|Westbound Entering Canyon with Gusto|
|Eastbound Manifest, Including Trailers, Approaching Abo Canyon in 1989|
|Eastbound Manifest Climbing Grade in Rio Grande Valley in 1981|
|Westbound at Highway 47 Crossing|
|Eastbound Gliding Downgrade Toward Belen|
|Westtbound at Scholle in June, 1981.|
|Eastbound at East End of Canyon|
|Westbound Coasting Downgrade Through Canyon|
|Eastbound in Western Reaches of Canyon|
"Through this I had hoped to find an opening, even by going as far north as T.8 N., R.8 E, thence west through Hell's Canyon. There is certainly nothing south of Hell's Canyon, and the following is my best, on that delightful stream.
|Eastbound Entering Canyon From West|
"It is twelve miles long by odometer. It heads up against a north and south divide 7000 feet high, and drops off 600 feet in the first mile, then falls about 80 feet to the mile to the mouth of the canyon. It is not a box canyon, neither is it a canyada; it is more like a crevice in the rock. There is scarcely a level place in the whole canyon wide enough to turn a wagon on.
|Another Eastbound Entering Canyon from Rio Grande Valley|
"The rocky hillsides go right up from the creek, at about an angle of 30 degrees. The porphyritic points, almost without number, on either side interlock, like cogs on a set of gear wheels. It is barren of a single redeeming quality from a railroad point of view.
|And Another Eastbound Entering Canyon|
"I feel safe in asserting that no railroad will ever utilize this route. On the other hand I predict that within a very few years, some railroad, if not the Santa Fe, will make use of the Abo Pass.
F. Meredith Jones"
|Here is another eastbound entering the canyon in 1989, led by a "Kodachrome" unit. During this time, the AT&SF had announced plans to merge with the Southern Pacific, and a number of units were painted in the bright red and yellow scheme, some with "SF" for Santa Fe, others with "SP" for Southern Pacific. The merger was not meant to be, however, and the colorful units disappeared in the coming years.|
The political landscape changed enormously thereafter as "deregulation fever" overcame Congress. Railroads merged left and right, as did telephone companies, which I know something about since I practice telecommunications law. Originally, the Bell System was broken up into operating units. Then as merger fever grew, the constituent parts were reassembled through merger until today in 2016, AT&T is as large as it ever was, though it now has competitors, though mostly in the wireless business, which barely existed in the 1980's.
None of this makes sense, but I gave up years ago expecting my life to be rational. I now try to live by two major rules:
1. Do no harm.
2. Leave no tracks.
The next three images were taken at Bridge Number One in the western entrance to Abo Canyon -- one of the most scenic vistas. In those days, one could drive any vehicle on a good road almost all the way to the bridge, then climb out, take a leisurely hike and find photo opportunities galore.
|The three images above were all taken in 1989. During that trip, Carl and I ran into two other railfans who had signed releases at the Belen Yard Office, thereby obtaining permission to drive along the maintenance roads inside the canyon. Carl and I kept to the hills above where, from time to time, we saw the two fellows in shorts, driving crazily along the rocky roads, jumping out to grab shots, then climbing back into the car and roaring off again, raising dust clouds like canon fire.|
I would like to remark that I was smart enough not to wear short pants, but my wife has reminded me on numerous occasions that anyone hiking around the desert with cameras and tripods, whether in short pants or not, ought to know enough to keep his mouth shut.
|Same Train as Above, Approaching Bridge Number One|
The decision to construct the Belen cut-off must have been difficult for the AT&SF, but Raton Pass in northern New Mexico made all the difference. The summit of the cut-off at Mountainair topped out at 6535 feet, only 1,100 feet lower than Raton Tunnel, but the differences in grades was startling. The maximum grade at Raton was about three percent -- in both directions -- while the maximum grade in Abo Canyon was about 1.25 percent for eastbounds only.
The original surveyor for the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, William Jackson Palmer, had recognized the difficulties of railroad construction through northern New Mexico and had recommended an alternative route avoiding Raton Pass and following the main branch of the Santa Fe trail from the headwaters of the Cimarron River in far northeast New Mexico southwest to Las Vegas. Even though this "Cimarron Line" was not constructed, Palmer had written in 1867 that eventually it or some other more southerly route must be built. Eventually, the AT&SF agreed.
As the day drew down, snow on the Manzano Moutains continued to melt. The image above shows how much more rock was visible later in the day. The temperature was falling rapidly, and although my Gortex-lined boots had kept my feet dry, they had not kept my toes warm. I walked back to the Jeep to see if Bear was sympathetic, but instead he was sound asleep. I envy his ability to wake up and fall asleep so quickly. I can do neither.
|Eastbound Manifest Struggling into Grade|
Standing in the snow, I marveled at the early twentieth century construction of the Belen Cut-off. From various sources, I have found a few details.
At Moutainair, the summit from the climb out of Belen, the general contractor dug a cut 7,000 feet long, involving 185,000 cubic feet of rock and soil, to maintain a grade of 0.6 percent. At mile post 74 is a fill of 337,000 cubic yards. At mile post 120, a cut of 9,000 feet was constructed, with a maximum depth of 40 feet, an excavation of 370,000 cubic feet.
|Eastbound Pushers at Scholle.|
The material from this huge cut was used at mile post 128, where there is a fill of 870,000 cubic yards ranging up to 50 feet in height. This is the embankment at Vaughn, where the BNSF Transcon crosses above the UP line to El Paso (originally called the El Paso and Northeastern). Until I found these old sources, I had not realized that the "Vaughn Flyover" was part of the original construction of the Belen Cut-off. Of the earth for this fill, 500,000 cubic yards were handled by mule teams, while the remainder was loaded on cars with steam shovels.
|Westbound Stacks at Scholle.|
There were seven original bridges in Abo Canyon. All of the bridge piers rested on bedrock. The tallest piers, on Bridge Number One, are 135 feet high, 35 feet of which are below the bed of the stream. Apparently, which I find amazing, no reinforcement was used in any of the concrete structures. The concrete work was done by the Lantry-Sharp Company. The AT&SF furnished the materials and the contractor the labor.
|Eastbound Stacks with Snowless Mountain in Background|
The sun was descending rapidly in the pristine New Mexico air. I took multiple images of every train I saw, because I knew I might never take another snow shot in this area. During a break between trains, I walked back to the Jeep. Now Bear was wide awake and wanted to come outside. He hopped down into the snow and began working his way through my tracks to the fence line. He urinated on the fence, then looked at me proudly.
"Bear," I said, "you are a great traveling companion."
"I love you, too," his look said back to me, "as long as you keep providing food."
|Eastbound at Scholle as Clouds Clear that Morning|
|And Another Eastbound Approaching Scholle with Manzano Mountains in Background|
The sun was going down, and Bear and I returned to the Jeep and prepared for the drive back to the Oak Tree Inn at Vaughn. We followed US 60 up the mountain, and I pulled to the side of the road for one last look. What I saw made me park the car, jump out with my camera, 600 mm lens and tripod and keep shooting.
|Although the sun was going down, snow was continuing to melt from northwest to southeast, and I could very clearly see the line of demarcation -- as clear and distinct as the "no passing zone" on a two-lane highway.|
Where earlier I had thought snow had not fallen to the north, I now realized that snow had fallen but then had melted. As I stood on the mountainside above the valley, I thought I could see the melt line proceeding slowly southward. This was almost surely an illusion, but it gave me pleasure, so what the hell!
Although I did not return the next day, I am reasonably certain that all the snow had melted before sunrise. That is how snow falls where I live in central Oklahoma -- through the night and early morning. Then it begins to melt in the afternoon and evening, and by the next morning -- all gone. So I was incredibly lucky to catch this much snow in the valley of the Rio Grande.
|Eastbound on the Curve Toward Abo Canyon|
|Meet at Highway 47 Grade Crossing|
|As the sun was setting, I shot an eastbound stack train followed closely by a manifest climbing the grade. Bear was waiting comfortably in the Jeep, while I was jumping up and down in a futile attempt to keep my feet warm.|
I hiked back to my vehicle, climbed inside and looked at Bear, so cozy and warm and asleep. I was left to pilot the Jeep back to Vaughn and the Oak Tree Inn and reminisce about the old times when one could hike into Abo Canyon without fear of arrest.
On U.S. 60 back to Vaughn, we caught up to the same eastbound manifest climbing the grade and took a shot in the setting sun. Here the snow was almost completely melted. We then drove past Mountainair and took another shot of the same train above a fading orange sky.
|The last image I leave you with is of a westbound AT&SF freight leaving Abo Canyon after dark in 1981. Truly, the lights have gone out.|
To see my other posts, go to waltersrail.com.
To see my photographs on Flickr, go to https://www.flickr.com/photos/jpwalters/.
Incredible achievement by BNSF and the many workers and engineers that planed and constructed Abo Canyon. I finally saw it myself when I visited NM, and found it to be an absolutely beautiful and fascinating construction project. In respect and considering of all the history in this area, BNSF trains have found their place here in perfect concert with land, terrain, and geography; with their best looks and sounds. Tim.ReplyDelete
Thanks for this excellent page and the superb photography, along with the interesting dialogue. I lived in NM back in the early 1990s, I knew the RR went through Belen and through this area, but never was a big enough railfan back then to have done it. Kick myself now for many missed opportunities, but thanks for the story and photos!ReplyDelete