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“Construction of the Belen Cutoff”

Southwest Crossroads Spotlight

The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway (commonly known as the AT&SF) formed in Kansas in the mid-nineteenth century with plans to build a railroad to Colorado and New Mexico. The AT&SF crossed into New Mexico via Raton Pass in 1878 and built south to the valley of the Rio Grande, reaching Deming by 1881. Like many other railroads during this period, the AT&SF expanded its rail network following their philosophy that “when a railroad ceases to grow, it begins to decay.” This emphasis on growth resulted in rail service to the Pacific from Chicago to Los Angeles by 1885. Traffic that crossed the country along this “transcontinental” route helped to establish the AT&SF as one of the most important railroads in the United States.

Teamster Packing a Mule in Abo Canyon“Teamster Packing a Mule in Abo Canyon,” Unknown (Photographer)

Steep hills in Raton Pass were major obstacles to heavy freight traffic because shipping goods thousands of miles requires efficiency. Unlike highways or other roads, railway lines must have long, smooth curves and low-angle tracks so trains can keep up speed. As a result, the AT&SF began to seek a different east-west route through New Mexico. The preferred route across the eastern plains and through Abo Canyon was first noted in 1853 by Major James Henry Carleton, who stated “the Pass of Abo offers advantages....which may not be found in any of the other passes through these mountains.” In 1902, surveyors laid out a line that tied into existing tracks near Belen on the west end and headed just beyond Clovis in the east. This became known as the Belen Cutoff.

The AT&SF selected B. Lantry and Sons of Strong City, Kansas to construct the railroad. They began laying track at Belen in February 1903 and moved east for the next six months until economic difficulties halted the work. Construction re-started in 1905 and major efforts continued for the next two years. Abo Canyon and the bridge over the Pecos River were the most complex and difficult portions of the Cutoff to construct.

Several hundred individuals worked in the canyon. They built seven large bridges and blasted many cuts to create the necessary curves and slopes. All the mechanical equipment arrived by rail and was generally limited to steam shovels and cement mixers. Most people came from Kansas, although the AT&SF did hire local residents, frequently renting their mules and gear. They lived in large tent camps, some complete with cafeterias, company stores, blacksmith shops, and mule corrals. One significant camp, Sunnyside, survived to the present as a portion of the town of Fort Sumner. Workers completed the major construction by late 1907 and full passenger and freight service started soon thereafter. Coal, grain, cars, and other goods and materials continue to be shipped on the Cutoff.

Pecos River Bridge Piers Under Construction“Pecos River Bridge Piers Under Construction,” Unknown (Photographer)

Construction of the Belen Cutoff triggered significant population growth through homesteading and settlement in eastern New Mexico, an area where few people lived previously. The AT&SF provided jobs because they needed full-time workers to maintain the tracks. Access to national markets from the railroad made farming and ranching more viable. Favorable environmental conditions in the early twentieth century even led to a brief period when Mountainair, located at the east end of Abo Pass, became the self-proclaimed “Pinto Bean Capital of the World.” Clovis, a city created by the AT&SF near the end of the Cutoff, remains one of New Mexico’s agricultural and dairy regions. After World War II, technology changed for the AT&SF, reducing their need for workers and leading to decreased populations in parts of eastern New Mexico and abandonment of many small towns along the railroad.