by Deanna Sanchez
Locomotive on the Raton Pass circa 1915 (Photo by Palace of the Governors Archives)
At the border of present-day New Mexico and Colorado, the Raton Pass was one of the most important, yet treacherous, segments of the Mountain Route of the Santa Fe Trail. The pass cut through the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains, allowing wagons access to the vast western territory.
When Spain controlled 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 route to both commercial and cultural exchange. The Santa Fe Trail was 1,200 miles from Franklin, Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico. The trail passed through deserts, mountains, and forests becoming the primary means of transportation to and from the area.
Shorter routes were eventually developed, but the Raton Pass, which crossed safer terrain, remained in use. The pass played a critical role in General Stephen Watts Kearney’s conquest of Santa Fe and the eventual American annexation of New Mexico in 1846.
As the first major passage west through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the Raton Pass National Historic Landmark celebrates the development of American trade, cultural interaction, and westward expansion.
When Mexico opened its borders to trade with the United States in 1821, a great commercial, military, and emigrant trail was born. However, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains loomed huge and daunting between the western edge of the United States in Missouri and the bustling Mexican center of commerce, Santa Fe. Early explorers, trappers, and American Indian people had previously discovered various paths through the treacherous mountains, but before 1821, no covered wagons had made the journey.
In June 1821, William Becknell, a horse and mule trader, traveled west from Franklin with a wagon and four companions. History has written for years that Becknell would be the first of many to travel via wagon through the narrow, torturous Raton Pass. However, that portion of his journey has been called into question after the discovery of Mexican Captain Pedro Ignacio Gallego diary in 1993. Gallego and his 400 men met Becknell on his first journey to Santa Fe. His writings, along with Becknell’s journey describing the landscape, show more evidence that he and his men probably misidentified the Canadian River and instead crossed another river or stream. Researchers now say evidence points to a location between the Arkansas River and Puertocito Piedra Lumbre en Kearney gap, south of present day Las Vegas, New Mexico.
Soon, however, a new branch of the Santa Fe Trail developed. The Cimarron Route was not only 100 miles shorter, but cut across the relatively flat grasslands and deserts of present day Kansas instead of through the mountains. Although the openness of the Cimarron Route led to frequent raids from American Indian tribes and provided far less water, the dangers of the 1820s and early 1840s, most of the wagon traffic along the Santa Fe trail opted to take the Cimarron route.
View from Raton Pass circa 1863-1937 (Photo by UNM Archives)
In 1846, the Pass again played a significant historical role. Tensions were running high between the United States and Mexico over land disputes in Texas, which included what is now New Mexico. Both countries lay claim to the land, and Mexico disputed the decision of the United States to annex Texas in 1845 and sent American forces into the territory. General Stephen Kearney set out with his famed 1,600-man “Army of the West” along the Santa Fe Trail.
Although the Mountain Route and the Raton Pass were dangerous, Kearney chose to head west through the mountains rather than take the Cimarron Route. The steep, narrow Raton Pass afforded better protection from invading forces and ample water supply, unlike the dry desert along much of the Cimarron Route. Before Kearney and his men arrived, a team of workers set out along the trail to make passage more accessible, including clearing rocks and debris from the notorious Raton Pass. Despite their efforts, Kearney’s journey was still fraught with difficulty. Many wagons were destroyed, and supplies had to be left behind.
Weakened, the men emerged from the Raton Pass and expected to meet resistance from Mexican forces that Provincial Governor Manuel Armijo sent. They instead found the valley abandoned. Kearney’s takeover of Santa Fe thus was swift. Without a struggle, the United States laid claim to the territory.
The Mountain Route was again mostly abandoned after its use by Kearney’s army because traders and travelers still preferred the shorter, easier route. However, the Raton Pass saw use once again with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860. The vulnerability of the Cimarron Route was recognized as concerns heightened around Confederate raids. The Santa Fe Trail saw heavy use as a Union Army supply route west, and the narrow, protected Raton Pass was easy to guard. The pass continued to serve Union troops through 1865.
Dick Wootton (Center), Ceran St. Vrain (left), and Jose Maria Valdez (right)
The Raton Pass became part of a toll road for several years that entrepreneur Richens L. Wooton built and managed at the war’s end. Beginning in 1866, the most treacherous part of the Santa Fe Trail was heavily altered by grading, blasting, bridge building, and clearing. The formerly difficult Raton Pass was made passable in all seasons for horses, wagons, and stagecoaches, alike. While Wooton’s toll road was highly profitable, the advancing western railroad system soon overtook it. By the late 1870s, train traffic replaced the Raton Pass and the Santa Fe Trail, which led to the abandonment of the epic trade route by 1880.
The railroad that once scaled the pass via a series of switchbacks has since been rerouted beneath the mountain through a tunnel. Much of the rest of the rail line still follows the old route of the Santa Fe Trail through the Raton Pass and along Raton Creek. Though much of the trail has been wiped out by the new highway construction, distinct original segments remain.