Railroads of Santa Fe County

Coming of the Iron Steed: Railroads of Santa Fe County 1880-2010

By Fred Friedman


Santa Fe has been a railroad town since 1880, when the first locomotive backed all the way up from Galisteo Junction (now known as the community of Lamy) because there was no facility to turn the train around. One hundred and thirty years later, tangible evidence of the sixteen railroad companies that had financial interest in the City and County of Santa Fe, still exists. Several depots, numerous rail line alignments, old bridges and trestles as well as a real feeling of the steam locomotive era in the very center of Santa Fe provides testimony to that illusive demand. The railroading history of Santa Fe County is all around. You only need to know where to look.

To many visitors and residents the sleek Rail Runner commuter train is the railroad in Santa Fe. Actually, the Rail Runner is only the latest in a progression of railroads that have come and gone, to and from the City Different for the past one hundred and thirty years. Most of those railroads averaged an eight-year lifespan for a variety of reasons. Whether the colorful cars and locomotives of the Rail Runner stay “on track” will depend primarily on economics and ridership; in other words demand. Demand created and eventually destroyed nearly all its predecessor railroads.

Railroads were the “Space Program” of the 1880s and New Mexico was a proving ground. The phenomenal impacts of the railroad altered everything from architecture to politics and brought about more than the decline of wagon transport to the Territory. It fostered an economic, political, and social sea change. The railroad helped to create new businesses but was also the source of failure and dislocation of others that had flourished for centuries.

Prior to the arrival of the railroad, nothing larger than a wagon bed or heavier than what a team of oxen could pull was transported. The arrival of the railroad atop Raton Pass at the border of New Mexico in 1878 changed that. The steam locomotive irreversibly altered local economies, land values, jobs, and long-established ways of life with its ability to move tons of freight and thousands of people in any weather, quickly and easily. The railroad helped to built some towns and destroy others.

Describing the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe into the city, the Santa Fe New Mexican announced on February 14, 1880:



The “Iron Steed” was a reluctant newcomer to Santa Fe: the railroad bypassed the Capital City stopping at Lamy some 14 miles to the south. The City of Santa Fe and Archbishop Lamy worked to have a bond passed to pay for the 18 miles of line construction. A 3.5% percent ruling grade up the hill, the absence of any freight manufacturing for the railroad to haul and the fact that, in the view of the railroad, Santa Fe was a place on the way to somewhere else were all reasons to bypass it.

Being located on a branch line was never desirable but at first was only a minor disadvantage. When railroads dominated freight and passenger transportation, a tourist destination such as Santa Fe offered enough of both sorts of business to warrant good rail service.

For passengers, this meant four trains in each direction daily in 1893 but over time, as people began to us automobiles, passenger train service declined. In 1929, there were only two trains each way daily but bus ("auto-rail") service had been implemented between Santa Fe and Lamy to meet the main line trains, which was not ideal but had to suffice.

By 1950, there was only one pair of mixed trains (passenger cars and freight cars in the same train) daily, but still 18 daily buses. Passenger train service ended about 1961 and the last record of rail service connecting bus service was in 1968.

In 1970, just before Amtrak assumed responsibility for most intercity passenger service, Lamy still enjoyed three through passenger trains per day. Presently, Lamy is served only by Amtrak's daily Southwest Chief as it runs between Chicago and Los Angeles with a stop in Albuquerque.

Under a variety of corporate banners, a variety of rail companies hauled everything from Espanola chili and beans, to Stanley corn, hay and cattle. They moved coal from Madrid to Cerrillos and passengers from all directions. The “Chili Line” often had as many cars of pinto beans, apples as it did passenger cars and the New Mexico Central, coming up from Stanley, and Estancia, had a delightful mix of livestock, farm produce, and well-dressed passengers.

While it can be confusing to identify one railroad from another during an era of purchases, mergers, consolidations and abandonment, it is important to history or railroading and history in general to do so. Some of the railroads operating within the county were known by two names: one a nickname, such as the Denver & Rio Grande’s “Chili Line.” The Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad was also known simply as “the Santa Fe.” The New Mexico Central Railroad and the New Mexico Central Railway were organizationally different companies, operating at different times under different management and are often confused. Still other companies were “paper railroads,” legally authorized common carriers that were unable to acquire the necessary funds for personnel and equipment, so never carried passengers or freight.

Each of the sixteen railroads that operated within Santa Fe County was a link to prosperity and development or to the dreams of such. While most are gone, their legacies remain in many forms. There are physical reminders of Santa Fe’s railroading past in the form of historic depots and eerily quiet, meandering, railroad alignments. You can still see the old New Mexico Central’s earthen grade across the interstate just south of the city and wooden trestles and cinder roadbeds are visible throughout the area.

Practical Aspects of Railroading
Prior to the development of mechanized railroad construction, almost exclusively men using picks, shovels, and mules did laying track in New Mexico. There were multiple steps to laying track, which proved to be more complex and expensive in the mountains than it was on the plains.

After a proper alignment or route for the rail line was secured and legally acquired by a rail company, it needed to be surveyed. This was accomplished on foot and by men carrying heavy, though fragile, instruments. Trees had to be cleared, boulders moved or blasted, arroyos filled, or bridges over them built. Anything that created a rise of more than 3 feet for each 100 feet of length had to be leveled, since nineteenth century locomotives and the physics of a steel wheel on a steel rail could not negotiate anything steeper than a 3% grade. Then, the hard work began.

Plows, pulled by mules cleared the alignment. Ballast, or crushed rock, had to be produced and then hauled by wagon to the location, where it was dumped, then spread by hand, for miles…usually between one and three per day. Oak ties, six to eight feet long and weighing about 150 pounds apiece were set on to the ballast approximately a foot apart, yielding an estimated 5,200 ties per mile.

Two heavy tie plates about one quarter inch thick and 8 inches square were placed on each tie to prevent the rail from cutting into and soon severing the ties once train weight was applied. Finally, the steel rails, each 39 feet long, weighing more than a ton each, were set atop the plates and ties. The rails were 39 feet long because the cars that carried them from the mainline were 40 feet long, leaving 6 inches on either end of the rail car for securing them in transit.

The work crews or “steel gangs” numbered from 80 to 120 men, who in unison lifted each rail onto the tie plates, spiked them down, bolted them together, and then, moved on to the next joint, 39 feet away. It was essential for the crews to work in unison, whether in carrying a length of rail together or placing and hammering spikes in a coordinated method. The railroad workers or “dancers” used tools manufactured by the Gandy Railroad Tool Company of Chicago and became known as “Gandy Dancers.”

The 18-mile line between Lamy and Santa Fe took about seven months to complete. It had nineteen bridges, fifty-five curves and a ruling grade of about 3.5%. Those elements, coupled with inherent slow speeds, and intensive maintenance, is partially why the modern Rail Runner Commuter Express utilizes the state-owned right‑of-way between Waldo, New Mexico and the downtown Santa Fe rail yards, as opposed to the Lamy branch.

The Railroads and their Routes
Within Santa Fe County, between 1880 and the present sixteen railroad companies have operated over the AT & SF transcontinental route and its four secondary lines hauling both passengers and freight. Early in-bound materials to Santa Fe were principally building material and consumables including lumber, pipe, wire, seed, and pianos for dance halls, window glass for homes and businesses, organs for churches, and all manner of items needed by frontier settlers.

Out-bound produce included wool, hides, livestock, fruit, beans, and other items produced in this area. Later, coal from the Madrid mines, Espanola Valley apples, chile, wood, and other products were shipped out of Santa Fe County. Rail companies operating in Santa Fe County include the following:

1878 New Mexico and Southern Pacific Railroad

1880 Texas Santa Fe and Northern Railway Company

1880 Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railroad

1890 Santa Fe Southern

1892 Cerrillos Coal Railroad Company

1895 Denver & Rio Grande Railroad

1895 Rio Grande & Santa Fe Railroad Company

1900 Santa Fe Central Railway

1900 Santa Fe Albuquerque and Pacific

1908 New Mexico Central Railroad

1918 New Mexico Central Railway

1920 Denver & Rio Grande Western1971Amtrak

1971 Amtrak (Southwest Chief)

1992 Santa Fe Southern Railway

1992 Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad

2008 Rail Runner Commuter Express

Significant Rail Alignments in Santa Fe County from 1880-2009 include the following:

Transcontinental Main Line, 1880- Present

The Lamy Branch Line, 1880-Present

The Denver & Rio Grande’s Espanola to Santa Fe “Chili Line” 1887-1941

The New Mexico Central Line: 1903-1929

The Waldo-Madrid Coal Rail Line: 1892-1960

Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad

The main line of track, 18 miles to the south of Santa Fe, is one of the nation’s major transcontinental railroad corridors for both freight and passenger train service. The line was constructed by the Santa Fe Railway in 1880. One hundred sixteen years later, in 1996, the Burlington Northern and Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railway Companies merged and the newly formed BNSF Railway Company operated the line between 1996 and 2006. The Belen to Raton segment of the line was purchased by the State of New Mexico in 2006, with the BNSF retaining numerous operating rights. Amtrak leases passenger service over the line for its Southwest Chief trains between Chicago and Los Angeles, with stops in Gallup, Albuquerque, Lamy, Las Vegas, and Raton, in both directions, on a daily basis.

The Lamy branch line, 1880-present, has been used by the New Mexico & Southern Pacific Railroad Company, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway Company, and Santa Fe Southern Railway. Until 2008, the Lamy branch line was the only rail connection to the nation’s main line rail route and the City of Santa Fe. The recently completed Rail Runner commuter line, built between Waldo and Santa Fe, now provides a second such connection.

Originally constructed by the New Mexico & Southern Pacific Railroad Company, it was soon acquired by the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway, which operated it for one hundred and twelve years when it was sold to the Santa Fe Southern Railway in 1992.

During the 1970’s the local station agent in Santa Fe had considerable political influence and was elected to the state legislature where he was instrumental in developing railroad and taxation legislation for many years. Most of the railroads operating in the state and territory closely monitored the political workings of government due to state and federal interest in railroad regulation.

In 1991, the Lamy branch line was identified by the AT&SF as an abandonment candidate because of expensive maintenance on the alignment and because of declining freight revenues. When it appeared that no purchasers were interested in taking over the route, it was almost purchased by a salvage company who would sell the ties and rail as scrap. Fortunately, a group of investors came forward the following year and the line was purchased by the Santa Fe Southern group, which owned and operated the line until 2005. In January of 2005, the Trust for Public Land announced that the line had been purchased for “public use” for $10 million. The Santa Fe Southern Railway Inc. continues operating its freight and passenger excursion rail business over the Lamy Branch and in 2008, the northern portion of the spur line became part of the commuter rail corridor between Santa Fe to Albuquerque, providing access into the capitol city.

Three historic depots/hotels are associated with the Lamy line; one, no longer exists but the other two can be readily viewed. The one that is gone was El Ortiz Harvey House, located fifty feet east of the present depot in Lamy. El Ortiz was built in 1910 and contained a beautiful interior designed by Mary Colter. It closed in 1938 and stood until 1943. The foundations of the structure are still visible.

The present depot at Lamy is now owned by the Santa Fe Southern Railway and is utilized by Amtrak for its Southwest Chief passengers. The depot was built in 1909 to replace a two-story frame structure, originally constructed in 1881. The tower was removed in 1933 and the present building was remodeled in 1941.

The other important depot on the Lamy line is presently the office site of the Santa Fe Southern Railway Company. The ATSF depot was originally constructed in 1880 was replaced with a brick depot in 1909. That structure, now owned by the city, is leased to the Santa Fe Southern.

The Denver & Rio Grande’s Espanola to Santa Fe “Chili Line,”1887-1941, was used by the Texas, Santa Fe, & Northern Railway Company, the Santa Fe Southern Railway, the Rio Grande & Santa Fe Railroad Company, the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, and the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad Company.

Long known as the “Chili Line” this narrow gauge (36” span of rails as opposed to 56.5”) route was the southern-most part of the Denver & Rio Grande‘s system that connected numerous towns within southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. This portion of the line linked Espanola to Santa Fe, over a distance of 34.7 miles and was built by the Texas, Santa Fe & Northern Railway Company. The TSF&N Railway was incorporated in 1880, and opened for operation in 1887. It closed in 1941, the track and equipment being salvaged the following year. The Chili Line served Espanola, San Ildefonso, Embudo, Antonito and other points.

It was operated by Denver & Rio Grande Railroad Company from 1895 to 1908, and by the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad Company from 1920 to 1941. The reasons it closed were similar to the justification for other “service discontinuances: declining revenues, costly maintenance, and competition with highways.

The Espanola depot was built from Denver & Rio Grande standard plans as a single rectangular structure of wood siding and shingle roof. It had two chimneys; one for each stove in the separate waiting rooms for men and women. In Santa Fe, the Chili Line shared a depot with the New Mexico Central Railroad, New Mexico Central Railway, and Santa Fe Central Railway, depending upon the time frame. Details of that structure are discussed within the New Mexico Central alignment description that follows.

The New Mexico Central Line, 1903-1929, was used by the Santa Fe Central Railway, the New Mexico Central Railroad, the New Mexico Central Railway, and the AT &SF Railway. The New Mexico Central Railroad extended south for 115 miles all the way to Torrance, where it joined with the El Paso & Rock Island Railroad’s mainline. Originally constructed by the Santa Fe Central, the line was opened for operation in 1903 and made stops at the following communities to take on and off load passengers, fuel, freight, and water: Kennedy, Galisteo, Clark, Stanley, McIntosh, Antelope, Estancia, Willard, Progresso, Bianco, and Torrance. The location of Kennedy was important because that was where the NMC tied in with the ATSF’s main line and exchanged cattle, beans and passengers between 1903 and 1955 while the route was in operation. There was a depot and a section house there.

The actual alignment of the New Mexico Central is still visible in many locations along New Mexico Highway 41. The old grade can also be seen to the south of Rodeo Road in Santa Fe and off the I-25 Interstate as it meanders south toward the Santa Fe Community College. A street sign in Rancho Viejo called “Chili Line Road” erroneously suggests that the narrow gauged railroad passed followed this roadway. It did not; it operated several miles to the north.

The alignment continues south, through a section of the Rancho Viejo residential property toward Kennedy, Stanley, and Moriarty along SR 41, where it originally tied in with the El Paso and Rock Island at Torrance, New Mexico. The El Paso and Rock Island was purchased by the Southern Pacific Transportation Company

In Santa Fe, the New Mexico Central’s northernmost depot was shared by the Chili Line and was called Union Depot because of that cooperative undertaking. Now Tomasita’s Restaurant. This structure was constructed in 1903.

Other facilities were grouped around a five-track yard shared with the Denver & Rio Grande. Most of the track was laid with three rails to accommodate both standard and nar­row gauge rolling stock. On the east side of the tracks were the depot, freight shed, and the rudimentary engine terminal. On the west side were some narrow gauge spurs and the interchange track to the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe yard. In the 1990s, a turntable shared by the narrow-gauged Chili Line and the standard-gauged New Mexico Central was unearthed when a bank was under construction on Guadalupe Street, just south of the rail yards.

The passenger station was located at the north end of the yard between the tracks and Guadalupe Street. Although not a large structure, it included all the usual accommodations: waiting room, agent's office, telegraph operator's office, and baggage room. The AT&SF acquired the building in 1926.

 The Kennedy depot, built in 1907, was originally the depot for the stop at Kennedy but after the closure of the New Mexico Central line, it was relocated to the unlikely location of Eldorado, twenty minutes south of Santa Fe, where it served as the ranch head quarters for many years. The depot remains there as Eldorado’s community center building. Several years ago, it was possible to see the word "Kennedy” which showed through the new white paint on the structure’s west side. The building has now been painted over several times and no trace of the depots original and historic origins can be seen. Other existing depots affiliated with the New Mexico Central route are the Estancia depot (1908), the Moriarty depot (1903), and the Torrance depot (1903).

The Waldo-Madrid Coal Rail Line, 1892-1960, was used by the Cerrillos Coal Railroad Company and the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway Co. The Cerrillos Coal Railroad Company was incorporated in 1892 and that same year constructed a standard gauge line from Waldo on the ATSF mainline, across the Galisteo River, in the direction of the community of Cerrillos. From Cerrillos the alignment then proceeded south on an increasing grade to the mining town of Madrid. In 1901, the coalmines and the railroad were sold under foreclosure to the Santa Fe Railway Company. Between 1919 and 1954, Madrid was a company town owned by the Albuquerque and Cerrillos Coal Company. The Company bought locomotives in 1940 but the most productive years for coal production in Madrid were from the 1920s to the 1940s.Coal production continued until 1954 when the mines were closed down due to the use of alternative fuels like natural gas and diesel fuel. Some shipments continued until 1959 and the railroad line was finally abandoned in 1960.

Madrid shipped a million tons of coal annually. Coal from these mines supplied power for Santa Fe Railroad locomotives as well as heating fuel for towns all over the southwest. Significantly, the Madrid mines produced both anthracite and bituminous (hard and soft) coal, a unique combination. The hard coal deposits are believed to be the only ones west of the Mississippi River. After World War II, when the use of coal diminished, the town of Madrid faded. A little coal continued to be mined until 1995. Then, even that stopped.

Cerrillos served as the supply and shipping point for the mining towns of Golden, San Pedro, and Dolores, and for the coal camps of Madrid and Waldo. In 1882, a small two-story wood frame depot was built. One end had two windows on top and three windows and one door on the bottom. On the line side, the top floor had five windows and the bottom floor had a bay window and one door and one window topped by a small gable-style roof addition, all supported by substantial compound wooden roof brackets. The office had a fireplace for heat and the bay window allowed the station agent to view approaching trains.   

Waldo came into existence in the 1890s and owed its existence to mining at Cerrillos and Madrid. In 1891, the railroad set up a spur from Waldo to Madrid. The town, located two miles northwest of Cerrillos on the AT&SF main line railroad, was named after Henry L. Waldo, who was appointed chief justice of the territorial Supreme Court in 1881. In 1894, the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company planned to process a high-quality coal from Madrid to make coke for smelting iron ore and built fifty coke ovens in Waldo. The town had a zinc oxide plant from 1918 to 1924 and a post office between 1920 and 1926. Water wells in the vicinity supplied all of Madrid's water totaling approximately 150, 000 gallons per day. The water was hauled in railroad tank cars four times a day. When the mines closed in Madrid and vicinity, the Waldo expired as well. Little remains of Waldo other than the ruins of the coke ovens.

Many railroads were established and in turn discontinued in Santa Fe County but their history is still evident in the form of tracks and depots, built-up alignments, and a confusing paper trail of mergers, acquisitions, sales, purchases, abandonment, bankruptcies, acquisitions, and laws. Article IX Section 14 of the New Mexico Constitution strictly prohibits the use of state monies for the construction of a rail line and various statutes specifically address a variety of railroad issues.

The Rail Runner commuter train is a modern version of passenger systems of the past and the Santa Fe Southern Railway still retraces the same route that brought rail service to the City Different more than one hundred and thirty years ago. Today, the Santa Fe Rail Yard District is alive with railroad passengers and enthusiasts and you can almost smell the coal smoke and still hear steam locomotives of a bygone era. Santa Fe’s railroading history continues.



Railroads, transportation; Coming of the Iron Steed: Railroads of Santa Fe County 1880-2010; Locomotives in New Mexico; Transportation in New Mexico


To many visitors and residents the sleek Rail Runner commuter train is the railroad in Santa Fe. Actually, the Rail Runner is only the latest in a progression of railroads that have come and gone, to and from the City Different for the past one hundred and thirty years. Most of those railroads averaged an eight-year lifespan for a variety of reasons. Whether the colorful cars and locomotives of the Rail Runner stay “on track” will depend primarily on economics and ridership; in other words demand. Demand created and eventually destroyed nearly all its predecessor railroads.

(c) Fred Friedman. All rights reserved.