Logging Railroads of the Lincoln National Forest, New Mexico



The age of the steam logging railroad in the Sacramento Mountains was very brief by most measures, barely over forty years. During that period, however, the railroads brought about many changes affecting the land and our view of it. For the first time, extensive mechanized logging took place over a large area. During the same period, the tourist and resort business was developed and vigorously promoted. The tourists came by the thousands, first by rail, then by road. The district's economy was transformed from one of frontier farming and ranching to one with a capital-intensive industrial base closely tied to regional and national trends. The evolution of the lumber industry left its own mark on the mountains in the form of rail beds, skidways, and campsites. Decades after their abandonment, these signs of human activity are, for the most part, forgotten and unknown to most of the present users of the National Forest.

The purpose of this study, which was requested by the Southwestern Region of the U.S. Forest Service, is to provide a description and history of the railroad logging industry that so profoundly effected the Sacramento Mountains. In addition, a general interpretation of the artifacts of the steam logging railroads is provided to aid those responsible for subsequent studies and surveys of the cultural resources within the Lincoln National Forest (see frontispiece for area map).

A large part of the construction of railroad lines into the area predates the formation of the National Forest. Information and records are scattered among numerous institutions and individuals. Gathering together the bits of data has been a labor of love on the part of several dedicated people rather then a project to be completed to a timetable. Nevertheless, the material presented here is a reasonably comprehensive picture of the business and engineering history of the logging railroads.

The history of the early lumbering industry in the Sacramento Mountains is inextricably involved with that of the main line railroads of southern New Mexico and west Texas, especially the companies that make up the Southern Pacific lines. The key element of the relationship was the timber itself. Railroad construction required immense quantities of timber for crossties, trestles, buildings and structures such as culverts, water tanks and cooling chutes. The ongoing maintenance and upkeep of these facilities required significant quantities of timber on a continuing basis. In addition to the railroads, mining companies in the region used timber extensively for underground supports and for material-handling structures both above and below the surface. The mining market was very competitive and the miners' requirements were often filled by timber shipped in from as far away as Oregon. This added considerably to the risk of the lumber and timber trade in the southwest.

In the days of railroad expansion in the southwest it was the practice of the men building the railroads to become involved in mining and other related enterprises to provide some traffic for the railroads. Often, too, mining men would build railroads to gain access to their markets and to reduce their shipping costs. All of these relationships, reflecting regional and even national conditions, had considerable influence over the day-to-day affairs of otherwise locally managed enterprises. This was certainly true of the logging companies in the Sacramento Mountains (Neal 1966:1).

Location maps showing the Alamogordo vicinity and units of the Lincoln National Forest. (click on image for a PDF version)

A schematic representation of the total railsystem in the Lincoln National Forest's Sacramento Mountains. (click on image for a PDF version)

The Main Line

Plans to build a railroad to the Sacramento Mountains began almost with the arrival of the Santa Fe and the Southern Pacific main lines in El Paso, Texas, during the first half of 1861. A line called the El Paso and White Oaks Railroad was incorporated in New Mexico on February 28, 1882 (N. M. Corp. Commission n.d.). Little came of this enterprise and it was not until June 1888 that a more substantial attempt was made with the incorporation of the Kansas City, El Paso and Mexican Railroad (KCEP&M) (Engineering News 1869).

By December 1, the KCEP&N had completed ten miles of track, extending northward to a point called Lanoria, Texas, from a terminal in El Paso. Once more, interest in the project lagged, and construction trailed to a halt. Morris R. Locke, who was promoting the line, noted in his prospectus the potential value of the timber traffic to be drawn from the Sacramentos. It was important, but it was considered to be only a fraction of the revenues to be gained through development of the coal and metal mines near White Oaks (Engineering News 1889).

It was not until 1896 that the ultimately successful El Paso and Northeastern Railroad (EP&NE) appeared on the scene. The first incorporated entity was the El Paso and Northeastern Railroad Company, incorporated in Texas on June 12, 1896. Its stated purpose was to build 19.22 miles of railroad from El Paso to the New Mexico boundary (Poor 1902:493). This corporation was set up to comply with the Texas law requiring that all railroads operating in the state be headquartered in Texas.

Next to be incorporated was the New Mexico Railway and Coal Company (NMRy& CCo), in New Jersey on May 15, 1897. This was the overall holding company, controlling not only the railroads but the lumber and mining companies as well. And on October 21, 1897, the El Paso and Northeastern Railway was incorporated in New Mexico for the purpose of building a railroad from the Texas line to the Capitan coal fields (Poor 1902:493).

The promoter of the EP&NE lines was Charles Bishop Eddy, who had earlier developed the communities along the Pecos River in southeastern New Mexico. For the EP&NE venture, he obtained the very substantial backing of a group of capitalists from Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania: H. M. Boies, Benjamin S. Harmon, John Welles Hollenback, F. L. Peck, Charles O. Simpson, and others (Poor 1902: 493). These men acted in various roles in the increasingly complex structure of the NMRy&CCo. Before long numerous subsidiaries would be involved in branch line railroads, a new main line railroad, coal mining, and lumbering activities.

Construction of the EP&NE began in December 1897, working out of El Paso. Some 4.16 miles of the old KCEP&N route were used, then the line ran northeast directly toward the Sacramento Mountains. By June 15, 1898, the tracks had reached the site of the new town of Alamogordo. Located near a good spring at the foot of the mountains, the point was 86 miles from El Paso. Alamogordo was selected as the site of the main shops of the new railroad. It had the necessary water, it was near the junction of the planned logging railroad, and the land was under the control of the EP&NE backers (Neal 1966:5).

The EP&NE construction forces paused only briefly at Alamogordo. Within a matter of weeks, work had begun on the new logging road, the Alamogordo & Sacramento Mountain Railway, into the mountains. Within a few months work resumed on the main line toward Carrizozo and the coal mines near Capitan. The main line tracks reached Three Rivers on June 20, 1899, and Capitan on August 3. At Carrizozo the tracks swung eastward and began climbing toward Indian Divide, a pass between the White Mountains and the Vera Cruz Mountains. This came as a surprise to some who had assumed that the railroad was inevitably headed for the mining town of White Oaks. But the goal of the railroad was in fact its own coal mines, located on Seaborn T. Gray's ranch, just to the north of the future site of Capitan. The tracks reached the mines on October 1, 1899, and coal production began immediately (Myrick 1970:76).

It was not long until the limitations of the Capitan mines became painfully apparent. Cut and broken by volcanic intrusions and slate, the coal veins could not be efficiently worked to produce the amount of coal needed for the railroad and other customers. Eddy and his attorney, William Ashton Hawkins, were very much aware of the disaster facing their young enterprise, and a complex and somewhat bewildering series of events began to unfold. Eddy and Hawkins secured an option on the excellent coal under Dawson's ranch up on the Maxwell Grant in northern New Mexico (Keleher 1962:291-293). Then the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad resumed construction of a long idle line extending west and south from Liberal, Kansas. For its part, the EP&NE commenced building an extension northward from Carrizozo under the name El Paso & Rock Island Railway. From a start on January 15, 1901, this line met the Rock Island at Santa Rosa, New Mexico, on February 1, 1902. This connection completed a through main line to Kansas City and St. Louis, opening those markets to the timber trade (Myrick 1970:76-77).

The EP&NE construction gangs didn't stop at Santa Rosa. They moved up to the raw new town of Tucumcari and built the Dawson Railway northward to the mines at Dawson's ranch. To speed the opening of the mines, a second railhead was established through a connection with the Santa Fe Railway at French, New Mexico. The first coal shipment went out over this spur on May 23, 1902. The entire Dawson line was opened for traffic on July 1, 1903. With the completion of the Dawson Railway, the expansion of the NMRy&CCo was completed (Myrick 1970:82).

During the same period, the copper interests of Phelps Dodge & Company had pushed their El Paso and Southwestern Railway (EP&SW) from Bisbee, Arizona, across southwestern New Mexico to EL Paso, completing the line on November 19, 1902. The EP&SW not only connected the mines at Bisbee with the new smelter at Douglas, Arizona, but it provided connections to a number of other railroads to avoid dependence on one hauler. Given their need for coal and timber, as well as an interest in competitive transportation it was not surprising when, on July 1, 1905, Phelps Dodge purchased the entire property of the NMRy&CCo. The railroad properties, including the mountain branch, were immediately merged with the EP&SW for operation under a single management (Myrick 1970:88-89).

Although the EP&SW was a financial success, it was essentially an industrial feeder line dependent on its connections with the Southern Pacific and the Rock Island for profitable through traffic. Ultimately, Phelps Dodge decided to concentrate on copper production, and sold its interest in the EP&SW to the Southern Pacific (SP) on November 1, 1924. This ownership continued throughout the remaining life of railroad logging in the Sacramento Mountains (Myrick 1970:94).

Alamogordo and Sacramento Mountain Railway

As the EP&NE neared Almagordo, its backers went to work to develop a timber industry in the nearby Sacramento Mountains. The Alamogordo Lumber Company was organized to purchase land, build a sawmill, and log in the mountains. The connecting link was to be the Alamogordo and Sacramento Mountain Railway (A&SM), incorporated in New Mexico on March 24, 1898. In the coming years, the A&SM would be the longest portion of the route traversed by logs on their way to the sawmills (Neal 1966:10).

Construction of the A&SM began in mid-1898, shortly after the main line arrived in Alamogordo. The first section of the A&SM was opened during November 1898. It extended from Alamogordo Junction (1.4 miles north of the Alamogordo depot) to a point in upper Fresnal Canyon called Toboggan, 19.3 miles from the junction. The engineering of the route was a classic example of mountain railroad design. To make the climb from Alamogordo Junction at 4,372 feet elevation to Toboggan at 7,580 feet, the railroad was a nearly continuous series of sharp curves combined with steep grades. The normal curvature was a so-called 30 degree, or 193 foot radius, bend. Grades exceeded five percent, with one half-mile stretch of over six percent peaking at a fearsome six and one-half percent. The result was a standard gauge railroad that far exceeded the fabled Colorado narrow gauge roads in severity (Railroad Gazette 1902:466).

Such a railroad offered plenty of spectacular views to its passengers as it wound along the ridges. That proved to be one of its assets. The steep and sinuous track presented plenty of problems, too. Locomotives had to be specially designed and equipped to operate on the line. Brakes had to be efficient and well kept. Ultimately, log cars with dual brake systems became the norm. Wet and icy weather proved to be a regular and occasionally fatal hazard. But the A&SM had one advantage the narrow gauges could never match, and that was the ability to ship out and receive normal freight cars. The use of standard gauge track eliminated the damaging and very expensive car-to-car transfer required for many shipments to and from narrow gauge roads.

The opening of the A&SM to Toboggan was celebrated with elaborate Dedication Day ceremonies on November 18, 1898. Two trains were on the line that day, one a special passenger run and the other a short train of logs.

The A&SM rested, so to speak, at Toboggan for a time. The next portion of the line would be even more difficult and expensive to complete and a great deal of preparation would be required. It was not until early October 1899 that construction crews moved out to extend the railroad from Toboggan to Cloudcroft and Cox Canyon. It is likely that the first couple of miles of the line, including the famous switchback (Figure 1), were built initially as a logging spur of the Alamogordo Lumber Company to reach the timber in upper Bailey's Canyon.

Figure 1. An interesting early view, ca. 1900, showing most of the railroad between Toboggan (lower right) and Cloudcroft. The short train is backing down the switchback after coming down from Cloudcroft. (USDA Forest Service photo)

The A&SM extension was only 7.5 miles in length, but it incorporated a rise of 2,000 feet, the usual 30 degree curves (193 foot radius), grades of 5.2 percent, and no fewer than 27 major timber trestles (Figure 2). The largest of these survives today in Mexican Canyon, just below Cloudcroft (Figure 3). This structure is listed on both the New Mexico and National Registers of Historic Places. Figure 4 shows the famous 6-trestle incorporating a double 30 degree curve in its 338 foot length. As many as 500 men worked on the line during the winter, grading, building trestles, and laying track. The railroad was completed to Cloudcroft on January 25, 1900, and to Cox Canyon during June (Alamogordo News 1899d, 1900, 1900f).

Figure 2. The steepest part of the A&SM was the last five miles to Cloudcroft, shown here by the heavy black line. Beginning at a point below Toboggan, grades ranged from 5 to 6-1/2 percent and the railroad clung to mountainsides all the way. (click on image for a PDF version)

Figure 3. SP 2507 charging up the grade at Bailey's with a string of empty log cars, ca. 1936. (E. Clack collection)

Figure 4. A train of empties passing over the "S" trestle, ca. 1936. The two locomotives are separated to avoid concentrating their weight. (E. Clack Collection)

As soon as the A&SM was in operation to Cox Canyon, a number of logging railroad spurs or "tramways" as they were sometimes called, were built along various canyons. At each junction loaded log cars were received by the A&SM from the Alamogordo Lumber Company, and empties returned.

The final extension of the A&SM was Cox Canyon to Russia, a distance of 4.4 miles. The line, characterized by the same numerous trestles and sharp curves, was completed during May 1903. Russia was destined to remain the terminal of common carrier operations throughout the life of the railroad. Further extensions were built and operated by the lumber companies (Neal 1966:21).

Following the purchase of the NMRy&CCo properties by Phelps Dodge and Company on July 1, 1905, the A&SM was operated as an integral part of the EP&SW system. The use of specially equipped locomotives and log cars necessarily continued. The four cabooses and four open passenger excursion cars of the A&SM were supplemented by at least two EP&SW passenger coaches fitted with special short wheel base trucks (Alamogordo News 1907a). El Paso and Alamogordo families would move to Cloudcroft for the summer to escape the desert heat. And the weekend low-fare excursions from El Paso were sell-outs throughout the entire season. The Cloudcroft Lodge became the center of tourist activity (Figure 5).

Figure 5. The Cloudcroft Lodge was rebuilt as seen here in 1910-1911, following the burning of the earlier rustic wooden building in 1909. It remains in use as a resort hotel. July 1922. (By J. O. Jones. USDA Forest Service photo 178085)

The real business of the railroad to Russia was hauling logs. Although traffic fluctuated widely, as many as five trains daily ran on summer weekends: one passenger and four logging round trips. Even during the winter months, one or two log runs came down every day, with a similar number of cars being returned. One of the daily round trips carried passengers, express, and mail, usually in a single car at the end of the train. The peak years of log hauling occurred during the late 1920s when two companies were shipping over the railroad: George E. Breece Lumber Company from Cloudcroft and the Southwest Lumber Company from Russia. By this time the railroad had come under the control of the Southern Pacific. Although many changes had occurred in management and engineering, train service and rolling stock continued much as before. A notable improvement was the use of about 200 SP log cars, somewhat larger than the earlier Russel cars and equipped with dual air brake systems (Neal 1966:63).

Minor derailments were an everyday occurrence on the A&SM, They were considered a routine part of the railroading of that era. Runaways occurred all too frequently on the very steep grades, with sometimes fatal results. The worst wrack occurred on October 19, 1903, when seven men of a steel gang lost their lives in a wreck of heavily loaded cars of rail (Neal 1966:56). In August 1907 Engineer Weldy was killed when EP&SW locomotive 184 ran away on wet rail below Toboggan (Alamogordo News 1907c) (Figure 6). But it is also a matter of record that no passengers were ever killed on the A&SM.

Figure 6. Engineer F. M. Meldy was killed when locomotive 184 ran away on the steep grade below Toboggan because of wet rail in late August 1907. Note the dirt ballast and absence of tie plates in the track. (Orris Smith Collection)

In addition to the logs and passengers, a lot of ordinary freight was handled on the A&SM. Produce, fruit, livestock and lumber went out. Incoming freight included coal for locomotive fuel, supplies, and machinery. From the peek traffic of the 1920s, business slowly deteriorated. The automobile traveling on vastly improved roads drained off the passengers, at the same time opening the mountain region to many more visitors from Texas and New Mexico. Special Cloudcroft excursion trains did not run after September 20, 1930, the closing date of the season. Rail passenger service was discontinued altogether after February 13, 1938 (Neal 1966:67).

Railroad logging south of Russia ended in 1941, effectively eliminating all business there. Although the logging tracks were removed during 1942, the logging locomotives and miscellaneous rolling stock were not shipped out until 1945. After attempts to bring out the ancient locomotives by rail failed, they were cut up for scrap at Cloudcroft. Some log loading appears to have continued along the A&SM line after 1941, but rail shipments ceased completely with the sale of Southwest Lumber Company to M. L. Prestridge in 1945. As fewer and fewer trains ran down to Russia, it was only a matter of time until the Southern Pacific applied to the Interstate Commerce Commission for permission to abandon the branch. Permission to abandon the entire line from Alamogordo Junction to Russia was granted on May 7, 1947, but with a mandatory delay of several months to hear any protests. The last scheduled train came down from the mountains on September 12, 1947 (Figure 7). And two days later the scrappers began pulling up the rails at Russia (Neal 1966:66, 67).

Figure 7. The last scheduled train stopped briefly at Wooten tank, September 12, 1947. This Baldwin 2-8-0 was one of several Southern Pacific Locomotives assigned to the Cloudcroft Line during the 1940s. (By Dan Kelly)

Rails, fastenings and spikes were sold as scrap steel. The rail was too twisted and worn for further use. Ties were picked up and sold locally, but most of the timber trestles remained where they had stood for so long. Some were dismantled and sold for their timber content. Up on the National Forest, the Forest Service removed the ties and stringers from the ends of the larger trestles as a safety measure to keep the unsuspecting and the adventurous from clambering out on the increasingly shaky structures (Neal 1966:68, 69).

<<< Previous <<< Contents>>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 02-Sep-2008