Transportation in New Mexico: A Survey

By the time the United States Army of the West occupied New Mexico in 1846, the Santa Fe Trail from Missouri to New Mexico had been in use for about 25 years. It and El Camino Real (The Royal Road), which generally followed the Rio Grande south from Santa Fe to various points in Mexico, were the primary trade routes, and thus the main lines of communication, into and out of New Mexico. Mail service from either direction was often described as irregular, and for a time there were only two mail distribution points in New Mexico, one at Santa Fe and the other at Tomé, south of Albuquerque.

Soon after the American Occupation, the U. S. Government established regular mail service between Santa Fe and Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. By 1848, mail service between Santa Fe and California was generally available, too. The first U. S. Post Office was established in Albuquerque in 1852, in what is now Old Town. It was moved east to New Town Albuquerque in 1882, soon after the railroad arrived.

Stagecoach travel became popular after the first coach arrived in Santa Fe from Independence, Missouri in 1849. The trip over the Santa Fe Trail took 13 days and the fare was $250, one way; an amount far beyond the means of the average citizen. By 1882, there were 38 stage lines operating in New Mexico. Since most stagecoach companies had mail contracts, they became the de facto mail distribution system.

There was no substantial improvement in communications until the telegraph arrived in New Mexico in the 1860s even though early-on communication by wire was limited to the military. Use of it became more widespread when the railroads put telegraph poles along their rights-of-way. (It should be noted that the Pony Express, which existed from April 1860 until October 1861, did not pass through New Mexico.)

The single most important event in New Mexico history was the arrival of the railroad in the late 1870s and early 1880s. It is safe to say that virtually everything changed in the territory from that time forward: products and commodities became available for the first time (pitched tin roofs, for example, became popular, simply because sheet tin could be shipped in by rail at an affordable cost); population demographics shifted because more and more Anglos could and did arrive and settle; and regular daily communication became a fact.

And at this early period, aviation had its start in Albuquerque, beginning with a balloon flight in 1882. Saloonkeeper “Professor” Park A. Van Tassel owned a lighter than air vehicle and he arranged to inflate it with coal gas from the city’s gas works for a demonstration flight on July 4th. After a false start or two, the balloon lifted off from a vacant lot on Second Street between Railroad and Gold Avenues. It ascended rapidly to an altitude of about 14,200 feet before it landed in a field near the present day intersection of Central Avenue and Rio Grande Boulevard.

The first attempt to demonstrate a fixed wing aircraft in Albuquerque, in 1910, was unsuccessful. The vehicle was shipped into the city by rail, and then assembled. The problem was that it would not fly in Albuquerque’s thin air. In 1911, though, airplane flight came to the Duke City.  Charles Walsh shipped his Curtiss Model “D” pusher biplane to Albuquerque by rail, and then reassembled it. He made several demonstration flights to the awe and amazement of his audience. Aerial demonstrations became standard at Territorial and State Fairs up until the beginning of World War I when flying activity ground to a halt.

The first telephone service available in Albuquerque came in 1883, but with very few subscribers. Long distance service didn’t arrive until 1912, the year of New Mexico statehood.

Historian Marc Simmons wrote in his definitive Albuquerque, A Narrative History that the first automobile arrived in Albuquerque in 1897 when a local bicycle dealer named J. L Dodson purchased a Locomobile in Denver and undertook to drive the vehicle to Albuquerque. The trip took him five days. Recall that there were no paved or marked roadways. He was also faced with the complicated logistics of being supplied with gasoline. That problem was solved by having gas shipped to various points along the way where Dodson could fill up (and presumably take on an extra supply). According to Simmons, the use of automobiles was slow to catch on, but even so United States Marshal Creighton Foraker was the first lawman to use a powered vehicle in his work: a 1910 Studebaker.

(Note that the first known bank robbery in which a car was used was committed by a thief named Henry Starr in northeastern Oklahoma in 1914. He got away.)

By 1917, when Albuquerque had a population of just over 13,000, the state had become a web of unpaved roads with no means of regulation. In 1926, though, U. S. Route 66 was commissioned. Its original alignment was a far cry from today’s Interstate 40. From the Texas border it extended west in a reasonably straight line to Santa Rosa where it veered off to the northwest to Las Vegas, which was one of New Mexico’s largest cities at the time. Then it continued west to Santa Fe where it turned south and continued in the direction to Los Lunas. There it turned abruptly west and continued to Grants and Gallup and the Arizona line. Note that in those days Route 66 passed through Albuquerque north to south rather than east to west as it does today.

Because of increased vehicle travel, it became clear that some form of regulation was necessary and in 1933 the New Mexico Motor Patrol was created. It was made up of ten officers all mounted on motorcycles. In addition to traffic enforcement, they were obliged to collect fuel taxes and supervise vehicle registration and the issuance of driving licenses. The Motor Patrol was replaced by the New Mexico State Police in 1935, and that group continued as a stand-alone agency until it was made a part of the New Mexico Department of Public Safety in 1987.

The next time you plan a two-week vacation which includes a one-day drive to the Mississippi River, recall the 13 days it took to get from Missouri to Santa Fe 160 years ago.