Tuesday, 20 May 2014 15:44

Phantom Spur

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The Phantom Spur
     Years ago an old Pecosonian wood seller told me the railroad once ran into the town of Pecos. While I didn't disbelieve him I could over the years find no trace of this line: on maps, in railroad history books or historical articles. USGS topo maps showed no sign of it, as they usually do of abandoned rail lines: a dashed line labeled as "abandoned railroad grade". Myrick's very thorough New Mexico's Railroads doesn't mention it. Old forest service maps don't show it. 
     And then one day while researching my recent article on the old limestone quarries of Santa Fe in the New Mexico Geological Society annual bulletin of 1995 I came upon a photo of the American Metal Company's reduction mill .3 miles west of Pecos in Alamitos Canyon. "Voila". There it was! Railroad ore cars sitting on a siding waiting to be loaded and hauled to the Santa Fe mainline at Fox, four miles to the south.
       The lead-zinc ore being processed in this Pecos mill came from twelve miles north, from the mine at Terrero. It was transported to the mill site on an aerial tramway considered the longest in North America at the time. This all occurred from 1927-1939; that is the shipment of ore via railroad cars. 
There are several reasons for this lacuna of historical record on maps. First, this spur line existed for such a relatively short period of time that it missed mapping periods. It didn't exist in 1924 when the Forest Service issued a Santa Fe National Forest sheet of the Pecos area. It had disappeared when years later a new map was issued. The same goes for the USGS topo maps of the period.
      Secondly this spur probably wasn't built and owned by the Santa Fe railroad, but by the American Metals Co. Consequently it doesn't show up on any Santa Fe railroad maps of their system, like all their coal spurs do in NE New Mexico, Madrid and elsewhere around the state.
Another guess is that it didn't show up on SF railroad maps, which were published yearly, because it didn't carry anything but ore, and was  just considered an industrial siding, unlike some industrial and mining spurs which also carried freight and passengers, mostly workers, to and from the mines.
But with the above sited photo it did exist and so I did a little homework and went to the map collection of the State Library Southwest Collection. The USGS topo 7.5 min. quadrangle of Pecos, 1961, shows a narrow band of un-vegetated land, no piñon-juniper, heading north from the siding at Fox to the mill site west of Pecos. 
A close look at Google maps shows portions of the grade in exactly the same position as the topo map. About half of the right-of-way was commandeered by modern dirt roads, the rest is visible by its beautiful, elliptical topographical curves, that are so typical of railroad engineering.
      An aside: unlike the eastern half of the US, where vegetation, they call them trees, have obscured old roads and railroads from Google maps, out west we have no such bio-mass. As everyone knows, when you drive from Santa Fe to Albuquerque, you see everything from right to left for thirty miles or more. Out east this isn't true. You're lucky to see fifty feet into the verge.
     This is also true of satellite imagery. One can follow old railroad grades for miles on Google map in the west due to the absence of vegetation. Even the most obscure logging and mining spurs, which New Mexico is full of for the looking.
      As for textual information, much has been written about both the Terrero mine and the mill site in geological reports, mining surveys (see the USGS Minerals Yearbook starting in 1932 onward) and historical writing. Most recently, both sites have been the subject of intense interest due to environmental remediation.
So anyone driving from Pecos to Santa Fe from 1927-1939 on the old Route 66 would have crossed this spur line near the present-day gas station, liquor store motel on the right about 2/3 of the way to Pecos.They would have, maybe, if they were lucky, seen a steam locomotive dragging a string of ore cars to and from the mill site. They would have thought that the railroad had come to Pecos. In a way it did, but not for people or general freight, just  lead-zinc ore.
      This obscure bit of railroad arcana is in and of itself not important. But what is, is the wonderful historic importance of these New Mexico Geologic Society Annual Reports. Not only are they full of geologic history, but also social and economic history. If you haven't had the pleasure of reading them, I urge you to.
They are available for circulation from both the Santa Fe Public Library and the State Library Southwest Collection. 
Richard Barrett
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