Sunday, June 27, 2021

The Land That Swallows Trains: Part II


[Herein begins Part II of The Land that Swallows Trains.  You should read Part One ( before beginning this section, which presupposes knowledge of names, places and actions described in Part One.]

The Whipple survey party straggled into Albuquerque like marathon runners, or more appropriately, like wild horses coming in off the desert – a few here, a few there, some today, some tomorrow – intending to decompress and recuperate for at least a month.  Only a few years before, this settlement had been controlled by the King of Spain, and everything about it was (obviously) Spanish, founded in 1706 by Nuevo Mexico governor Francisco Cuervo y Valdes as La Villa de Albuquerque, named in honor of the 10th Duke of Albuquerque, an outpost on the main road (called El Camino Real, one of several in North America) constructed along the Rio Grande north into New Mexico.  Your author believes that Albuquerque sits in one of the most beautiful valleys in the lower 48, a pearl nestled in oysterous mountains, and those who have driven into town from the west along Interstate 40 are generally in agreement.  (Similar agreement can be found among those who have ridden the tramway up Sandia Mountain to the east.)

Möllhausen thought that the valley presented a significant opportunity for development:

The inexhaustible wealth of nature which rendered, and still renders, the colonization of the North American continent so comparatively easy, is not in so high a degree characteristic of New Mexico, and in some places there are even deficiencies, but the fruitful valleys of the Rio Grande and its tributaries, as well as its mountains, rich in iron, coal and gold, are profuse enough in their gifts, not only to maintain, but to enrich whole nations, and carry them to the highest point of civilization.

At that time, Albuquerque was not a major settlement, with only 700-800 inhabitants, located about a quarter mile up the eastern slope from the Rio Grande, where the ground was flat, high enough to avoid flooding, but low enough to avoid the worst of the winter winds blowing down from the mountains on a valley over a mile above sea level.  Because there was no wood, all dwellings were constructed of red stucco, low to the ground like stones, though the wealthier inhabitants (“wealthy” being a relative term in this context) covered their houses with whitewash.  Boarded floors were unheard of.  Wealthy and poor alike contented themselves with clay floors, though the wealthier covered the clay with straw or mats.

Provisions and clothes for the survey team were not available and had to be shipped from Fort Union – 200 miles away.  The closest available wood for wagon repair was in San Antonio, New Mexico.  Several of the party had been detained by illness and were late in arriving, and illness was the least worry of those wandering across this untamed land.  If the survey team were European pilgrims, they were traveling across a sea wilder than any ocean.  Sherburne’s diary matter-of-factly recounts that, along the way in Texas and eastern New Mexico, “one man was buried in Devil’s Hole and one eaten by the wolves.”  Sherburne also notes that one of the mail carriers riding toward Albuquerque was shot by Comanches.  “They saw more Indians that we did.”

As discussed in Part One, the Whipple survey team had split in two in eastern New Mexico, one traveling northwest, eventually following the Santa Fe Trail south of the capital city to the Rio Grande, then further south to Albuquerque.  The other group continued due west, eventually reaching the Big River through Tijeras Pass.  Both routes were rugged, not suited to railroad construction.  Several years later, what became the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway built tracks along the Santa Fe trail, which required crossing the three percent ruling grades of both Raton and Glorieta Passes, but the Santa Fe soon bypassed that difficult line with the Belen Cut-off.  As the party was pausing to regroup in Albuquerque, they must have realized that their efforts (to find a railroad passage along the 35th parallel) had so far come to grief.

And the route west of Albuquerque was no better.  From the river bottom, the land rose straight out of the ground to the west like a stockade at a grade of no less than five percent for about ten miles until reaching the crest of a hill that looked straight down into the valley of the Rio Puerco and another five percent-plus grade of many miles.  Today, Interstate 40 follows this route.  Anyone who has driven it west of Albuquerque knows that railroad construction was never a serious option.   


Albuquerque was known for its fandangos, formalized Spanish dances in ¾ time, somewhat similar to a waltz, with castanets and guitars and occasional inebriated singing.  Sherburne noted in his diary that such dances were held every night.  Möllhausen said, “We were, above all things, anxious to make at the various balls of Albuquerque a rather less ragamuffin appearance.”  Thus, the survey team members spent “a good dollar” on new apparel.

The dances were public, open to all.  The ringing of the church bell signaled the men to approach the colorfully-dressed women and begin the ritualized movements across a wide, open-air courtyard.  Two entirely distinct societies kept watch on each other.  One involved the “cultivated” members of local society, with whom the survey team joined.  The other was composed of local laborers, cowboys (vaqueros), alcoholics and assorted miscreants who danced separately, spending most of their time quarreling, swearing, shouting and occasionally shooting.  Like oil and water, the two groups did not mix.

Sherburne recorded when the fun got out of hand:

One of our Teamsters shot today in a fandango – not badly injured, only losing a portion of his ear.  A row occurred in a fandango tonight . . .  A soldier was drunk and dressed in womans clothes insisted on entering the room.  Being pushed out he “flared up,” pulled off his dress and bonnet, and saying “I was shot once in this room and will have revenge,” he rushed into the room.  As he entered he was struck three times in the arm with a knife by the Mexican who gave the fandango.  This infuriated him the more and he rushed on until laid senseless by a blow on the temple from a stone.


One should not assume that the survey team’s stay in Albuquerque was consumed mostly by dancing.  The major chore was finding a suitable site for crossing the Rio Grande, and land was explored for miles both north and south along the river.  New mules were purchased and trained for the journey west.  The scientific corps collected specimens for shipment to the Smithsonian.  Upon learning that his primary guide had taken sick, Lieutenant Whipple employed Jose Manuel Savedra, who claimed to have led previous expeditions to the Rio Colorado.  Savedra hired teamsters to travel west with the party.  Shortly before the party left Albuquerque, however, the original guide (Antoine Leroux of Taos) recovered and asked to rejoin the team.  Feeling obliged, Whipple hired him back, and the party journeyed westward with two guides.

From Albuquerque, the survey team split in two again, one group (including Lieutenant Whipple) traveling due west up the steep slope of the Rio Grande (termed Rio Del Norte in Whipple’s report), then down into the valley of the Rio Puerco to the confluence of the Rio San Jose, then following the latter to the Laguna Pueblo, a village of small stucco houses piled on top of each other on a rocky prominence rising from the river valley.  The settlement in the 21st century bears striking resemblance to its 19th century counterpart and can easily be seen today from Interstate 40.  It looks to your author like a carefully crafted music box.  The Europeans in the party said it reminded them of Spain.

Laguna Pueblo

The term “pueblo” was enforced by Spaniards at the point of a sword.  According to Whipple’s report:
They [the Spanish] found a great many Indian tribes and settlements, which they succeeded in christianizing in the usual Spanish way, with sword in hand, and made them their slaves.  The villages of the chritianized Indians were called pueblos, in opposition to the wild and roving tribes that refused such favors.
In the late 17th century, various tribes joined in an insurrection, killing every European in New Mexico, driving the Spanish south to present El Paso.  The Spanish regrouped and about ten years later reconquered the lost territory, re-subjecting the Native Americans to the rule of the King of Spain.  The reader should remember that when viewing any of the many “pueblos” in New Mexico, one is looking at remnants of the Spanish conquest, still called by that name in Mexico.

The second group of the Whipple party (including Sherburne and Möllhausen) traveled south from Albuquerque to the Isleta Pueblo, which the survey team had earlier determined was the best location for a bridge across the Rio Grande.  Because of the long layover in Albuquerque, the calendar had turned to November; the nights were growing cold, generally below freezing.  (Remember:  Albuquerque sits 5,312 feet above sea level.)  Almost immediately after leaving town, the party’s wagons became stuck in the river sand; one of the axles broke.  Wheelwrights came from Albuquerque to repair the damage, and the party spent a cold night huddled like newborn puppies about a fire near the river, trying without much success to sleep, listening in the distance to the music of what Möllhausen described as “the everlasting fandango.”

They made Isleta near sundown of the next day, pitched camp outside the small settlement on a patch of level ground and were soon greeted by women from the village, bearing milk and fruit.  The survey team purchased the whole lot, then settled down for what they hoped would be a good night’s sleep.  Fate intervened, however, in the sound of loud pounding, like the thundering of a bison herd, coming from the village.  Möllhausen and two others set out to explore and soon, looking through the high, open window of one of the native adobe dwellings, saw inside several men beating drums rhythmically, and women, sitting in a circle inside the men, grinding corn in time to the drums.  Möllhausen and the others watched for a long time, either unnoticed by those inside, or else noticed but ignored, then returned to the camp along the river to spend another cold night trying to sleep.
Traveling across the New Mexico wilderness in 1853 must at first have been as exhilarating and intimidating as the fears of the first American astronauts when they climbed into their minuscule space capsules, with less computing power than a cheap, solar-powered pocket calculator, and waited to be hurled into the sky by technology not far advanced from a Buick Roadmaster, placing their lives in the hands of flat-topped men with narrow ties who consulted slide rules to calculate the trajectory to the moon.  

By this time in the journey, however, exhilaration was as infrequent as sleep; the survey team had grown numb with uncertainty and privation.  Lack of food and sleep was the norm, as were dust devils and rattlesnakes.  They left Isleta at dawn and climbed the western slope above the Rio Grande, not nearly as steep as that overlooking Albuquerque.  This portion of the survey was later followed by the Atlantic and Pacific Railway when the first tracks were laid.  The subsequent Belen Cut-off joined this route at Dallies Junction, the top of the grade.

Once they stopped climbing, the survey team looked down into the long brown valley of the Rio Puerco, and beyond the valley to Mesa Lucero, as tall as a mountain, the basalt-capped remains of an ancient volcanic eruption that over the millennia had not eroded significantly, while the river had carved a valley and deep canyon where the lava had not flowed.  The trail wound down to the river, bone dry except for a few isolated pools of brown water, then the river turned northwest into a narrow canyon, while the mules, wagons and men continued upland on a broad shelf between mesa and canyon.  The original tracks also avoided the canyon, climbing a 1.5 percent grade from southeast to northwest.  When the line was later double-tracked, the second line curved to the west to lessen the grade and ever since has been used by westbound traffic.

Here is the view looking down from the top of the ridge into the valley of the Rio Puerco, with Mesa Lucero rising behind.  This is the route followed by the survey team out of Isleta, the route later chosen by the Atlantic and Pacific.

An eastbound manifest is climbing out of the valley of the Rio Puerco, about to crest the summit and head downgrade into the valley of the Rio Grande.

Eastbound in the valley of Rio Puerco.

Westbound stacks have crested the summit and are rolling downgrade into the valley of Rio Puerco.  The Manzano Mountains rise in the background across the Rio Grande to the east.

Amtrak's Southwest Limited rolling downgrade in the valley of Rio Puerco.

Westbound stacks crossing Rio Puerco.  The bridge here is tiny, barely visible behind the east-facing signal, which is why both the survey team and later the railroad chose this location to cross.

The location where the two tracks divide west of Rio Puerco.  The survey team taking the southern route would have traveled this exact path.

Valley of the Pig River.

The survey team continued northwest until reaching the Rio San Jose, then followed that water course through a wider canyon, bracketed by huge cliffs that looked like medieval buttresses supporting a basalt ceiling.  This was the second day of the march from Isleta, near sundown, when the wind suddenly exploded and massive dust devils rose like columns from the Parthenon, quickly overtaking the team which huddled in a low marsh near the river until the storm blew itself out.  All were exhausted and now covered with sand as fine as powder, as fine as snow, that felt on hands, arms, neck and face like biting insects.  The team spent another uncomfortable night trying to sleep.  The next morning, they were joined by Lieutenant Whipple and his group in Laguna Pueblo.

Pushers on westbound stacks have left the valley of Rio Puerco and will soon descend into the Rio San Jose valley.  The train is on the newer second track constructed to lessen the westbound grade.

Beside the Rio San Jose.

Bridge across Rio San Jose.  This is likely where the survey party waited out the dust storm.

The big curve at Laguna Pueblo.

West of Laguna a broad valley opened like unfolding hands, criss-crossed with narrow agricultural canals, dissected by fences of dark lava that had flowed down from Mount Taylor, a huge strato-volcano rising above the valley to the north several thousand feet.  The lava was extremely difficult to cross, causing great hardship to the wagons and mules.  Lieutenant Whipple stated:

The whole length of the valley followed today has been threaded by a sinuous stream of lava.  It appears as if it had rolled down a viscous semi-fluid mass, had been arrested in its course, hardened, blackened, cracked, and in places broken, so as to allow the little brook to gush out from below and gurgle along by its side.  The lava bed is frequently a hundred yards in width, the cross-section being a semi-ellipse, in the centre probably thirty feet high. 

This valley west of Laguna Pueblo quickly turns north and presents what at first blush seems a perfect path toward the Continental Divide, the fences of dark lava notwithstanding.  From place to place, the central New Mexico landscape occasionally reveals such valleys in the midst of mountains, lava flows, canyons and other impediments to railroad construction.  If God were a railfan, if he wanted to create passage west through fantastically tortured scenery, he would have created the New Mexico labyrinth, with just enough flatland between obstacles to allow passage to those ingenious enough to discover the correct route.

The same is not true for Colorado.  There the Front Range and the Sangre de Cristo rise straight out of the ground, fantastic berms intended to prevent passage, as though God were saying, "Not here!"  But New Mexico is a puzzle that once solved provides relatively safe passage. 

Mount Taylor.


West of Laguna Pueblo, the railroad found a narrow course between the lava flows and the steep northern cliffs.  The cliffs were the result of an ancient flow that had not significantly eroded over millions of years, while the sediment around it had worn down to the present valley floor.  The dark lava flows (in the foreground) that gave the survey team so much grief had been generated much more recently, likely within the past 10,000 years, and had covered portions of the same valley floor.

West of Laguna Pueblo, Amtrak threads its way between the high cliffs and lava flows.

Where the valley turned north, the Whipple party again divided, (1) the main group continuing west into the mountains, (2) a tiny group (not including any surveyors or scientists) following the valley toward Fort Defiance.  Whipple, Möllhausen and Sherburne all traveled west, and to your author’s knowledge, no written record was kept by anyone in the small group that followed the valley north, the route that the Atlantic and Pacific later selected to the Continental Divide and then downgrade to Gallup – a town created by the railroad.  This route in both directions approaches the Divide on a shallow grade, less than one-half percent, the obvious location for a railway, as well as 100 years later for Interstate 40.  The grade is so minuscule that one does not even realize that the Divide is being crossed, unless one sees the marker along the highway.

This route is similar to the Union Pacific’s crossing of the Divide in Wyoming – actually double crossing through the Great Divide Basin – both locations where ancestral mountains have worn down to long shallow hills, and nothing has taken their places in the intervening hundreds of millions of years.  Probably because the road led to the Zuni Pueblo, a settlement where mules could be watered and grazed, the main Whipple party chose to head west about 50 miles through a portion of the ancestral mountains that had not so thoroughly eroded.  Fort Defiance, on the other hand, was over 200 miles away.

What no one in the survey team knew was that Zuni and surrounding pueblos were ground zero for a smallpox pandemic.  Whipple described it:
The smallpox had swept off nearly every male adult from three pueblos.  In one remained only a single man from a hundred warriors.  They were dying by fifties per day; and the living, unable to bury the dead, had thrown them down the steep sides of the lofty mesas upon which the pueblos are built.  There wolves and ravens had congregated in myriads to devour them.  The decaying bodies had even infected the streams, and the Zunians were obliged to have recourse to melons both for food and drink.  The young of the tribe had suffered less, few cases among them having proved mortal.

Although your author prefers to let the narrative speak for itself, he feels constrained to point out that the single biggest factor in the European conquest of Native Americans was smallpox.  Because of the infection,  the survey team did not enter the pueblo but kept its distance in the valley of a small stream.  


Möllhausen’s journal gives a brief description of the oral report from the group traveling via Fort Defiance:

The pass [across the Divide] lies almost due west from Mount Taylor, and the access to it is by a fine broad valley, three miles wide at its narrowest part.  The northern side is formed by high red sandstone rocks of the most various forms; the southern by the declivities of the Zuni mountains [those crossed by the main survey party]. 
Lieutenant Whipple’s report notes:
Mr. Campbell [the leader of the small party to Fort Defiance] reports the route . . . quite favorable for a railroad.  Indeed, so gradual was the ascent and descent on either side of the pass, not exceeding thirty feet to the mile, that without a careful survey the summit might be passed unperceived.  Thence to follow Rio Puerco of the west, seemed to him perfectly practicable.
Northwest of Laguna Pueblo, past the lava flows, the valley opens to a gentle incline toward the Continental Divide.  This route was perfect for a railroad.

Grants, New Mexico, where the wide valley flattened, an obvious location for a water stop and coaling station.  The land was originally owned by Don Jesus Blea, who constructed a house in 1872 and called his "town" Alamitos.  Soon, three brothers (Angus, Lewis and John Grant) procured the contract from the Atlantic and Pacific to construct the dirt work for the railroad through this section of New Mexico.  A huge tent city quickly developed, originally called Grant's Camp, later changed to simply Grants. 

"High red sandstone rocks of the most various forms."

Westbound stacks are approaching the Continental Divide.  As the image shows, the tracks are separated as at Rio Puerco, again due to construction at differing times.  Left-hand running is the norm.

Eastbound Amtrak reverse-running toward Grants.

A few miles from the Continental Divide.  The valley is smooth and almost flat, as though someone had already done the dirt work in preparation for a railroad.

Westbound at the Continental Divide.  This is the valley that the main survey party missed by traveling across the mountains to Zuni Pueblo.  

Continental Divide.

West of the Divide is another Rio Puerco, called the "Rio Puerco of the West" to differentiate it from its brother east of the Divide.  (For something similar, consider the Red River separating Texas and Oklahoma and the Red River of the North separating Minnesota and North Dakota.).   The small group that took the Fort Defiance route followed this river west of the divide.  Because they left no written record,  we cannot know today the impression made by the high cliffs in the canyon of the Rio Puerco of the West near the present New Mexico/Arizona border – cliffs higher and more striking than any found elsewhere along the 35th parallel.  In the space of less than 200 years, however, an increment that in geologic time is the equivalent of zero, we can be certain that what is seen of the canyon in the 21st century is virtually identical to that of the 19th.  And what we see today is magnificent.  If one were forced to choose a single view to encapsulate the Desert Southwest, this might be it.

The cliffs are part of the Navajo Nation, and dwellings are dotted across the landscape like tiny desert trees.  A narrow dirt road climbs the western heights and should be traversed only in a sturdy, four-wheel-drive vehicle.  Leading off that road is a trail that may once have seen vehicular traffic but today (June 2021) is mostly overgrown with desert grass and mountain cedars.  Still, with perseverance and foolishness, it is possible to navigate a Jeep through this tangle to about a half-mile from the edge.  A short downhill hike then presents one of the more majestic views in the West, or anywhere else, for that matter.  No one in the survey team saw this, but your author did.

Canyon of the Rio Puerco of the West, about three miles from the Arizona border.

Mid-trains in the canyon.  This train appeared to be about two miles long.

This is the route that the main survey party missed.

Eastbound crossing from Arizona into New Mexico.
Westbound through the canyon of the Rio Puerco of the West.
Deep in the canyon.


Pushers on eastbound stacks.

Arizona/New Mexico Border.

Sandstone cliffs leading to the Navajo Nation.

Eastbound entering canyon.

Westbound trailers exiting the canyon of the Rio Puerco of the West.

Westbound with NS power exiting canyon.

Onto the Colorado Plateau.

BNSF 6022, the 25th anniversary heritage unit, brings up the rear as we say good-by to the canyon of Rio Puerco of the West.

There is another.  On the western side of the Divide, it carves a wide canyon between vertical sandstone cliffs, like a trench dug by giants, that opens onto the Colorado Plateau and the Little Colorado River.  Beyond the western mouth of the canyon is where the two survey teams rejoined.  The Atlantic and Pacific, then the Santa Fe, now the BNSF, followed the river through the canyon, onto the plateau, then along the Little Colorado River, dry most of the year, into the heart of the Navajo Nation.  And so did the survey team -- into land untouched by the King of Spain or any other European.  (Continued in Part III.)

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