This is the first of a multi-part series about the United States' survey of a potential railroad route along the 35th parallel from Fort Smith, Arkansas, to the Pacific. As history unfolded, no railroad was constructed along the route as far west as New Mexico. Thereafter, significant portions were used by the Santa Fe's transcontinental line to California, operated today by BNSF.
Part One discusses that segment of the route never used for a railroad. Because this is a train blog, such a discussion may seem odd, even pointless. Your author nonetheless finds it interesting. The reader may as well. Even if you don't, it doesn't matter. It's my blog. I like the story, so I'm going to tell it.
In June 1853, a steamboat headed south along the Mississippi River, bound for Fort Smith, Arkansas. Among the passengers was a surveying party, headed by Lieutenant Amiel Weeks Whipple, with instructions from Congress to survey a railroad route to the Pacific Ocean along the 35th parallel.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the Mississippi River south of St. Louis was wild, almost aboriginal, populated by poisonous snakes, black bears and alligators in its southern reaches. Yet the territory to the west was wilder still -- mostly unmapped, unknown and uninviting.
North and South were represented in the survey team, plus two foreign countries and the sciences of geology, biology, astronomy and meteorology. Two railroad construction engineers were also included, as well as a naturalist, artist and surveyor.
Exploration of what became the American West was brought about by the Mexican-American War in the late 1840's, the result of which was the annexation by the United States of a vast territory from what is now New Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. Where before, American dreams had stopped at the Rocky Mountains, businessmen, politicians, adventurers, homesteaders and the merely curious all turned their sights on the vast ocean that would connect the young country to the Orient.
One of the foreign countries represented was Prussia -- in the person of Balduin Möllhausen. The son of an artillery officer, he had travelled to the United States in search of adventure and quickly found it. He liked to dress in what he thought was typical American frontier garb, but he must have gained his fashion sense from reading James Fenimore Cooper. When fully costumed, with dark beard, moccasins, musket and Bowie knife, he did look a bit like Natty Bumpo.
In 1852, he joined the Duke of Wurtenberg in a trip to the Rocky Mountains, where the pair became lost and lived for months with the Otoes. Now, less than a year later, he was headed west again, and at the beginning of his journey, he wrote in his diary, which he later published and was thereafter translated into English:
It is a doctrine pretty often reduced to practice in American commercial life: all things resolve round the common axis of money making, and the true man of business, whatever he does, never loses sight of the question, what profit he can make by it.
Another member of the party who also kept a diary of his travels was John Sherburne, born in New Hampshire in 1831 to one of the state's oldest and most prominent families. For generations, the Sherburnes had been landowners, shipowners, sea captains, surveyors, merchants and government officials. Among Sherburne's relatives were the governors of New Hampshire, Connecticut and Massachusetts. His mother was the granddaughter of Captain John Blunt, who had guided George Washington across the Delaware River before the Battle of Trenton.
He wore the full beard that was the fashion of the times, with long flowing black hair and a nose as thin and pointed as an arrow. Uniformed, he looked paternal and thoughtful, as though he had experienced far too much in life to be judgmental.
Shortly before joining Lieutenant Whipple, the 21 year old Sherburne was living with his parents after having been dismissed from West Point on January 31, 1853, for failing chemistry. His record until then had been respectable, but he had failed the subject twice. In a poll of the faculty, only three voted to retain him. He was permitted to resign, and West Point issued a certificate testifying to his skill in the subjects passed during his three and one-half years' stay.
Like many of us who have failed at something, Sherburne did not give up. After completing the Whipple survey, he joined the United States Army and attained the rank of Lieutenant in the First United States Regular Infantry when the Civil War began in April 1861. On October 24, 1861 he was promoted to Captain, and given a commission in the newly raised 19th United States Regular Infantry regiment. In July 1862 he was promoted to Major and detailed as an Assistant Adjutant General, serving in the District of Washington (which he commanded for a time). On March 1, 1864 he was commissioned as a Colonel of Volunteers, and was given command of the 11th New York Volunteer Cavalry. Colonel Sherburne led the cavalry unit through 1864, additionally serving as Chief of Cavalry for the Department of the Gulf from June 25 to September 8. On March 15, 1865 he was honorably discharged from his field service in the Volunteers due to illness. Returning to his regular Army rank of Major and his duties as an Assistant Adjutant General, he served until he was honorably discharged on December 28, 1870.
Perhaps because at so young an age he already understood the many vicissitudes of life, Sherburne wrote at the beginning of the journey into Oklahoma:
I cannot leave Fort Smith without regret, for I've made many pleasant acquaintances who probably I shall never meet again. Farewell, kind friends. Your hospitality and kindness has bound me with a tie which years will not sever. May prosperity attend you all.
A third diary was maintained by the leader of the survey party, Lieutenant Whipple, who already had acquired years of surveying experience. Born in Massachusetts in 1817, he entered West Point in 1841 and upon graduation was assigned to the Corp of Topographical Engineers. In the mid-nineteenth century, a member of this branch of the service was the rough equivalent of an astronaut in the mid-twentieth century. Both went where no one had gone before.
Lieutenant Whipple was initially assigned to military reconnaissance in Louisiana. Then from 1844 to 1849, he worked on the survey of the northeastern boundary with Canada. Then he moved to the Mexico Boundary Commission. He eventually took over as the Commission's chief surveyor.
He was tall for the era and slender, with black hair that, by 21st century standards, would seem long but was fashionable in the 1850's. His thin black moustache was modest, barely noticeable. In dress uniform, he looked the full part of a soldier.
|Amiel Weeks Whipple|
Your author's favorite entry from Lieutenant Whipple's notebook is a terse comment dated July 3, 1853, while the party was still in Fort Smith:
Went to church and heard a miserable sermon.
Fort Smith was on the very edge of the frontier. Beyond it to the west lay Native Americans "removed" from their homes in the southeast and forcibly marched to what is now eastern Oklahoma -- along the Trail of Tears. The five tribes involved were the Chickasaw (Mississippi), Choctaw (Mississippi), Cherokee (mostly Georgia), Creek (Alabama) and Seminole (Florida), and the death toll was horrendous. Whipple's survey party knew nothing about this land.
All they really knew was that to reach Fort Smith, their steamboat left the Mississippi River in the middle of a cypress swamp and turned northwest (upstream) into the Arkansas River. If the banks of the Mississippi seemed aboriginal, the Arkansas was otherworldly, original-growth forests that had never seen the axe, interspersed among bayous and swamps, infested with flying insects of every imaginable shape and size. At the confluence, the Arkansas was as wide as the Mississippi, its current as fierce, and a man walking along the bank could have kept pace with the steamboat's labored progress against the stream, assuming that someone had cut down the trees. Save for the lack of tropical vegetation, the scene was not much different than one encountered along the Amazon in interior Brazil.
At the end of the river journey sat Forth Smith, at the confluence of the Arkansas and Poteau Rivers, on what is now the border between Oklahoma and Arkansas. Established as a military outpost in 1817 to patrol the neighboring Native Americans, named after General Thomas Smith, the fort was abandoned in 1824. By then a town founded by John Rogers had formed alongside the fort, which was re-occupied and expanded in 1838. It was, as far as the surveying party knew, the end of civilization.
Part of the North American "Interior Highlands," eastern Oklahoma is composed of the Ozark and Boston Mountains in the north, the Arkansas River Valley in the center and the Ouachita Mountains in the south.
The Weeks' survey team intended to cross the Poteau River immediately upon leaving Fort Smith, then travel east in the valley of the Arkansas River for about 45 miles until the dark waters turned northwest and left the 35th parallel, then follow the Canadian River into what is now central and western Oklahoma and beyond to the Texas Panhandle, cross the Pecos River, reaching the Rio Grande at Albuquerque. The route had been explored, but not surveyed, in 1849 by Captain Randolph Marcy and Lieutenant James Simpson. Congress published their report, including Simpson's maps.
The Sugar Loaf, the Kavaneau [Cavanal Mountain, near Poteau, Oklahoma] and the Sans-Bois mountains bound really paradisiacal valleys, over which Nature has poured out every kind of liveliness with inexhaustible profusion. The meadows, which are perfect beds of splendid flowers, tempt the traveller almost irresistibly to linger, or even take up his abode in them. . . . The numerous little streams, which constantly refresh the soil, dispel the fear of the excessive heats of summer, and promise a joyful harvest; while the neighboring woods offer the settler hard hickory trunks for the beams of his log-house, and slender stems enough for his fences.
Crossing the ferry of the Poteau occupied several hours. Got over at about 12 1/2 midday. . . . Finding survey tediously slow I sent word to wagon master ahead to stop at the first house. At 4 or 5 P.M. we broke off survey to follow to camp. Having taken two of the surveying party into the already too heavily laden carretela [Spanish -- small four-wheeled carriage] going up a hill we ran against a stump and broke the cross piece of the tongue. Leaving two men with the carretela we then went on foot but found no camp at 1st house. Rain commenced, darkness reigned between the flashes of lightning and we waded actually knee deep in pools 2 1/2 miles further. Discharged the wagon master for disobedience to orders.
Sherburne's diary records the first day as follows:
The scenery is magnificent. Immense cotton-wood and undergrowth of cane-brake. Country [Arkansas River bottom] is remarkably level. Started for Camp 5 p.m., but got caught in a severe thunder shower. Wet & muddy; arrived at Camp after dark. No tents pitched. Went back to Ringg's House & slept all night on floor, with wet clothes. A rattlesnake killed by one of the party today -- measured 4 ft. 9 in. in length, with 7 rattles & button. Mr. Whipple's Caretella got "mired" & broke down, obliged to leave it till morning & walk. Made 3 1/2 miles today.
Roots of trees and decaying trunks every moment arrested the procession, and since the thick shade of the overhanging boughs had prevented the drying of the ground, the last of the twelve wagons (each drawn by six mules) had to be literally drawn out of the mud, as if from a morass. Scarcely had we reached the higher ground on which the wagons could roll easily along, and the beasts of burden obtain a firmer footing, than the oppressive heat was varied by a tremendous storm, by which the whole cavalcade was thrown into disorder.
This was the very start of the journey, with civilization still visible in the rear-view mirror. The trail would only grow more rugged, the trees taller, the mud deeper, the thunderstorms fiercer, the wind stronger.
Can you imagine taking all day to go 3 1/2 miles?
The road ahead had disappeared into the trees like a wraith. Marcy and Simpson had blazed their trail, but most of the markings had disappeared. Vegetation in that country grows so fast that new saplings, tall enough to snare wagons, had already grown to take the place of trees previously cut. Insects were as thick as cotton. Poisonous water moccasins lined the river banks, snakes more dangerous than rattlers, whose instinct is to hide when humans approach and strike only as a last resort. The rattling is to warn humans to stay away. Water moccasins, on the other hand, are warriors, fearless. If a human approaches, they charge forward and strike, with no thought of safety or refuge.
On July 19, the party reached Skullyville -- about 11 miles in four days. "Iskuli" is Choctaw for "money," so the survey team had landed in Moneytown. Originally established as the first Choctaw Agency west of Fort Smith, the village in 1853 was prosperous and growing. Many of the wealthiest Choctaws were mixed-bloods who owned slaves and farmed the fertile bottom-land soil south of the Agency.
The town consisted of about 30 buildings, most of which were both houses and stores where the Choctaw could purchase food, garden implements and other necessities. The population was evenly divided between Europeans, Africans and Choctaw. Cows, chickens and dogs roamed freely through the main street, packed clay that nonetheless turned to paste during rains.
|Loaded southbound KCS coal (with BNSF power) crossing the Arkansas River. Skullyville (long abandoned) once stood just north of this location.|
Lieutenant Whipple's diary noted that he dined with Mr. Cooper, the local Choctaw agent, and reviewed the printed laws of the Choctaw and Chickasaw, written in both English and their native tongues. That these tribes had produced their own written languages gave rise to the phrase "Civilized Tribes."
Möllhausen noted the presence of Africans:
These new disciples of civilization have learned from the whites to keep negro slaves for house and field labor; but these slaves receive from their Indian masters more Christian treatment than among the Christian whites. . . . [T]he negro is regarded as a companion and helper to whom thanks and kindness are due.
The survey team had now left the valley of the Arkansas and would hereafter proceed west along the south bluffs of the Canadian, avoiding the mud and cane forests of the river bottom. Now another obstacle would be illness, which spread rapidly. On July 24, they were still in Skullyville because several of the party were sick.
Finally, on July 26, the survey team moved west again, making much better time now that they were out of the river valley. They covered about eight miles, and five more the next. Two of the party turned back for Fort Smith because of continued illness.
All the diarists noted the complete peacefulness of the Choctaw. Not once was the party stopped or interrupted. No robbery was attempted. On Sundays, the team would attend church services, often in the open air. Many Choctaw had converted to Christianity in their native Southeast. Whipple stated: "Everywhere in the wildest forest we rode singly and unarmed as fearless of violence from natives as we would be in New England."
The survey party may not, at first, have realized that a route west from Fort Smith was not necessarily conducive to railroad construction. A climb out of the Arkansas River valley would have required an extended grade of at least one percent, probably more. Plus, further west stood a range of hills that only fell slightly short of mountainous. The mules strained up one hill, then down into a deep gully, then up another, then down again. The grade was so steep on one incline that each wagon was fastened with ropes on each side, pulled by multiple mule teams, while four to six men pushed behind. At the top, the ropes were attached to trees and the wagons lowered slowly to the valley below.
Whipple estimated that cuts a hundred feet deep and about 1500 feet long would be required for a railroad to pass. He referred to this portion of the journey as "those terrible hills."
Although it is not possible from Whipple's journal to pinpoint the exact location in question, the party may have passed north of the current town of McAlester, Oklahoma, where there are indeed rows of north-south, steep hills separated by water in what is now Lake Eufaula, a reservoir created by the Army Corps of Engineers after the Second World War by damming the Canadian River. The first railroad constructed through eastern Oklahoma was the Missouri, Kansas and Texas, which ran northeast to southwest between these rows. Below is an image of a northbound Katy manifest beside one arm of the huge lake. The photographer is standing atop one hill, looking east across the valley to a parallel grade. The lake here is about 80 feet deep, giving some idea of the terrain that may have been crossed by the survey party. Note also that the valley would have been heavily forested, not cleared as in the photograph.
|Lake Eufaula, Oklahoma.|
Or it is possible that the team passed south of McAlester through an area known as Limestone Gap, shown below where the Katy mainline runs through a valley that today is still free of water.
|Limestone Gap, Oklahoma.|
The difficulty of constructing an east-west railroad through this land is obvious.
Thus, it is not surprising that no railroad was ever built west of Fort Smith along Whipple's route through eastern Oklahoma. The Choctaw, Oklahoma and Gulf was eventually constructed and became part of the Rock Island system, connecting Memphis with Little Rock and Oklahoma City, but the line ran well south of Fort Smith.
As the aerial image below shows, the forests of eastern Oklahoma stop on the east side of Oklahoma City. To the west is open prairie, with timber along the water courses. The farther west one travels, the less the annual rainfall, which is only about 20 inches per year at the border of the Texas panhandle.
The survey team traveled south of present Oklahoma City on the south side of the Canadian River near what became Norman, home of the University of Oklahoma. Once they had cleared the last of the forest of central Oklahoma, called the Cross Timbers, traveling improved noticeably. Nonetheless, no railroad was built along the river through Oklahoma. The Rock Island line west out of Oklahoma City ran northwest to Geary, crossed the Canadian at Bridgeport but quickly turned southwest while the river ran northwest.
|The old Rock Island Line west of Oklahoma City, now a branch of the Union Pacific.|
On the trek westward, near the present border of Texas and Oklahoma, the party caught its first glimpse of a common 19th century sight -- the burning of the tall grass prairie by Native Americans, an annual occurrence to keep seedling trees from sprouting and impeding the path of wild game, including bison. If you have not seen a prairie fire at night, your first glimpse will overwhelm you. It looks as though the evening sun has been shot from the sky and bathed the ground with its golden blood. Sherburne wrote:
It was then about dark. In half an hour the prairie was on fire for miles & for the first time I saw for myself that which I've long desired to see -- a prairie on fire. I can truly say I was not disappointed. The flames rolled up for 6 or 8 ft., perhaps more -- 10 ft., & the heavy columns of smoke for 50 ft. It was a magnificent sight.
The beauty of the blaze blinded the men to the approaching danger. Sherburne noted that some of the men ran toward the fire like moths to a candle flame. Common sense, however, eventually took hold. They soon realized that the fire was burning directly toward their camp. They lit their own back fire -- a common tactic of 20th century fire fighting -- to burn toward the conflagration. But the fire was advancing rapidly, and if the back fire did not burn quickly enough, the blaze would overtake them, so the men scrambled first left, then right, then left again, frantically setting fires as though bailing water from a sinking ship.
The back fire leaped forward. When it met the prairie blaze, the fuel was gone. The flames cancelled each other like automobiles crashing head-on. The fire continued burning around the survey team, then past them, leaving the camp an oasis in a desert of prairie ash. Lieutenant Whipple, truly a master of understatement, matter-of-factly described the event:
The fire they kindled was in the way of Camp & we were obliged to build another fire & fight it. We think thus after infinite labor we are comparatively safe for the night.
Having survived the prairie fire did not, however, guarantee the survey team's safe passage further west. They were now entering the Llano Estacado, the "staked plains" of the Texas panhandle, land as flat and treeless as the ocean and home to the Comanche and Kiowa, perhaps the fiercest of the Native American tribes, who controlled a huge empire -- vast parts of present day Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Colorado and Kansas. As Sherburne said, "The Indians begin to trouble us soon. We anticipate much trouble from them before getting through."
The Comanche were not always fierce warriors. They were migratory, moving south to north and back each year with the bison herds. Before the Spanish introduced horses into the Americas, the Comanche traveled on foot. Wherever they stopped for the season was their home. And when it was time to move, they packed and left nothing behind.
The Kiowa originated in Montana in the northern basin of the Missouri River, migrating south to the Black Hills around 1650, living there peacefully with the Crow. Pushed southward by the invading Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Sioux, who were themselves being pushed out of their lands near the Great Lakes by the Objiwe, the Kiowa moved to eastern Colorado, the Texas panhandle and northeastern New Mexico.
Like the Comanche, the Kiowa knew nothing of the horse. But the Spaniards changed everything, bringing with them animals that were the 18th and 19th century equivalents of tanks. The Comanche and Kiowa quickly learned to use them for military conquest, perhaps the first purveyors of "lightning war," conquering virtually all of their neighboring tribes.
They attacked and defeated everything and everyone they saw --including the Spaniards from whom they had learned horsemanship. They stopped the northward advance of the Empire of the King of Spain dead in its tracks, an empire that had previously killed millions in Mexico and moved at will through the continent like a surgeon's scalpel, or perhaps more appropriately, a guillotine. Their tactics were -- to reference Hobbes out of context -- nasty, brutish and short. They raided wherever and whenever they pleased and left the High Plains a smoldering ruin of farm houses and human corpses.
They appeared out of nowhere, suddenly and without the slightest warning like thunderstorms, as violent as anything nature ever created. Male enemies were generally killed on the spot, even those who surrendered. Same for older children. Women were first sexually assaulted, then some slaughtered. Young women were taken captive as concubines, bearing "half-breeds," such as Quanah Parker, who even today is looked upon by full-blood Comanche in southwestern Oklahoma as a "collaborator."
Eventually, inevitably, like two trains racing toward each other on the same track, the Kiowa and Comanche fought, a struggle as bitter, protracted and brutal as anything seen in North American. The Spanish, who by then wanted nothing to do with either tribe, brokered a treaty in 1807; the two groups made an alliance and agreed to share the southern High Plains.
Making peace with each other did not, however, stop the Comanche and Kiowa from their continuing terrorization of European settlers -- raiding, killing, kidnapping, burning, torturing. Colonel Randolph Marcy, who originally blazed the trail that the Whipple Party later followed, wrote: "If the Indian marauders are not punished, the whole country seems in a fair way of becoming totally depopulated."
In response, the United States constructed several forts in what is now eastern Oklahoma to protect the "civilized tribes" from the Kiowa and Comanche -- Fort Towson, near the Red River, and Fort Washita, about 12 miles north of the present town of Durant, are examples.
But the Whipple Party had no one to protect them, save themselves. They had moved beyond the LLano Estacdo and were once again following the valleys and mesas along the Canadian River. Thus, they were more than a little agitated when on September the 9th those in the head of the wagon train, upon reaching the summit of a hill, began to cry, "Comanches! Comanches!"
Below in a small cottonwood grove, near the present town of Canadian, Texas, sat the teepees and horses of what appeared to be a large band. The party halted at the top of the hill. Sherburne wrote, "Everyone examined his revolver and rifle." One man was sent ahead with a white handkerchief. How that man was chosen and his reaction are unknown.
|Canadian, Texas, where the Santa Fe's Belen Cut-off, constructed in the early 20th century, crossed at right angles the route of the Whipple party.|
The encampment turned out to be Kiowa rather than Comanche, which did nothing to soothe the survey party's agitated nerves.
|Image from Möllhausen's book, showing his drawing of the Kiowa Camp.|
The survey team waited, knowing as Sherburne put it, that "we would either be received as friends or be obliged to fight." After many nervous minutes, the man with the white handkerchief returned. Behind him walked a Kiowa, also holding a white piece of cloth, who turned out to be the Chief.
He embraced several men, shook the hands of the rest. Behind him came six more Kiowa who also shook hands, then led the survey team to the camp, where Lieutenant Whipple made a speech, through the survey party's interpreter, to the Chief and other members of the tribe, transcribed in part by Möllhausen:
Our great grandfather in Washington has sent us. We are to see whether the Kioways behave like friends and brothers of the Americans; if they murder no travelers and steal no horses, we are to make them presents. But if the tribe of the Kioways are bad people, and ill-disposed, then the great grandfather in Washington will send as many soldiers as the Kioways have horses, and great thick guns (canon) besides, and will destroy the nation to the last man.
The chief replied that only a small part of his tribe was here encamped, the rest having gone to Mexico to steal horses -- no doubt to impress upon Lieutenant Whipple that the Kiowa were a large tribe, not to be trifled with.
The Kiowa in camp were holding two Mexican prisoners. One was a woman named Maria, captured when she was twenty, now living with the Kiowa for seven years. Beside her was a small boy, three years old, her son. The father was the Chief. According to Lieutenant Whipple's journal: "She wishes to leave her hard masters and accompany us, in the hope of again reaching her home. She was watched, and dared speak but little with us."
The other prisoner was Andres Nunares from Chihuahua, a captive for five years. Two scalps hanging from a pole in the center of the camp were guarded by an old woman who, according to Whipple, "made much ado if anyone attempted to approach."
The survey party made camp on a small hill overlooking the Kiowa, who soon thereafter assembled for a meeting. "Cunning, duplicity and treachery," wrote Whipple, "seemed stamped upon every lineament of their features."
When Lieutenant Whipple explained that the Mexican captives wished to travel with the survey team, the Chief exploded with anger, his expression dropping instantly from friendship to enmity. He said that a friend would not separate a wife and husband. Whipple replied that he would take only those who wished to go. Eventually, after negotiation, Whipple gave the chief a cow. The old man then smiled and said that the prisoners could depart.
It was night now. The survey team went to bed. The next morning, the chief appeared at dawn, leading by the hand the three year old boy, seeking more tribute in return for the child. The mother followed on a horse. The chief was angered and sent her away. (According to Whipple's journal, she was the chief's third and favorite wife.)
One of the survey party announced that he had been robbed during the night. Whipple instructed the chief to return the stolen goods, and the chief headed back to the Kiowa camp with the small boy. Instead of restoring the items, however, the chief spoke with members of the tribe, who then packed their skins, tied their lodge poles to the sides of their horses and rode away -- all this while the survey party watched incredulously. Thus, the Kiowa obtained a cow, plus the stolen goods, and retained possession of their captives -- and the child. The survey party received nothing.
The reader may wonder why the survey party did not chase after the Kiowa and free the captives. A member of the party asked that very question of Lieutenant Whipple. Möllhausen's book records Whipple's answer:
"We could, certainly, as the power was on our side, but we should certainly then have been prevented from carrying out our government instructions. Our journey as far as the Rio Grande would have been one continued fight; the Indians would have swarmed about us like bees, and hindered our work, and the whole object of our journey would have been frustrated. We are instructed . . . not to make war on Indians, and we are pretty sure to be obliged, some time or other, to use our weapons against them in self-defense, without manufacturing a causus belli for ourselves."
When the Whipple party crossed into New Mexico, it followed what over 100 years later became the route of Interstate 40 from Tucumcari to Santa Rosa -- about 60 miles. Rock Island's Golden State Route, coming southwest from Kansas City, followed this same path about 50 years after the survey team. Southern Pacific built northeast from El Paso, and the two roads met at Santa Rosa. Though this route was not constructed east-west along the 35th parallel, it did for this short stretch follow the path of the survey team. Today it is operated by Union Pacific.
|Westbound Union Pacific grainer between Tucumcari and Santa Rosa, New Mexico.|
Past Santa Rosa, Lieutenant Whipple divided the survey party to explore two possible routes for a railroad. One group traveled directly west to Albuquerque, roughly following the route of present Interstate 40, leaving the valley of the Canadian where the river turned north. The second group traveled northwest toward Galisteo, about 20 miles south of Santa Fe, and onward to the Santo Domingo Pueblo on the banks of the Rio Grande, then south to Albuquerque, where the two groups reunited.
The direct route to Albuquerque crossed rugged and rocky hills, plus the very southern end of the Santa Fe Mountains that even today provide significant impediments to large trucks on Interstate 40. In addition, the route crossed the border between the Sandia and Monzano Mountains at Tejera Pass, a route far too steep for railroads.
The more northerly route included the La Cuesta Valley, six hundred feet deep and approachable only over rugged hills. The trail was too steep for wagons, which the party left behind and walked downgrade into the valley to explore a small settlement. The group then navigated through the Santa Fe Mountains until reaching a canyon described by Sherburne as "five miles in length. Ridge on both sides rising perpendicularly about 2500 or 3000 ft. & covered with rocks of volcanic description."
None of the journals specifically identifies this canyon. It is undoubtedly one of the several leading down off a huge mountainous plateau into the valley where Galisteo, New Mexico, is located. Slightly west of Galisteo the survey team would have picked up the route where the railroad line from Trinidad, Colorado, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, was constructed about 40 years later, following the Santa Fe Trail, the line that crossed both Raton and Glorieta passes, the line that was the first transcontinental route of the Santa Fe Railway and was eventually bypassed by the Belen Cut-off far to the south -- to avoid the steep grades.
|Westbound AT&SF manifest has come down from Glorieta Pass at roughly the location where the tracks join the route of the Whipple party. Today (May 2021) this line sees no freight traffic and is used only by Amtrak.|
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