Written and photography by Bud Russo
When the blaring horn wakes you at two in the morning, as the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe (BNSF) freight train barrels through town, you may be inclined to grumble or cuss. Before you do, consider the impact this singular mode of transportation has had on Las Cruces. In 1844, the Doña Ana Colony was formed. Five years later, Lt. Delos Sackett laid out 84 lots to create the town of Las Cruces from the few homesteads then dotting the land south of the Doña Ana village to relieve overcrowding. In between, the Mexican-American War was fought. At war’s end, La Mesilla was founded in Mexico by people who did not want to be part of the United States.
Unfortunately for them, they found themselves back in the United States when the Rio Grande changed course and James Gadsden concluded negotiations in 1854 to purchase additional land, making a southern transcontinental railroad possible. Life in Las Cruces, as in all of New Mexico, was tranquil, except when Native Americans decided to try once more to push foreigners from their lands. People ranched and farmed. There were artisans and tradesmen who built what people needed. Most everything came into the area over the Santa Fe Trail and Camino Real by wagon, and while tons of merchandise arrived, wagons had their limits. They were restricted in how many heavy durable goods and raw materials, like cast-iron machines and kiln-fired bricks, they could carry and still be profitable. But America’s visionary leaders saw a nation from sea to shining sea.
They encouraged railroads to open lands west of the Mississippi. In 1859, Cyrus Kurtz Holiday founded the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. However, construction didn’t begin until 1869, and track didn’t reach New Mexico until a decade later. But they brought immeasurable change. Marci Riskin, in her book, The Train Stops Here, writes of attempts to build railroads: “. . . many failed. But those that succeeded not only made money, they helped define the West, populating it and linking it to the rest of the United States.” The Santa Fe Railway first approached Mesilla with offers to bring the railroad lines to the town. It was the larger community, better organized, and the county seat. Residents, however, did not want to give up land for a right-of-way. Now imagine second-graders being asked to do something special — “Pick me! Pick me!” In Las Cruces, four men founded the Las Cruces Town Company: William Rynerson, Henry Cuniffe, Simon Bolivar Newcomb, and Jacinto Armijo. They bought up farmland west of the town, including Armijo’s, and offered some of it to the Santa Fe.
That sealed the deal. The railroad built the line from Rincon, New Mexico, to El Paso, Texas, through Las Cruces, three miles away from Mesilla. The first train arrived on April 26, 1881, to about as much pomp and celebration as the little town could muster. The first depot was a wooden frame building measuring 16-by-34 feet. Town leaders, wanting to make an impression on visitors, changed the name of the street connecting the railroad to downtown from Depot to Las Cruces. It became the first paved street in town. Meanwhile, the Las Cruces Town Company saw growth opportunities. They laid out a 42-block area between the depot and Water Street, then the western terminus of Las Cruces. The original village, now the Mesquite District, soon was joined by Las Cruces’ first suburb, today’s Alameda District. The railroad made possible importing of building materials not readily available in the desert Southwest. Doctors, lawyers, merchants, and others built homes: Mediterranean villas, Colonial Revival mansions, Prairie Style bungalows, Neo-Classic Revival estates, and Italianate Victorians, 14 architectural styles in all. Besides homes for well-to-do Las Crucens, the railroad also brought markets back east for agricultural commodities, commerce and
economic development, expanding horizons for travelers, and jobs. Railroads themselves were economic stimulators as they needed local sources of coal and water to operate locomotives, timber for ties, and lumber for buildings. Other changes came to the burgeoning area. The women of Las Cruces formed the Women’s Improvement Association in 1894. They found a way to make a difference in their communities and have a voice, on their own, to create a safe place to raise their families. They played a major role in promoting literacy, public lighting, and parks. In 1898, they used their own money to establish the first park in Las Cruces, now known as Pioneer Women’s Park. The city assumed maintenance of the two-acre site in 1924. The railroads did indeed change the face of the West, and Las Cruces is a prime example. Today, it is the second-largest city in New Mexico. Mesilla, on the other hand, has about 2,500 residents, approximately the same number the town had in 1881. When Las Cruces outgrew its depot, the Santa Fe Railway built a new one in 1910, following its “county-seat” design favored in the West. It has men’s and women’s waiting rooms at one end and a freight room at the other. The agent’s office, with its bay windows giving view to trains, accommodates both. It has a gable roof of red ceramic tile with parapets on each end. It is constructed of brick covered in stucco, giving it a Southwestern flair.
The Santa Fe discontinued passenger service to Las Cruces in 1968
and, even though the freight section was extended in 1961, freight trains
stopped service in 1988. Cars, trucks, and airplanes had replaced this
pivotal mode of travel and cargo. In 1992, the city purchased the depot and created the Las Cruces Railroad Museum to interpret the impact the railroad had on Southern New Mexico. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. Visitors can examine historic artifacts such as a telegraph key with wet-cell battery, 1944 teletype, 1900 sewing machine, steam whistle, and tools, as well as scales, trunks, and baggage carts. More to the liking of kids of all ages are the model railroads, including a wooden one for tykes, and several electric train layouts which visitors can operate. The museum sponsors a book club, coloring club for adults, model building classes, story time for preschoolers, and the Brown Bag Lecture series in which speakers explore topics of local interest. Train Day will be April 25 this year and involves historic re-enactors, educational booths, and live steam demonstrations. And who could forget! Santa arrives by train during their holiday open house the first weekend in December.
As you wait for the BNSF train to slide through the night, its horn growing dim in the distance, before you drop back to sleep, take a moment to think about Watty Piper’s The Little Engine That Could. You remember the story. Just like the little engine in the story, determination won out in the end. The Las Cruces we know and love is the result.