Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Pecos River Bridge -- Fort Sumner, New Mexico

Pecos River Bridge

In eastern New Mexico, the Pecos River is barely a stream.  Where the BNSF Transcontinental Mainline crosses, at Fort Sumner, the river is about ten yards wide and perhaps six inches deep.  Yet over the eons, the Pecos River has carved its way through the surrounding red soil, requiring the construction of a bridge all out of proportion to the size of the river being crossed.  

Named after Edwin Vose Sumner, a former military governor, Fort Sumner was the internment site of Navajo and Mescalero Apaches from 1863 to 1868.  I find this part of America's past repugnant, though it is what it is and, at least in my opinion, should not be ignored or minimized.  The settlement of the American West was neither peaceful nor democratic, and the remnants of that era testify to the bloodshed.

Mighty Pecos River in Eastern New Mexico

One reason for the small size of the Pecos River at Fort Sumner is Lake Sumner, a reservoir about twelves miles upstream that restricts the natural flow of the river.  When the dam is closed, which is most of the time, water flow is minimal.  The reservoir also prevents the spring flooding that, over millions of years, created the flood plane spanned by the railroad bridge.

Pecos River Bridge From South of River
Same Bridge

Fort Sumner was closed in 1868 and sold to Lucien Maxwell, whose son Pete befriended Billy the Kid in the late 1870's.  Pat Garrett killed Billy the Kid in Pete's house, and both the Kid and Lucien Maxwell are buried in the old military cemetery.  I don't know where Pete is buried.
Eastbound Grainer as Seen From the Riverside

The Pecos River Bridge is one of the few stretches of single track remaining on the BNSF Transcon.  Abo Canyon is now double-tracked, and as of the date of this entry (November 11, 2015), BNSF is completing a second track on the Vaughn "Fly-over."  (As of mid-December 2015, the second track is now complete.)  To my knowledge, the only other remaining single track section is a short stretch northeast of Avard, Oklahoma.  I don't count the portion of the Transcon through the Flint Hills in Kansas as single track, because BNSF uses a line through Wichita and a portion of the La Junta subdivision as a second track for this area.

Eastbound Approaching Bridge With Clean UP Power
Eastbound Pushers on Bridge

This single-track bridge can be a bottleneck.  In the photograph immediately below, four trains are waiting in the far distance, on the north side of the river, to cross the bridge.

Westbound Climbing Grade out of Pecos River Valley with Four More Westbounds Waiting in the Background

This bridge was part of the Belen Cut-off built by the AT&SF beginning in 1903 as a route to avoid the three percent grades of Raton Pass.  The Cut-off was constructed by B. Lantry and Sons of Strong City, Kansas.  I don't know if you've ever been to Strong City, but it is a tiny remnant of a town in the Flint Hills west of Emporia.  I cannot, for the life of me, imagine a time when Strong City was large enough to support a company that constructed the Belen Cut-off.
Most of the Bridge Crosses Dry Land

In any event, the company began construction at Belen, south of Albuquerque along the Rio Grande, in 1903 and worked east for six months until a financial panic halted work for two years.  Construction started again in 1905.  The two most difficult and complex portions of the project were Abo Canyon and the Pecos River Bridge.

Eastbound Z

Most of the construction workers came from Kansas.  They lived in tent camps, some with cafeterias, company stores, blacksmith shops and mule corrals.  One major camp. Sunnyside, has survived to the present day as a portion of Fort Sumner.

Westbound on Bridge

Same Westbound Approaching Bridge
The best time for photographing the bridge is morning in winter along the highway, when the sun is low in the southeastern sky.  In summer, the bridge must be photographed from the west side of the bridge in the afternoon, but access on the west is restricted.  The only road I have found is gated and locked and used exclusively by heavy trucks that appear to come and go from a quarry.

Fort Sumner's elevation is about 4,100 feet, and  winter weather can turn harsh rapidly.  I remember standing near the roadside east of the bridge on a clear day between Christmas and New Year's.  The wind was light, and the sun felt warm on my back.  With an hour, however, clouds had rolled in from the northwest, the wind had picked up and my hands began to tingle from the cold.  By mid-afternoon, snow flurries had appeared.  I went to bed that evening with Mighty Dog (aka Bear), expecting the sun to be out in the morning.  Instead, I awoke to about ten inches of snow.  The images from that day will appear in another post.

Westbound Exiting Bridge

Westbound on Bridge

Westbound Approaching Bridge on Large Embankment

I am intrigued by the locations chosen by surveyors and civil engineers for railroad lines.  I believe Fort Sumner was chosen as the site for a bridge because the flood plane narrows here, and the approach embankments on each side and the bridge itself were shorter than other locations would have required, which is amazing when you look at the bridge and approach embankments actually constructed.  Nothing about this part of the country is small.

Eastbound Approaching Bridge on Embankment
Another Eastbound Approaching Bridge on Embankment

I think the Pecos River Bridge is one of the loveliest in the country, though opinions vary like women's shoes.  An added bonus of photographing this bridge is the heavy train traffic.  When I have been on the bridge on Fridays and Saturdays, the Transcon has reliably run three to four trains per hour.

Eastbound on Bridge
Same Eastbound on Full Bridge
The westbound grade out of the river valley is steep, forcing the tracks to head due south out of town, angling sideways up the slope before making a dramatic ninety degree curve to the west.  To this day, heavy westbound trains struggle up the grade, while eastbounds roar down the hill at track speed.

Southbound Heavy Manifest (railroad west) Climbing Grade out of Pecos River Valley
Loaded Coal Train Straining into Grade

Stack Train Climbing Grade with Windmills on Ridge Above Fort Sumner
Another Westbound Train on the Grade

The Transcon south of Fort Sumner crosses some extremely isolated territory but can be reached by taking state highway twenty out of town, then turning west on county road I-20, which slowly climbs upgrade out of the river valley until reaching and then crossing the tracks.  Following the road further west reveals excellent shots of trains in both directions in late afternoon.  The land beyond the tracks extends until disappearing beyond the curvature of the earth with no trees, shrubs, rocks or hills to block the view.  Although Montana is Big Sky Country, it is no more wide open than the high plains of eastern New Mexico.  

Eastbound Gliding Downgrade with High Plains Backdrop

Nothing Breaks the View but the Earth's Curvature
Captain Randolph B. March in 1852, looking for a favorable route from Ft. Smith to Santa Fe, stated: "When we were upon the high table land, a view presented itself as boundless as the ocean."  Robert Carter, pursuing Quanah Parker with the United States Cavalry, described these plains as "a vast, almost illimitable expanse of prairie.  As far as the eye could reach, not a bush or tree, a twig or stone, not an object of any kind or a living thing, was in sight.  It stretched out before us -- one uninterrupted plain, only to be compared to the ocean in its vastness."  The images below, and above, give some indication of the size of this country.  
Stacks on the Grade Before Christmas

More Pre-Christmas Stacks
Following are images from the big curve south of town where the line swings due west while still attacking the grade.  To my knowledge, the curve has no name, so I hereby christen it "Pecos Curve."
Westbound Stacks Turning West

Westbound in Curve Still Grinding Uphill
Eastbounds gliding downgrade roar through the curve at alarming speeds, but the steady stream of traffic is such that an individual train dare not slow down.  The crew change point for eastbounds is Amarillo, Texas, some 170 miles to the northeast, so the operative phrase for everyone on these high plains is "keep moving."
Eastbound Approaching Curve and Gliding Downgrade

Eastbound With Rear of Train at Top of Grade

Eastbound Beginning Curve to South

Eastbound with Canadian Accent
The Pecos River Bridge also lends itself to silhouette photography at first dark.  Although the afterglow for these shots only lasts about thirty minutes, the heavy traffic on the line will often provide a train at the proper moment.

Pushers on Westbound at Dusk

Westbound Stacks

Westbound on Pecos River Bridge

Pushers on Westbound Loaded Coal Train

East of Fort Sumner, the line is not as scenic, though there are still some reasonable photographic opportunities.

Eastbound Manifest Near US 60 Overpass

Westbound Manifest from US 60 Overpass

Eastbound Bare Table

Another Eastbound
The area around Fort Sumner is some of the most isolated and yet most beautiful country you will ever see.  Stand alone on the high plains at night and peer at the millions of stars above.  If your perspective on life does not change, then I cannot help you.

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  1. Gorgeous! Thanks for the captions and the insights.

  2. May I please have your permission to download one of your photographs to use as a background on our church's website? Lora Chandler, Third and Kilgore Church of Christ, Portales, NM.