Life is like a mountain railroad, / with an engineer that’s brave: / We must make the run successful, / from the cradle to the grave; / Watch the curves, the fills, the tunnels; / never falter, never quail; / Keep your hand upon the throttle, / and your eye upon the rail. –
In a near forgotten track bed in Cimarron Canyon lie the remnants of a frontier dream for a railway system in the southern Rockies. Incorporated in 1905, the St. Louis, Rocky Mountain, and Pacific Railway Company, with a capital stock of $2.25 million, intended to lay track from Raton to Cimarron, then westward to the gold fields of the Moreno Valley and eventually to the Pacific Ocean by way of Taos. But the project hit hard times, and the original promoters and stockholders got no further than Ute Park before the capital ran out. Their achievement was nevertheless impressive because by opening markets to area farmers, ranchers, and mining men, they brought a never-before-seen economic prosperity to Colfax County.
By establishing a rail line the company not only immeasurably benefited its own endeavors but increased the county’s agricultural interests as well. The officers and directors included Thomas Harlan, Henry Koehler, Hugo and Max Koehler of St. Louis, Frank and Charles Springer of the CS Cattle Company, and J. Van Houten, president of the Maxwell Land Grant Company.
Construction of the line southwest out of Raton began in late 1905 under the direction of the Utah Construction Company of Ogden, Utah. Fourteen months later the line was completed to Ute Park, an undertaking that required more than 500 men and 300 teams to grade the road. Although the work progressed quickly on the relatively level terrain between Raton and Cimarron, due to Cimarron Canyon’s rugged terrain the company’s engineers encountered great difficulty extending the line westward.
The SLRM&P also extended the track east from Raton to Des Moines, which connected it with the Colorado & Southern Railway. This line, coupled with a link to the Santa Fe system at Raton, ensured the railroad’s access to lines running north, south, and east. Once completed, the Rocky Mountain was 105 miles in length and boasted seven steam locomotives, five passenger cars, and 558 freight cars. All equipment carried the company’s “Rocky Mountain Route” logo that included a swastika symbol in the design.
The first Rocky Mountain train destined for Cimarron left Raton on December 10, 1906. That day a large and enthusiastic crowd of ranchers, farmers, miners, and townspeople gathered in the little town to celebrate the locomotive’s arrival. Blacksmith’s anvils were charged with gunpowder and exploded when the flag-draped train arrived, pulling cars loaded with company dignitaries and well-wishers. The festive atmosphere continued throughout the rest of the day and presumably well into the night.
Cimarron was designated as the site for the railroad’s roundhouse and repair shops, which were completed in the spring of 1907. The shops were described by the Cimarron News and Press as some of the most thoroughly equipped in the Southwest. Under the direction of Master Mechanic J.W. Records, who was assisted by able machinists in each department, the shops were capable of turning out what the newspaper termed “all classes of railroad and repair work.”
To stimulate passenger traffic on the line from Cimarron to Ute Park, the SLRM&P constructed a dance pavilion at Ute Park in the summer of 1908. An excursion train filled with celebrants traveling at special rates left Raton to inaugurate the opening of the facility on Sunday, June 14. The highlight of the day’s festivities was a baseball game between players from Van Houten and Cimarron. The Cimarron Citizen reported that the ball park had “not as yet been put in very good condition, but a fine flat field was chosen as the scene of the meeting between the rival twirlers of the horsehide and the wielders of the bat, and one of the best games of ball witnessed in the country this season was the result.”
Afterward, those assembled moved to the pavilion for an evening dance with orchestra music furnished by the railroad. Simultaneously, the pavilion’s lunch counter “catered to the wants of the hungry crowd in a most efficient manner.” The newspaper further reported that once Ute Park became better known to the summer pleasure and comfort seekers, the railroad planned to build an immense resort hotel and lay out ball, tennis, polo, and other grounds, an eventuality that unfortunately never came to pass.
After a number of years of operation, rumors began circulating among the county’s populace that the Rocky Mountain Route might be incorporated into a larger rail system. Suspicions were confirmed in 1913 when the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad Company purchased the little rail line and renamed it the Rocky Mountain and Santa Fe Railway. Unfortunately for Cimarron, the Santa Fe decided to service all of the line’s cars at its Raton shops and by early 1914 had dismantled the Cimarron roundhouse and moved it to Raton.
The Rocky Mountain line continued hauling coal, cattle, gold ore, and farm produce as before. Passenger traffic, however, remained light although sightseers frequently treated themselves to a relaxing train ride up the narrow, rock-walled Cimarron Canyon to Ute Park. The experience was perhaps best described by a railroad employee, Edwar Mahoney, who in 1962 wrote: “I usually contrived to be out on the open observation platform, going up the canyon from Cimarron, with my feet propped up on the brass railing. How I would like to relive one of the trips with no cares… relaxing, taking in the scenery and inhaling the odors of pine, sage, and good locomotive coal smoke, listening to the engine working up the two percent grade, hearing the flanges squeal on the tight curves, and enjoying the sight and sound of a rushing mountain stream which we crossed and re-crossed many times.”
The Santa Fe company decided to abandon its Rocky Mountain line in November of 1942 due in part to the consolidation of its system during World War II. The rails were soon extracted and sold to support the war effort.
All that remains of the line today is the road bed, easily distinguished in many places between Raton and Cimarron by the long-unused telegraph poles that followed it. Likewise, up Cimarron Canyon to Ute Park the road bed may be discerned, minus the bridges where it frequently crossed the river. Although short lived, the Rocky Mountain Route’s impact was great on all whose lives it touched, and the modern traveler cannot help but wonder what it was like to ride on the old train and hear the shrill whistle and feel the awesome power of its locomotive as it steamed along in the old days of Colfax County.
Western author and historial Stephen Zimmer writes outside Cimarron, New Mexico
This article appeared in HighCountry 2003.