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Railroads and New Mexico
By John P. Conron
As the tracks crept ever nearer to the New Mexico border throughout the 1860s and 1870s, the conflicts among entrepreneurs and builders grew more influential in the affairs of New Mexico. The upright Boston capitalists, who backed the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Rail Road, and the ruthless “Big Four” of California with their Southern Pacific Company fought the battle in the Territorial Legislature through agents, partisans, and subterfuges. Their goals were to secure rights-of-way across the empty land and to prevent their competition from entering the area. Votes and influence were openly peddled, and the ramifications of moves and countermoves were felt all the way from San Francisco to Boston.
The slowly developing storm broke over New Mexico during the first months of 1878 when the Southern Pacific interests attempted to use the Territorial Legislature to exclude other railroads from the territory. Both the AT&SF and the D&RG responded through their own partisans in Santa Fe; and not to be caught short again, both companies began planning a rapid campaign of railroad construction into New Mexico. Construction crews met head on in a nighttime confrontation at Raton Pass in early February, 1878. The AT&ST won the ground, and the future path of the D&RG was to be forever turned west. A second confrontation took place soon thereafter in the Royal Gorge of the Arkansas River when the two roads fought for possession of the best route to the booming mining camp of Leadville. After years of fighting, both in the courts and on the ground, the D&RG won. By so doing, the narrow gauge road secured much of the traffic generated by Colorado’s mining industry for itself.
The effect on New Mexico was dramatic. By the time the AT&SF and the SP met at Deming in early 1881 to form the second transcontinental rail route, profound changes had become evident in New Mexico. Whole strings of new towns had been created, of which many were to grow and quickly become new centers of activity and commerce. During the next few years, industry expanded at an almost incomprehensible pace, especially when compared to the slow, lilting growth patterns of prior years. Hundreds of carloads of coal were shipped each week from New Mexico mines. The number of cattle in the territory increased from 347,000 in 1880 to 1,630,000 by 1890. The number of banks grew from only two before the railroad to over fifty after the railroad, signalling the end of the mercantile capitalism of Santa Fe Trail days. Old ways faded, and New Mexico truly became a part of the United States.
Across the northern mountains, the narrow gauge Denver & Rio Grande moved west, reaching Durango, Colorado in 1881. The D&RG also completed a hesitant sort of narrow gauge branch down the Rio Grande Valley to Española during the last days of 1880. Within a few years the gap between Española and Santa Fe was crossed by the tracks of a locally promoted narrow gauge line which ambitiously called itself the Texas, Santa Fe & Northern.
All this time the copper kings of Bisbee, Arizona, had been pushing their local mining railroads to make several competitive main line connections. By 1902 they had reached El Paso despite strong opposition by the Southern Pacific. In 1905 the copper interests purchased the El Paso & Northeastern, thereby extending their control all the way to Dawson. This El Paso & Southwestern, as it came to be known, was New Mexico’s ultimate industrial railroad system, connecting together copper, coal, and lumber resources. There were, in addition, plenty of friendly connecting railroads, assuring fair rates and equitable service. By 1924, however, the EP&SW became part of the Southern Pacific system.
The railroad’s transport monopoly did not last long. Within a few years motor vehicles established their efficacy in the sparsely populated country. Paved roads and efficient motor trucks followed close behind. Nnonetheless, in just a few short years, the railroads had changed the face of New Mexico.