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About the cover

 

D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e    March 2008

Tales of the Rails

Inspired by the recent reopening of the Las Cruces Railroad Museum, we share four true stories from the era when trains were the way to go.

By Jeff Berg

 

April 26 marks the 157th anniversary of the arrival of the first train in Las Cruces. Although railroad history is somewhat richer and deeper in other parts of the state, the railroad has played an important role in Las Cruces history, and still does, especially in the outbound shipping of agricultural products such as cotton. The recent remodeling of the Las Cruces Railroad Museum, which is housed in the former passenger and freight depot, has brought about a revived interest in history for a number of local residents.



Early Railroad Days

 

James Gadsden, one of the principal parties in the acquisition of this part of the world from Mexico, did so in part because of his desire to run a transcontinental railroad through the lower Southwest, connecting New Orleans with California.

The Las Cruces Railroad Museum.

Gadsden, president of several railroads in the southern US, was also instrumental in the early attempts to remove the Seminole Indians from Florida to Oklahoma. His life is checkered with questionable political and financial schemes, but for better or worse, he left his imprint on New Mexico.

He was conveniently made US Minister to Mexico, and — in a deal that is still controversial — procured 45,535 square miles of land from Mexico in 1852 at about 33 cents an acre. Gadsden didn't live to see the railroad come to southern New Mexico, nor was he US Minister much longer, as he was removed for meddling in Mexican politics and died on Christmas Day, 1858.

It took a number of years for things to get rolling again, even though Las Cruces became a county seat in 1852. In 1869, the first transcontinental railroad line was completed in Utah, and rail expansion possibilities seemed limitless. In 1871, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe (ATSF) line was building south, with an eventual goal of hooking up with the delayed Southern Pacific line, which was heading west to California from New Orleans. The ATSF chugged right along, and in 1871, the first train crossed Raton Pass, on the Colorado-New Mexico border, heading for points south.

According to Gordon Owen's excellent book, Las Cruces, Multicultural Crossroads, the competition between railroad companies circa 1880 was so intense that they "appealed to communities for contributions of land for rights of way and depots." Santa Fe Railroad surveyors first pursued a right-of-way through Mesilla, but local landowners "resented their assumption that towns should assist them, and were so slow to respond, that the Santa Fe looked elsewhere."

Four Las Cruces businessmen — William Rynerson, Henry Cuniffe, Simon Newcomb and Jacinto Armijo — quickly jumped on the opportunity and formed the Las Cruces Town Company. They bought land west of Las Cruces and donated or sold (reports vary) land to the grateful Santa Fe Railroad, for right-of-way and a depot. Since the rail line was set to run a short distance west of town, some of the remaining land became Las Cruces' first "suburb," covering a 42-block area between the depot and the then-heart of town. The area became populated mostly by wealthy Anglos, who built a number of interesting homes that were not adobe, but rather in styles such as Victorian and Mediterranean. Nowadays, this area of beautifully maintained homes is in part known as the Alameda Depot Historic District.

When that first Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe train rumbled into Las Cruces on April 26, 1881, it of course created quite a stir. In June the first passenger trained chugged into the city, and a new era began.



Las Cruces Depot

The original 1881 Las Cruces railroad depot was made of wood, measuring 24-by-40 feet plus a 24-by-70 freight addition. It served Las Cruces until 1910, when the old depot was placed on a flatcar and moved to present day Anthony, Texas, then known as La Tuna. The Mission Revival-style depot that replaced it, at 351 N. Mesilla St., now serves as home to the Las Cruces Railroad Museum. The tracks west of the depot continue to be owned and operated by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad.

Another depot was opened in Mesilla Park in 1887. This depot was replaced in 1925 by a new building in the Art Deco style. It closed in 1966 and is still owned and occasionally used by the BNSF.

Between Raton and Mesilla Park, 19 depots of the old Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe line still existed as of 2005. Some are abandoned, several are used for the Amtrak line, another is a VFW headquarters, and others house everything from people (private homes) to the offices of a psychologist.

And of course Las Cruces' depot is now a museum. "The agent who was stationed here at that time lived in the upstairs of the depot," says Rebecca Slaughter, assistant manager of the Railroad Museum. "And the depot was between the two sets of tracks. The new building in 1910 was part of a railroad-wide upgrade. It is the standard style used then, but was made to purposely look more southwestern, by the use of pebbledash stucco on the outside, and a Mission Revival look of woodwork, and with curved windows."

A tour through the museum shows that even with recent museum renovations, it still has that look and still in some ways feels like a railroad depot. Signs on the walls indicate the separate waiting areas for men and women during the old days.

Slaughter smiles when she says, "It was probably so the men could smoke, chew, spit and cuss without offending the ladies, who were often tending to children. But they put the men's restroom on the other ladies' side of the waiting room, so they men still had to pass through that area."

Slaughter, who is somewhat of a train buff and has ridden on trains in five countries, adds that the original 1881 depot, or at least part of it, is still somewhere in Anthony. "The last known sighting of it was in the 1980s."

Passenger service to Las Cruces pretty much ended in 1968, although Slaughter notes that occasionally the BNSF will make accommodations for bigwigs — Governor Bill Richardson, for example — to come to Las Cruces on a train.

"When the passenger service began to decline, there was an additional freight addition added to the building," Slaughter says.

But even the freight business stopped in 1988, and the city purchased the depot in 1992, opening the museum in 2001. After being shut for nine months for remodeling and reorganizing, the growing museum opened again in December 2007.



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