By Aurelio Sanchez - Journal Staff Writer
The coming of the railroad in the late 1880s
was a good thing, but also a bad thing. Good in that it
boosted New Mexico's economy, and brought in trainloads of
new people. Bad in that power struggles broke out,
particularly between railroad groups vying for supremacy.
The coming of the railroad and what it meant is highlighted as part of a long-awaited exhibit called "Telling New Mexico: Stories From Then and Now," opening today at the new New Mexico Museum of History in Santa Fe.
Today's opening starts with a members-only breakfast preview, followed by a ribbon-cutting, free tours to the public and live music. Monday's activities will include live music, an ice cream social, dancers, artisans, lowriders and more.
One of the sections in the exhibit looks at the enduring legacy of the coming of the railroad.
In the "Battle for Raton Pass," a fight bristled between two companies that wanted to build a railroad through the Raton Pass, with the combatants the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway and the Rio Grande Railway.
On a cold, snowy morning in February 1878, two groups of men armed with shovels and handguns faced off in the pass, glaring menacingly at each other. The confrontation fizzled when Rio Grande Railway backed down.
It wasn't long, however, before the two companies were at each other's throats again, this time leading to serious long-standing consequences.
"With the railroad, people in New Mexico now had the ability to ship goods and materials into and out of New Mexico," museum director Frances Levine said. "The railroad provided our first mechanized industrial revolution.
"It connected New Mexico, the East and a lot of money, and so both good things impacted New Mexico, and some negative things," she said.
The railroad brought in workers, manufactured goods and machinery, and took out ore, cattle, lumber and agricultural products.
As railroads blossomed across the state, ranching, mining, the timber industry and tourism grew up alongside them.
Long before the Big I, New Mexico was a crossroads, creating the perfect setting for clashes of all kinds: cultural, political and economic.
New Mexico's "Railroad Wars" represents just one of the many clashes highlighted at the new multimedia, 96,000-square-foot museum behind the Palace of the Governors on Santa Fe Plaza.
"The railroad changed settlement patterns: Raton, Albuquerque and Gallup all developed as a result of the railroad," Levine said. "The trains became mobile banks, and partly as a consequence, real outlaws were attracted here."
For example, Gen. W.J. Palmer, who owned the Denver and Rio Grande Railway, hired gunslingers to avoid a repeat of the Raton Pass fiasco. Many of the gunslingers moved to Las Vegas, N.M., where they bullied the townspeople and used the town for stage and train robberies. Some of the bad guys hired by both sides included Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday, "Dirty" Dave Rudabaugh, Hoodoo Brown and "Mysterious" Dave Mather.
"We have tried to give people the feeling of New Mexico," Levine said, noting that one way the museum has done that is to use life-size photos in the exhibits of people standing in a railroad car, or even of a locomotive.
What else did the railroad bring? Merchants, tuberculosis patients, physicians and hospitals, artists, new schools, and a bevy of other services and goods.
"We have a great section looking at how the railroad transformed New Mexico," Levine said.