state north-south El Camino Real. The engineering consideration of the problem of maintaining a highway, passable throughout the year, at a twelve thousand foot altitude certainly must have contributed to not including The Scenic Highway into El Camino Real as directed by the Territorial Legislature. A more passable, maintainable, longer route, through Glorieta Pass (currently I-25) was constructed.

A February 15, 1912 editorial in the Santa Fe New Mexican declared:

The false economy of the Democrats, aided by the hatred of some Western Congressmen for Conservation, Roosevelt and Pinchot will cut down the federal appropriation for roads, telegraph and telephone lines on the national forests…  It were different if the road had not been begun and in great part completed.  If $30,000 had not been expended upon it; if the entire state would not profit by it.  The hardest work is done. Shall the word go out that New Mexico, the first to employ convict labor on road work, the first to legislate for a great Camino del Real, now that it is a state, finds itself unequal to the task set for itself and abandons the greatest Scenic Highway in the west? [29]

By 1914, Las Vegas and Santa Fe were beginning to take the matter of completing the highway into their own hands. Both the Santa Fe New Mexican and the Las Vegas Optic reported that the completed sections of the highway had been repaired and were in fine shape.

The June 11, 1916 New Mexican reported that congress passed and President Wilson signed the Good Roads Bill appropriating $75,000,000 for general roads and $10,000,000 to:

…survey, construct and maintain roads and trails within any state or the territory of Alaska within which national forests are located.[30]

New Mexico was allocated $2,235,250 with $1,235,250 to be used for state and other highways and $1,000,000 for roads through National Forests. The June 11, 1916 New Mexican also reported:

The fact that New Mexico will secure approximately $1,000,000 for roads through National forests probably means that the Scenic Highway between Santa Fe and Las Vegas through the Santa Fe National Forest will be built.  The approval of the forest service will be alone necessary.  State Engineer French estimates that the construction of this highway in permanent form will cost close to $250,000. [31]

Alas, it was not to be.  When the final appropriations were made, the Forest Service refused to approve the project and none of the money was allocated to the Scenic Highway.

In 1917, the Lahoma Copper Company began operations in Dalton Canyon and agreed to pay for improvements to the stretch of the Scenic Highway into Santa Fe. An editorial in the August 17, 1917 New Mexican stated:

Most important of all, this has come about because the highway, heretofore declared by the state to be a pure luxury, has become a commercial highway, to enable a carload of ore a day to come into Santa Fe for shipment.  Another big mining company on the Pecos is anxious to  get this commercial highway extended to that valley to carry its commerce…The chance has come to get this great road built to the Pecos, making Santa Fe a gateway to that country, accessible from here in two or three hours via inspiring scenery and an altitude of nearly 10,000 feet.  It will be one of the greatest things that ever happened to the capital city. [32]

However, the Lahoma Copper Company was short lived and most of the improvements on the Pecos side were never made.

In May 10, 1919, the Santa Fe Elk’s Lodge announced plans to build A commodious lodge in Santa Fe Canyon. The New Mexican reported:

It will be 60 feet in length, will have a 16 foot veranda, a main living room 48 by 24 feet in size, living rooms for ladies and comfortable sleeping and dining room accommodations.  A manager will always be in charge and meals will be served regularly…The site has been surveyed and there is enough land to provide rooms for gardens, cows and chickens to supply vegetables, milk, butter and eggs for the lodge.[33]

The Forest Service agreed to provide $1,500 to improve the road to the site if the Elks could raise a matching amount in Santa Fe. Within a month it was announced that the money had been raised in Santa Fe and, after installing 35 culverts and re-directing the river at one spot, Forest Service Road Superintendent Jack Thorpe announced that the road was in good shape to Monument Rock.  It is unclear whether the lodge was ever completed as proposed.

By 1921, people in both Santa Fe and Las Vegas were doing anything they could to raise money for the Highway. Dances were held, merchants were donating part of their profits and individuals were donating whatever they could afford.

In 1922, with the assistance of now Senator H. O. Bursum, the chambers of commerce for Santa Fe and Las Vegas met jointly to once again obtain permission from the Forest Service to complete the Highway. The meeting was also attended by Governor Bradford Prince. The effort was unsuccessful.

The last mention of the Highway we found was from an editorial in the October 18, 1926 Las Vegas Optic.  It is, perhaps, the obituary of the Scenic Highway.

Action on the completion of the short-cut road from Las Vegas to Santa Fe, deferred since 1906 when  much of the road was completed may be expected through the co-operation of the Las Vegas and Santa Fe business men following the executive action taken by those comprising the board of investigation.

To accomplish the intentions of the two Chambers of Commerce it will be necessary to secure state help through an appropriation to bear a portion of the cost of construction. That portion of the highway extending across the Pecos National forest reserve will undoubtedly be constructed at federal cost.  Support of this part of the venture will come from our representatives in the United States Congress.  But the greater task lies with those who will assume the duties of preparing a bill for the state legislature and securing its passage by the next session of that body.

The argument in favor of establishing such a highway should be well received by the greater number of legislators because of the evident benefit to be derived by the entire state by the construction of a road which can have no equal in the whole of the United States.

It was convincingly stated by one of our leading local men that the movement must have something behind it besides hot air, in order to survive and accomplish the intention of its promoters. General support will be necessary in spreading information pointing out the direct benefit obtainable through the construction of the highway.  The movement must be kept alive and may be best promoted by a widespread support of its intentions.[34]

Because we were unable to find any additional published mention of the road, we assume that neither sufficient citizen participation nor Congressional appropriation for the Federal portion was ever obtained.

 


[1] New Mexican, 20 January 1903.

[2] Laws of the Territory of New Mexico Passed by the 35th General Legislative Assembly, Chapter 56, 1903.

[3] Laws of the Territory of New Mexico Passed by the 35th General Legislative Assembly, Chapter 56, 1903.

[4] Miguel A. Otero, Report of The Governor of New Mexico, to the Secretary Of Interior, (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1904).

[5] Miguel A. Otero, Report of The Governor of New Mexico, (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1904).

[6] Max Frost and Paul A. F. Walter, The Land Of Sunshine, (New Mexico Bureau Of Immigration, 1906).

[7] Fayette A. Jones, New Mexico Mines and Minerals, (World's Fair Edition, 1904).

[8] James W. Abbot, “The Las Vegas-Santa Fe Scenic Highway,” Good Roads Magazine, Vol. VI,  January.- December, 1905, 351-355

[9] Agnes C. Lant, “New Scenic Highways in the Southwest,” American Review of Reviews, July-December, 1911.

[10] James W. Abbot, 1905, “Scenic Highway,” 351-355.

[11] “White Oaks,” New Mexico Outlook, 25 June 1905; Betty Werner Schwede, Gallinas Canyon, Past to Present, (Spring, Texas: Smooth Sailing, 2007).

[12] Laws of the Territory of New Mexico Passed by the 36th General Legislative Assembly, 1905.

[13] Herbert J. Hagerman, Annual Report Of The Department Of Interior for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1906Report of the Governor of New Mexico Territory, 1906; Arthur Trelford, Report of the Board of Penitentiary Commissioners to the Governor of New Mexico For the56th and 57th Fiscal Year, November 1906.

[14] New Mexico Penitentiary Commissioners, Report To Governor, 1906.

[15] Territorial Roads Commission, Report to Governor, 1912.

[16] Inmates, Territorial prison New Mexico, 17 June 1907, Letter in State Archives; Santa Fe New Mexican, 28 June 1907; J.W. Raynolds, Report to the Board of Penitentiary Commissioners, 1 July 1907.

[17] Laws of the Territory of New Mexico Passed by the 37th General Legislative Assembly, 1909, Chapter 42.

[18] Vernon L. Sullivan, First Biennial Report of the Territorial Engineer To The Governor Of New Mexico, 1907-1908.

[19] Sullivan, Second Biennial Report of the Territorial Engineer To The Governor Of New Mexico, 1909-1910.

[20] Sullivan, Second Biennial Report of the Territorial Engineer To The Governor Of New Mexico, 1909-1910.

[21] New Mexican, 15 July 1910.

[22] Charles D. Miller, Report from the Territorial Engineer to the Good Roads Commission, 1911.

[23]Agnes C. Lant, “New Scenic Highways”.

[24] Arthur Seligman, First Annual Report Of The Mayor of Santa Fe, (New Mexican Printing Company, 1911).

[25] New Mexico State Legislature, Laws of 1912, Chapter 54, “An act creating the State Highway Commission and County Road    Board.”

[26] James A. French, First Report of the State Engineer of New Mexico, 1914.

[27] Alexander E. Powell, Sunset Magazine, Volume 32, January – June, 1914.

[28] Alexander E. Powell, Sunset Magazine, Volume 32, January – June, 1914.

[29] New Mexican, 15 February 1912.

[30] New Mexican, 11 June 1916.

[31] New Mexican, 11 June 1916.

[32] New Mexican, 17 August 1917.

[33] New Mexican, 10 May 1919.

[34] Las Vegas Optic, 15 October 1926.