Along Your Way Santa Fe Railway 1946

Paths of Empire

The Story of the Old Trails Along the Santa Fe

One set of hoofs or pair of feet can find, but never make, a path. It is the constant repetition of hoofs or feet "going the same way" that beats down the grass, leads to the water hole and the river ford, points out the low place in the mountain, and marks the trail from start to destination.

Feet of the wild animal made the first trails, short or long. Moccasins of the Red Man beat them down and extended them. The conqueror and the religious found and followed them. American hunter and trapper etched them more distinctly afoot or on horse. The creaking wheels of the trader's ox-wagon cut them deeper. Boots of the soldier raised their dust and sank in their mud.

And then, not too many years ago, twin bands of steel defined them permanently. Trains sped along the trail the buffalo or antelope had started; and the Indian, the Conquistador's horses, the steps of the "black robe", the fur hunter's wanderings, the wagon train's camps, and the soldier's campaigns had scratched across the surface.

Pawnee River crossing Caravan on the Santa Fe Trail in the 1850's crossing the Pawnee River in the Great Bend section of Western Kansas near the present-day site of Lerned, Kansas, on the Santa Fe main line. (from a painting by M. Gundlach)

The Old Santa Fe Trail

Santa Fe Trail Map

Before the railroads came, all commerce between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains was carried on by caravans of pack mules and wagon teams. the most notable highway across the prairies was know as the Old Santa Fé Trail, between the Missouri River and Santa Fe, N. M.

The expedition led by Captain Becknell, that went overland from Franklin, Mo., in 1821, marks the beginning of important wagon trade between these points, though the first pack-mule party for Santa Fe was outfitted as early as 1804. In 1825-27 the U. S. Govt. surveyed a line through from Fort Osage (Sibly), trading posts being established there and at Independence. Independence was the principal eastern terminus until 1848, when it was superseded by Westport Landing (Kansas City), and later, in 1863, by Fort Levenworth. The Santa Fe Railway reached the city of Santa Fe in 1880, and the well-worn trail became a thing of the past.

The map reproduced on page 4 shows the route of this historic trail in sufficient detail to enable the traveler on the Santa Fe Railway of today to see where the two run almost side by side. The old trail is marked by granite monuments erected by the D. A. R.

From Independence to Santa Fe, wagon parties routed by way of the Cimarron cut-off, traveled about 775 miles. The Upper Arkansas River route, across Raton Pass, was much longer (850 miles) but safer.

There were so many conflicts with hostile Indians beyond Council Grove that detachments of U. S. Troops often went along, to guard lives and property.

The earlier caravans of pack-mules, usually numbered 75 to 200 animals and made 15 miles a day. After the introduction of prairie "schooners," drawn by mules or oxen, the jornada or day's journey, was seventeen to eighteen miles. At first the traders made only one trip a year, but by 1860 caravans left every few days.

An average caravan consisted of 26 wagons, each drawn by 5 yoke of oxen or 5 spans of mules. A wagon load was five to seven thousand pounds, and an average day's journey 17 miles. In 1846, 375 wagons were employed, also 1,700 mules, 2,000 oxen and 500 men; this was increased, by 1866, to 3,000 traders' wagons. During the height of the traffic 50,000 ox-yokes were used annually. The largest train (1 mile long and 4 columns abreast) was composed of 800 army wagons carrying supplies for General Custer's Indian campaign of 1868.

The first overland mail stage coach started from Independence for Santa Fe in 1849; in the early 60's daily stages were run from both ends of the route; each Concord coach carried 11 passengers, the fare being $250, including meals; the trip required 2 weeks. Today on the Santa Fe Streamliner, the journey consumes only 14 1/4 hours, and the railroad fare is about $20 one way in chair car.

Trails West of Santa Fe, New Mexico

Shortly after the beginning of the year 1848 gold was discovered in California and the California territory was transferred to the United States. These great events brought out the real and immediate need for a good transcontinental trail, a route across the mountains, rivers and deserts from where the old Santa Fe Trail left off onward to the golden sands of California.

By 1848 early pioneers had started two trails west of Santa Fe -- the old Gila Trail and the old Spanish Trail -- both had serious drawbacks. A third, or "middle" trail, not yet so well explored or known, was on the eve of becoming the most favored of all -- for foot, for horse, for wagon and later for railroad. Its mileage was right. Its condition was good and its scenery beautiful. Parts of this trail were known as the "Zuni Trail", or later on as the Albuquerque or "middle" route; to the Army Topographic Corps it was the 35th parallel route and this was the path chosen for the modern Santa Fe Railway "Trail of Steel."

Here are a few facts and descriptions of each of the three trails beyond Santa Fe in 1848.

The Old Spanish Trail

As Captain Becknell was the father of The Old Santa Fe Trail, so William Wolfskill holds the same relationship to the Old Spanish Trail west from Santa Fe to California.

This northernmost of the three New Mexico-California routes followed the path of Escalante and Dominguez to their crossing of the Green River, then turned southwest to the Virgin River, traversed the Mohave Desert, and arrived at Los Angeles through Cajon Pass -- the pass which the Santa Fe Railway follows today. A variation of this route lay further east of the Cajon Pass and turned northward to the San Joaquin Valley, then cut through the mountains by either the Tehachapi or Tejon Passes.

Jedediah Smith, that famous pathfinder, had traveled the western half of The Old Spanish Trail in 1826, as Escalante and Dominquez had the eastern division a half century before.

In 1828, James Ohio Pattie, trapper, adventurer and "tall tale" teller, covered the western end, but it remained for William Wolfskill to become the first American recorded who traveled The Old Spanish Trail completely. He led a company of trappers over it between New Mexico and California in 1830-31.

The Old Gila Trail

As for the Old Gila Trail, besides the Spaniards who made use of part or all of it in earlier times, we know American fur trappers followed it as early as 1826. General Kearny in 1846 marched along the Gila Trail from the copper mines to the Colorado River on his way to San Pasqual and the California revolt. And, under Lt. Col. Cooke, the Mormon Battalion marked a wagon road by way of Guadalupe Pass to Tuscon, the Pima villages and the lower Gila, provided another variation of this trail.

What were the advantages and disadvantages of these two westward paths?

The Old Spanish Trail went far enough north to avoid the Apaches, whose name meaning either "enemy" or "robber" bespeaks their constant threat. And there was water along The Old Spanish Trail. But is was by far the longest way to California.

The Old Gila Trail was much more direct than the Spanish Trail, but it ran through the dangerous Apache Country and water holes were few and far between.

The "Middle" Route

The third trail, known variously as the Zuni, "middle", or Albuquerque route, combined the directness of good traveling conditions and comparative freedom from sudden savage attacks. This trail along the 35th parallel was not long in getting the enthusiastic backing of traders, military men and surveying engineers -- first as a wagon road, then as the preferred path for a railroad. This is the trail the Santa Fe Railway follows west of Santa Fe, New Mexico to Needles, California.

General Palmer and Railroad Routes

Under the supervision of General William Jackson Palmer further surveys of the 35th as well as the more southern 32nd parallels to the coast were made in 1867-68. His findings are contained in the Report of Surveys Across the Continent in 1867-68, by W. J. Palmer.

Palmer's most famous railroad work, however, was building the Denver and Rio Grande and fighting for its interests against all comers. Later, during the eighties, he was identified with the construction of Mexican railroads. One line which he built to El Paso ultimately was absorbed by the Nickerson interests.

A New Era Begins

With the discovery of gold in California and the spreading of this news throughout the country, California began to fill up with people and to fill up fast.

It was more than evident that quick, sure means of communications and paths of travel should link the west and east. The Government began to take an active interest in routes to the Pacific, as a railroad enterprise to the West Coast could no longer be ignored.

Thus, early in the decade of the 50's, a transcontinental railroad project received support in both branches of the Congress. On March 31, 1853, an act was passed entrusting the War Department to "make such explorations and surveys as it might deem advisable in order to ascertain the most practicable and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean." Last, but not least, the War Department was granted the necessary appropriations.

It was first intended only to make a reconnaissance of the Southern route and the one through South Pass, but later the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, added the northern route. Davis made a report, December 1, 1853, explaining the routes to be examined and added copies of the instructions to the various engineers selected. The actual routes reconnoitered were know as those of the 32nd, 35th and 47th parallels.

"35th Parallel" Grows in Engineers' Favor

Our interest naturally lies around the surveys made along the 35th parallel of latitude, as that is the route subsequently chosen by the Santa Fe. The above map will show that it is almost a perfect extension, geographically speaking, of the Old Santa Fe Trail.

To Lieutenant A. W. Whipple, Corps of Topographical Engineers, was entrusted the first official survey of the 35th parallel route, although Francois Xavier Aubry, a private trader, had been first to examine it in its entirety from New Mexico to California in 1852. Even before Aubry, Lieutenant James H. Simpson, in 1849, had explored from Albuquerque to Zuni. And two years after Simpson's exploration, Captain Lorenzo Sitgreaves, in 1851, had gone over the western section of the route, from Zuni to the Colorado.

Lieutenant Whipple's party started from Napoleon at the mouth of the Arkansas River, June 24, 1853, and proceeded via Little Rock to Anton Chico, past Tucumcari to Albuquerque, through central New Mexico to the Mohave Villages, then up the Mohave River and over the Cajon Pass to Los Angeles and terminated in San Pedro the following spring.

In Lieutenant Whipple's Report of Explorations for a Railway Route Near the 35th Parallel of Latitude, from the MIssissippi River to the Pacific Ocean, we read:

"Nearly all the known passes are concentrated near the latitude of 35°, where the interference of the Coast Range with the Sierra Nevada had produced a succession of low broken ridges with valleys between ... a great portion of the route followed natural channels."

Francois Xavier Aubry was starting eastward with a party on another of his several explorations for a road from California to New Mexico in the same month of 1853 that Lt. Whipple was heading westward along the 35th, or "Santa Fe", parallel of latitude.

Mr. Aubry made notes of his trip and his diary entry of September 10, 1853 sums up the purpose of his trip: "September 10, At Albuquerque, New Mexico ... I set out ... upon this journey simply to gratify my own curiosity as to the practicability of one of the much talked-of routes for the contemplated Atlantic and Pacific railroad. Having previously traveled the Southern, or Gila, route, I felt anxious to compare it with the Albuquerque, or middle route. Although I conceive the former to be every way practicable, I now give it as my opinion that the latter is equally so, whilst it has the additional advantage of being more central and serviceable to the Union."

Beale and His Camels

Also back in 1853, the indefatigable Beale, shortly to be a Militia General, had explored a Central Route for a railroad across Southern Colorado and Southern Utah to Los Angeles on his way back from Washington to California where he was to take over duties as State Indian Agent. This was the same year Lieutenant Whipple had made his exploration. Busy with Indian affairs during 1854-55 and 1856, General Beale was called upon in 1857 to make a Wagon Road Survey from Fort Defiance, Arizona to California.

It was this survey which marked out for the first time a practicable highway along the 35th parallel that has been used from that day to this. (For more than half a century the Santa Fe Railway has rolled its trains along this one-time Wagon Road.)

Of this road, General Beale wrote: "... It is the shortest (route) from our western frontier by 300 miles, being nearly directly west. It is the most level, our wagons only double-teaming once in the entire distance, and that at a short hill, and over a surface heretofore unbroken by wheels or trail on any kind. It is well-watered! Our greatest distance without water at any time being twenty miles ... It crosses the great desert (which must be crossed by any road to California) at its narrowest point. It passes through a country abounding in game, and but little infested with Indians."

And to prove that the route was as good in winter as in summer, Beale retraced it in 1858, going from the Colorado to Zuni in twenty-four days during January and February.

It was on the westbound 1857 trek that Beale took the famous Camel Corps.

The idea of using camels came to him while on a much earlier exploring trip in Death Valley with Kit Carson, as Beale in later years told his son.

Beale never traveled so light that he did not have at least one good book in his pack, and during the Death Valley exploration, he chanced to be reading Abbe Huc's Travels in China and Tartary, which had a lot to say about the usefulness of camels in Asia.

Beale was convinced that the introduction of these famous beasts of burden could rob the Arizona desert of half its terrors.

Kit Carson Questions Camels

Kit Carson, it is said, remained a bit skeptical, but Beale did find one enthusiastic backer in Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War.

David Dixon Porter was sent in 1855 to Tunis to "study camels." He also visited the Crimea where he met some English officers who reported enthusiastically on the service camels had rendered to General Napier.

That was enough. Porter hurried to Alexandria and Smyrna, purchased 33 camels. All but one of them were landed safely at Indianola, Texas, in April 1856. Porter was immediately sent back to Asia Minor for 44 more which were debarked later that summer very seasick but alive.

Some time afterward, the camels being acclimated and ready, General Beale, his men and his Camel Corps set out for Fort Defiance, -- there to begin his famous 1857 Wagon Road Survey to the Colorado River, which has been mentioned previously.

"Noble and Useful Brute..."

Concerning those camels, Beale said:

"An important part in all our operations has been acted by the camels. Without the aid of this noble and useful brute, many hardships which we have been spared would have fallen to our lot; and our admiration for them has increased day by day, as some new hardships, endured patiently, more fully developed their entire adaption and usefulness in the exploration of the wilderness."

Yes, Beale was enthusiastic about his Camel Corps, but others, unfortunately perhaps, were not.

Two native cameleers had been imported with the camels, and as one old-timer put it, "he didn't know which smelled worse, them drivers or them animals."

At any rate, the natives refused to accompany the surveying trip, the American muleteers never learned to respect the animals. So after a few years of vicissitudes, the Camel Corps was broken up -- auctioned off, let loose, disbanded.

For some time, says his son, General Beale kept a few of the camels at his Rancho Tejon near Bakersfield. He remembers that it was one of his great pleasures as a boy to drive with his father from Tejon to Los Angeles in a sulky behind a tandem team of camels with whom the General could carry on a conversation in Syrian if the occasion arose.

Some travelers, too, of a later year, shocked, surprised and scared to see what looked mighty like a camel wandering lonesomely in southwestern deserts have decided they saw a mirage, or perhaps indulged in a little too much "Taos Lightning" or other western firewater.

But they could have seen real camels, at least until 1899, when it was estimated that the last survivor of the one-time Camel Corps had gone to join his ancestors.

Jefferson Davis' Report of 1855

Having studied the surveys along the various parallels of latitude, Jefferson Davis wrote in 1855:

"A much larger area of cultivable lands, and a great frequency and extent of forest growth, exist between the Rio Grande and Colorado, on the 35th parallel, than on any other latitude throughout the Western States."

Many historians, as well as engineering experts, firmly believe that had not the Civil War come when it did the first transcontinental railroad, instead of being constructed over the historic but mountainous "Overland Route" (38th parallel), would have been laid down farther south, perhaps along the 35th parallel, below the barrier of winter snows and basically around, not over, the Rocky Mountains. After the Civil War, however, money for construction was in the North, and it was considered imperative to have the first railroad completely in "Union" territory.

The Steel Santa Fe Trail

Mile by mile, day by day, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe has built along the Old Santa Fe Trail and onward to California. Early stretches of Santa Fe rail reached Hutchinson, then ribboned on to roaring Dodge City, La Junta, Trinidad, then over Raton Pass, and in 1880 it reached old Santa Fe. From there it stretched westward to California, forming a "Path of Empire" along the route of the historical wagon trail of pioneer days.

When you look out of your Santa Fe train window and watch the land fly by, you are looking at historic ground:

There the Conquistador marched, the padre walked, the mountain man trapped, the ox-team strained, the soldier campaigned, the emigrant toiled, the engineers surveyed; and over the footprints of them all was built the Santa Fe!

Burros loaded with firewood passing the 300 year old Governor's Palace, a landmark of early days in Old Santa Fe.