Old Times and Old Timers

by Don Bullis

New Mexico’s Old Times & Old Timers

New Mexico Railroads

Railroad traffic in the eastern United States dates back to the late 1820s when rail cars were horse-drawn, often on wooden rails. The first steam powered rail line came into operation about 1830 and after that there was extensive railroading in the eastern United States, notably during the American Civil War (1861-1865) in both the north and the south. It would be nearly a half century, though, before a steam-powered locomotive would enter New Mexico on December 7, 1878. It was owned by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad (AT&SF).

The idea of the AT&SF was born in 1859 in the Kansas territorial legislature at Topeka, and the railroad was chartered in that year. Organization of the company took several years and construction did not begin until 1868. AT&SF rails reached Dodge City, Kansas, in 1872, and Trinidad, Colorado, in 1878. The route south from there was problematical: The Raton Mountains stood in the way. There was but one way to get into New Mexico from Trinidad, and that was over the Raton Pass. The problem was that another rail line, the Denver & Rio Grande Railway Company (D&RG), also vied for the use of the pass. Only one of them could use it.

A wagon road over the pass, which was a part of the northern branch of the Santa Fe Trail, was the exclusive and private property of Richens Lacy “Uncle Dick” Wootton. He had been deeded the land by Lucien B. Maxwell in the 1860s and had built a 27 mile long road and erected a toll gate. He extracted his toll in either money or merchandise and he enforced collection with a rifle. (He only exempted Indians from payment.) While the New Mexico territorial legislature outlawed his toll road business, Wootton simply ignored the proscription and continued to collect tolls. One source suggested that Wootton had a license for his toll road from Colorado Territory but since Wootton’s toll gate seems to have been in New Mexico, that point seems moot. Legend holds that he collected so much money in coin that he hauled it to the bank in whiskey kegs.

Both rail lines had surveyed the pass but neither had filed a plan with the United States Department of the Interior. As the story goes, in early 1878, two AT&SF men—A. A. Robinson and William Morely—noticed a couple of D&RG men near Trinidad, and it occurred to them that the AT&SF stood to lose access to the Raton Pass if they didn’t take some quick action. They proceeded, yet that day, to Wootton’s house high in the pass. They impressed upon Uncle Dick the urgency of their mission and they immediately rounded up a crew and began grading work, that same night. That meant that AT&SF won the race for a right-of-way over the pass because of what was considered a “prior right” to the route.

Many sources fail to mention any exchange of money between the AT&SF and Dick Wootton. In his autobiography, Wootton says only this: “My toll road was a success financially, from the time I completed it, up to the time it was paralleled by the Santa Fe Railroad. Then I got out of the way of the locomotive, and turned my business over to the railroad company.” Other sources have indicated that Wootton’s deal with AT&SF provided for him to receive $25 to $50 in groceries, per month, for the remainder of his life. He also had free-ride privileges for life.

AT&SF was then free to continue to build to the southwest: Willow Springs (now Raton), Las Vegas, Santa Fe (which was actually by-passed by the main line), Bernalillo, Albuquerque and ultimately to Deming where it connected with the Southern Pacific thus creating the second transcontinental railroad in the United States on March 8, 1881.

By 1880, the AT&SF and the D&RG agreed to stop fighting.

As an addenda to all this, it is interesting to note that when the idea of a transcontinental railroad was being considered, the concept was to get a rail line through New Mexico, not to it. Since there have been 100 or so rail companies operating in New Mexico at one time or another, it seems safe to say that New Mexico had more to offer the nation than a route for the second transcontinental railroad. And one thing is certain: New Mexico was forever changed when the first AT&SF passenger train rolled through the Raton Pass on September 7, 1879. Indeed, everything in New Mexico changed, from architecture, to population demographics, with the coming of the railroad. Travel to the territory from the eastern United States was possible in a matter of days instead of weeks or months; industrial goods and agricultural commodities could be shipped—in and out—for pennies rather than dollars. Nothing else in New Mexico history changed so much so quickly.

Cited by historian Marc Simmons, Judge William Hazeldine said this upon the occasion of the celebration of the railroad’s arrival in Albuquerque (April 22, 1880): “Today the new civilization of the East is brought into direct contact with the ancient civilization of New Mexico. And today the bell of the locomotive proclaims in clarion notes that henceforth knowledge, education, advancement and progress shall be the right of our people.”


Selected sources:

Chilton, Chilton, Arango, et al, New Mexico: A New Guide to the Colorful State

Conrad, Uncle Dick Wootton

Fugate & Fugate, Roadside History of New Mexico

Julyan, The Mountains of New Mexico

Myrick, New Mexico’s Railroads: An Historic Survey

Riskin, The Train Stops Here

Marc Simmons, Albuquerque: A Narrative History

Marc Simmons, “Railroad Transforms ABQ: Part Two,” Prime Time, February 2009

WPA Guide to 1930s New Mexico,
Marc Simmons, ed.