Raton Line

The Original Santa Fe Transcontinental

2nd District Raton to Las Vegas

3rd District Las Vegas to Albuquerque

El Paso District Albuquerque to Isleta



The original intent of AT&SF's westward push from the plains of Kansas was not a transcontinental line to the Pacific Coast, but a railroad to the port town of Guyamas, Mexico on the Gulf of California. The plan was to tap the Oriental and South American shipping trade, and Guyamas offered a year round port that was one day quicker than any West Coast port at the time. Though the decision seems ludicrous in retrospect, bear in mind that in the 1870s there was little on-line commerce or population centers once removed from the wheat fields of Kansas and the mines of Colorado. Any successful scheme had to include a shipping lane to the Orient. The Santa Fe set its course from legendary Dodge City in 1876, but rather than follow the axiom that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, the Santa Fe built due west in order to serve the booming mining town of Pueblo, located at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. The move would prove to be costly. By not heading directly southwest to avoid the Rocky Mountains and the Rio Grande Rift, the railroad not only increased the mileage to Mexico, but added two brutal grades in the process. In any event, building the railroad to La Junta was relatively easy, and was completed in 1876. From La Junta, which means junction in Spanish, the railroad went in two directions, with one line serving Pueblo and Denver, and the other to Trinidad, Colorado. Having made the decision to stay north, William Strong, construction engineer and later president of the AT&SF, knew full well that he would have to secure a right-of-way through Raton Pass if the railroad had any thoughts of expanding westward. Unfortunately for the Santa Fe, they weren't alone. At about the same time that AT&SF arrived in Trinidad, the 3-foot gauge Denver and Rio Grande (DRG), headed by General Palmer, was anxious to expand southward to Mexico City, Mexico. The DRG had been confined to the mining districts of Colorado, and even though the railroad was extremely profitable, Palmer sensed that he needed to make a move beyond Colorado, and Raton Pass was the only feasible door to the southwest. Located on the border of Colorado and the New Mexico territory (New Mexico achieved statehood in 1912), Raton Pass is a narrow notch between the Sangre de Cristo Mountain range, the southern most range of the Rocky Mountains in North America, and the Great Veda Arch. The strategic pass was well known before the railroads arrived, having been used by Indians, Spanish explorers, settlers, Union soldiers, and teamsters. In fact, a toll road was in place before the railroad. As Raton would not likely accommodate two railroads, the battle was a winner-take-all affair. A fight between the two was inevitable, and would probably result in bloodshed, as the last encounter between the two at Royal Gorge had shown. In that battle, the DRG beat the ATSF to this narrow canyon, and to prevent them from usurping their right-of-way, the DRG marshaled a small army of armed workers to protect their property and to shoot if necessary. And shoot they did. In an age of high- powered corporate lawyers it seems inconceivable that a railroad would have to resort to violence to protect their property, but that's in fact what happened in 1877. Imagine today American Airlines and United engaged in a dispute over a few terminal gates, and then settling it by arming their employees with shotguns and then letting them blast away. Having lost the Royal Gorge line to the DRG, the ATSF wasn't about to be repealed at Raton. So in the middle of the night, Strong, using a rouse, sent a gang to the bottom of the pass and started surveying and grading the line. He also equipped them with rifles and told them to shoot if they saw any of Palmers' men in the area. This was the Wild West, but it worked, as the ATSF became the sole proprietor of Raton Pass, and in the process they became the first railroad to enter the Territory of New Mexico. The year was 1878. Having won the battle for Raton, and having had his first taste of building over a mountain (and what a taste it was, with grades reaching 3.3%). W. B Strong moved his railroad with rapidity across the Raton Basin and the Canadian River Valley to Las Vegas, where once another mountain range loomed. It was the Sangre de Cristos, again. At Ribera the railroad followed the Pecos River upstream until finding a notch between the Sangre de Cristos and the Glorieta Mesa. Climbing 89 feet to the mile, the AT&SF finally peaked at Glorieta Pass and then dropped rapidly along Galisteo Creek at 158.4 feet to the mile, or 3%. This steep stretch didn't last for more than 9.7 miles, nevertheless, within the span of a 174 miles were two vicious grades. The two ascents would ultimately doom this route as a freight line. Santa Fe, New Mexico, America's second oldest city and Territorial Capitol, was by-passed for a more favorable route; however, a branch was constructed from the town of Lamy. The line joined the Rio Grande River at Domingo and followed its meandering course to the town of Albuquerque, New Mexico, reaching the largest city in the state in 1880. Hardly pausing for a breather, construction continued along the Rio Grande southward to Rincon, leaving the river in a southwesterly direction and a connection with the Southern Pacific at Deming, New Mexico. The Southern Pacific was building toward Texas from Los Angeles, and when the two linked in 1882, the country had its second transcontental railroad. Using the rails of the Southern Pacific to Bensen, Arizona, the Santa Fe resumed construction southward, driving down to Nogales, Arizona, and finally arriving in Guymas on September 16, 1883. The Santa Fe had achieved its original dream.


No sooner was the railroad completed to Guymas when it became evident that the AT&SF fortunes lay not in Mexico, but in California. Money from the Boston syndicate that controlled the Santa Fe was secured to construct the Atlantic and Pacific to Los Angeles, California. Grading began at A&P junction, now named Isleta, in 1883. After swift progress the Arizona Territory was crossed in 1882, and reached the California border on April 2, 1882. From Needles, the A&P used the rails of the Southern Pacific, which built from Mojave to Needles with the express purpose to stop the A&P, or any other railroad, from breaking its monopoly on California. The plan didn't work when the A&P prepared to build across the Mojave Desert, SP or not. The SP realized its only option was to lease. At Barstow, the California Southern, a AT&SF controlled line, vectored southward to build through Cajon Pass and Los Angeles. Getting to California, however, was not half the fun. Broke, with little traffic base to cover financial charges, to say nothing of improvements to the fixed plant, the AT&SF and A&P stumbled and limped on a roadbed that more resembled a narrow-gauge than a transcontinental line. A ruinous rate war with the Southern Pacific, coupled with the severe depression of 1893, proved too much for the Santa Fe, and it was forced into bankruptcy. These were the dark days of the AT&SF.


Enter R.E Ripley, the father of the modern Santa Fe. After reorganization of its onerous finances and securing new sources of funding, Mr. Ripley consolidated and rebuilt the newly named AT&SF Railway from the ground-up. The Southern Pacific between Needles and Mojave was traded straight up for the line from Bensen to Guymas, and the A&P was directly merged into the Santa Fe. When it came to rebuilding, one of the higher priorities was to eliminate the torturous 3% Raton Pass line for a more favorable southern route. Known as the Belen cut-off, the new line departed the old mainline at Belen and climbed from the Rio Grande Valley onto the New Mexico plains via Abo Canyon. From here it was easy building to Texas and a hook-up with the rebuilt Pecos Valley line and eventually rejoining the mainline at Ellinore, Kansas. After this line was completed in 1907, along with a short cut-off from Belen to Dalies, all through transcontinental freights were diverted to the southern line, leaving only the passenger trains and Colorado bound freight on Raton. It could be argued that the Raton line from Albuquerque to Kansas was just one long passenger line, but this would not be entirely correct for western Kansas and eastern Colorado generate a tremendous amount of grain and local traffic, long the mainstay of the traditional Santa Fe, and of course there was Denver, crossroads of the cattle trade, but west of La Junta there was little commerce to sustain a full mainline. Thus, it was Santa Fe's immense passenger fleet that gave the line vitality and purpose between Albuquerque and La Junta. Since the Raton line has been regulated to a secondary status since 1907, improvements were not only slow in coming, but also came in different forms. On the Raton line they were geared more for the passenger train than the freight, which has obvious operating differences. The Raton line has remarkably few line changes for a railroad that probably has the most per mile of any original railroad. The southern line was continually lengthening sidings, and during WWII had CTC installed on its entire length. The northern line was equipped with ATS (after the ICC required it in 1947) in order to maintain the demanding passenger schedules. The southern line had none. The southern route had welded rail early. The northern still has jointed track. After the decline of the passenger train, the contrasts became even sharper. The relative backwater status of the Raton line has given the rail aficionado the rare opportunity to observe a part of railroading circa 1925-1949. The signaling system, the jointed track, the 100 mile crew districts, the number of depots, shop buildings, and roundhouses still standing is amazing considering the ruthless liquidation of such physical plant by all railroads in the last 20 years. But this too is changing, as the inevitable renewal and the changing dynamics of the line since the merger with the BN means the end of a virtual suspended animation. Please join me on a small tour of the Santa Fe between Isleta and La Junta.