Raton Pass


Quick Facts

Raton Pass and the mountains surrounding it stand as a towering border between two worlds, and the control over this route has quite an interesting history. A crooked toll road for miners and tradesman during the infancy of America, a narrow mountain passageway for rail, and a modern convenience, this route was first blazed, reportedly, in 1821, and extends from the Upper Arkansas valley into Northern New Mexico. This tract of land through the northern Sangre de Cristo Mountain range has been commodified at every bendy turn, and it’s importance on the surrounding economy is reflected in its inclusion on the Santa Fe Trail and the National Parks Service’s registry of Historic Places.


William Becknell

'The Father of the Santa Fe Trail', William Becknell is credited with expanding trade from New Mexico into Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma via the Raton Pass. [Source](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Becknell)

‘The Father of the Santa Fe Trail’, William Becknell is credited with expanding trade from New Mexico into Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma via the Raton Pass. Source

One of the first recorded journeys1 through the pass is that of William Becknell, a businessman fleeing his failed ventures and political aspirations in Missouri with hopes of gaining wealth trading beaver pelts from Northern New Mexico. He left Franklin, Missouri with four companions in September, 1821 on his first trip to the western US, with a load of freight to deliver to Santa Fe. By 1821, conquistadors, trappers, and traders had already established a rough trail through the pass, but Becknell is often credited with being the first to take wagons through the area. However, that portion of the journey has been called into question after the discovery of the diary of Pedro Ignacio Gallego in 1993. Mexican Army Captain Gallego and 400 of his soldiers encountered Becknell far from the area in which he claimed to be, and these writings along with Becknell’s own journal describing the landscape, show evidence that he and his men probably mis-identified the Canadian River and instead crossed at another river south of present day Las Vegas, New Mexico1.

After a month of trading, Becknell left Santa Fe on December 13th, and the men returned to Missouri safely in January, 1822. His investment of $300 in trading goods had returned approximately $6000 in coin. The profits made by William Becknell’s first trading trip brought much needed money and valuable goods into central Missouri where the Panic of 1819 had a devastating effect on the economy. The influx of Mexican coins significantly helped Missouri’s economy as farmers and local merchants found a new market for their goods.

Postcards sent from early travelers of Raton Pass. Note the automobile, for scale.

Postcards sent from early travelers of Raton Pass. Note the automobile, for scale.

William Becknell’s description of the pass was accurate enough to scare people away. His depictions of broken wagons, blockading boulders disrupting the path, and a lack of access to basic services led most traders hauling heavily laden wagons along the Santa Fé Trail to what was known as the Cimarron Cutoff, which cut diagonally across southwest Kansas and northeast New Mexico to avoid the mountains. Raton Pass, on the other hand, was on the Mountain Branch of the trail, which was longer and more difficult but did have the advantages of more water and less exposure to violence from nearby populations of Native Americans struggling to cling to their land. It received far less traffic than the Cimarron Cutoff but was used by traders who went up the Arkansas River to Bent’s Fort and then turned south toward Santa Fé, especially those traveling with only a few pack animals or light wagons.

Wootton: Charging His Way

The famous Wootton house, pictured with 'Uncle Dick' and his family.

The famous Wootton house, pictured with ‘Uncle Dick’ and his family.

Richens Wootton, a trapper like Becknell, saw the pass as an economic investment and decided to build and operate a toll gate restricting access to the trail. Wootton then claimed to have made improvements on the trail in an attempt to make it more accessible to wagon travel. His bridges turned out to be narrow, the road laced with culverts and many curves so sharp the wagons could not pass without damage. Many hills were so steep, the wagons had to use double teams for the ascent. The truth was, the 27-mile journey required five days to traverse, and the route and improvements were so poor that many wagons were wrecked in their journey. With few alternatives, the public almost had to use the Wootton Road. On August 1, 1865, before either Colorado or New Mexico, became a state, Uncle Dick ran an ad in the Las Vegas, N.M., Territory Gazette listing charges at the toll gate. Wagons pulled by two oxen, horses or mules cost $1. Wagons pulled by four cost $1.50. Wagons pulled by more than this cost $2. One man on horseback or on foot cost 25 cents. Loose cattle, horses or mules, pigs or sheep cost 5 cents each[^Apsen].

Wootton built his house and toll gate on the Colorado side of the pass, and daily stage service on the route started soon after gold was discovered in New Mexico’s Moreno Valley in 18672.

On August 1, 1865, before either territory became a state, Uncle Dick ran an ad in the Las Vegas, N.M., Territory Gazette listing charges at the toll gate. Wagons pulled by one span (two) of oxen, horses or mules cost $1. Wagons pulled by two span (four) cost $1.50. Wagons pulled by more than two spans cost $2. One man on horseback or afoot cost 25 cents. Loose cattle, horses or mules, swine or sheep cost 5 cents each.

Many rumors and testimonials by travelers who tried to use these trails told of suffering, harassment and stock stolen by night riders and raiders whom they believed to be hired by Uncle Dick in retaliation for not using his road. He was also known to shoot Native Americans with which he did not agree, and was known to shoot at groups in order to steal their food and supplies with fellow famous New Mexican Kit Carson.

The historic Santa Fe Trail traversed the present-day states of Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and New Mexico. [Source](https://www.nps.gov/safe/planyourvisit/directions.htm)

The historic Santa Fe Trail traversed the present-day states of Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and New Mexico. Source

As the railroad developed, Wootton declined an offer of $50,000 for his road in favor of lifetime rail passes and groceries for him and his wife. In 1878, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad (ATSF) beat the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad (D&RG) to the route up Raton Pass, which had space for only one rail line. ATSF decided to tunnel under the summit of the pass to cut down on what was already a steep and grueling climb, but in the meantime it built a temporary track over the pass to allow trains to start traveling the route in late 1878. This marked the end of most wagon and stagecoach traffic over Raton Pass. The railroad tunnel under the pass opened in September 1879.

Warfare

Two nineteenth-century military crossings are especially notable in the history of Raton Pass. The first came in August 1846, during the Mexican-American War, when Stephen Kearny’s Army used the pass to invade New Mexico. Kearny chose Raton Pass for two reasons: first, he could use Bent’s Fort as a base, and second, it had more water than the Cimarron Cutoff, an especially important advantage in the summer. Kearny left Bent’s Fort on August 2, sending road crews in advance to try to improve the route for the advancing army. Nevertheless, the army still had difficulty getting over the pass and lost many wagons descending into New Mexico, which Kearny’s army quickly claimed for the US.

Raton Pass played an important military role again during the Civil War, as the Union used Raton Pass to supply troops stationed in New Mexico. In 1862, when Confederate troops were advancing north through New Mexico, a regiment of Colorado Volunteers marched over Raton Pass to reinforce Union troops and win a major victory at the Battle of Glorieta Pass.

Winding Through the Mountains

Artist representation of a train on Raton Pass. Locomotive traffic still dominates parts of the pass. [Source](http://streamlinermemories.info/?p=4737)

Artist representation of a train on Raton Pass. Locomotive traffic still dominates parts of the pass. Source

When Spain controlled what is now the southwestern United States, the Spanish officially banned international trade of all kinds. After Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the Mexicans lifted the ban and opened the area to both commercial and cultural exchange. The Santa Fe Trail, which spanned 1,200 miles from Franklin, Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico passing through deserts, mountains, and forests along its route, became the main means of transportation to and from the area.

In 1908 the rail company ATSF completed a second tunnel under Raton Pass to handle increased traffic, but developments in rail around the West signaled the decline of Raton Pass as a major rail corridor. First, ATSF finished the Belen Cutoff in central New Mexico, giving the railroad an easier route. Raton Pass continued to be used for passengers, but all long-haul trains now took the Belen Cutoff route. In 1908–9 New Mexico used convict labor to build a new highway that crossed the Colorado border near Raton Pass, further reducing traffic through the area.

A map of rail line completion as of 1880, including Raton Pass. [Source](https://www.nps.gov/safe/learn/historyculture/map-timeline-5.htm)

A map of rail line completion as of 1880, including Raton Pass. Source

The majority of traffic through the pass now comes from automobiles. In 1926 the highway over Raton Pass was designated as US 85 and improved. In 1942 it was realigned to the old Wootton route along the Santa Fé Trail, which was more navigable. This route was incorporated into Interstate 25 in the early 1960s, and now provides tourism dollars for the nearby towns of Raton and Trinidad.

Despite being on the less popular Mountain Branch of the Santa Fé Trail, the pass has often been seen as a symbol of the trail’s hardships and of the boundary between Anglo and Hispanic cultures. Still an important corridor traversed by a railroad and Interstate 25, the pass was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 19613.


Location

The 7,881-foot summit is accessible via I-25, and a New Mexico Welcome Center allows visitors to step out of their vehicles and stretch or take photos. An informative historic marker for Raton Pass interprets the landmark both at the center and on the Colorado side of the State border. Public access to the land, however, is restricted, as the wilderness is privately owned. The nearby city of Raton, New Mexico celebrates its trail heritage and the Raton Museum, located at 108 2nd Street, interprets the area’s past for curious visitors.

A family of road signs has been initiated across the Santa Fe Trail to help you find original routes, trail crossings, and local sites. Follow the signs exhibiting the distinctive Santa Fe Trail National Historic Trail logo.

Follow these signs for information along the Santa Fe Trail.

Follow these signs for information along the Santa Fe Trail.


Nearby


Automobile travel before pavement was tenuous.

Automobile travel before pavement was tenuous.


Bibliography

  1. Diary of Pedro Ignacio p-14  2

  2. NPS Raton Pass p-3 

  3. NPS Form p-4