The Old Santa Fe Trail
We head out from Santa Fe with the aim of getting to Monument, a growing community between Colorado Springs and Denver, Colorado. Colorado has been nicknamed the “Centennial State” because it was declared such in the year 1876, 100 years after the signing of the nation’s Declaration of Independence. Colorado is called “Colourful Colorado”, the name derives from the Spanish, ‘colour-red’; you’ll see why if ever you visit.
We head out of Santa Fe on Interstate 25. It’s a beautiful day. The sun is shining, clear blue skies and moderate temperature. It also happens to be Good Friday. We were jolted by the sight of a bloodied Jesus carrying his cross, complete with crown of thorns. He was part of a number of walkers from a local church taking part in an Easter Passion activity. We could see the walkers straggled out on the frontage road, parallel to our Interstate.
English and German settlers, seeking religious freedoms, founded this early colony of America. The USA today is characterised by a diversity of religious beliefs and practices. New Mexico is no exception. The rich Native American and Spanish history has meant the vast majority of the population adhere to spiritual and religious belief.
The I-25 Route at this point of the journey, runs close to the Old Santa Fe Trail Route. The Spaniards toward the end of the 18th century opened up this famous route. It linked to the northern end of the El Camino Real, an overland trail from Mexico City. The Americans used the Santa Fe Trail for trade and as a path for settlers.
The Santa Fe Trail starts on the western end at Independence Missouri. It winds its way along through Kansas into Colorado and terminates at Santa Fe, New Mexico. The numbers of wagons continued to grow throughout the 19th Century. People took up the notion of “Manifest Destiny” and saw an opportunity to prosper by acquiring free land in the West.
We sped along I-25 at 75 miles per hour in air-conditioned comfort, with plenty of water and snacks while listening to satellite radio. It was difficult to imagine the travails of the travellers in wagons on the Old Santa Fe Trail. But difficulties there were; the Trail was a challenge. There was near 900 miles of rutted roads through arid plains, desert and mountains. The journey would take between 8-10 weeks and depending on the season, could be hot and dry in summer, floods and lightning strikes optional. Winter brought bitterly cold days. To add to this, there was the threat of Indians, wolves, rattles snakes, bandits and a host of other challenges.
This section of I-25 route has lots of reminders of the Old Santa Fe Trail. Signs and markers of significant sites are of great assistance along the way.
Out of Santa Fe is Las Vegas, not the Arizona one. It has a rich history in the South West. It prospered as a result of its location on the Santa Fe Trail and received a significant boost when the railway came to town. General Stephen W. Kearney delivered an address in the Plaza claiming New Mexico for the United States. The railway, apart from delivering prosperity, also brought along murderers, thieves, gamblers, gunmen, swindlers, vagrants and tramps. Among the alumni, were legends of the Old West such as the dentist Doc Holliday and his girlfriend Big Nose Kate, Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, Mysterious Dave Mather, Hoodoo Brown, and Handsome Harry the Dancehall Rustler.
Just 30 miles north up the road from Las Vegas is Fort Union. To see it you need to take a 15-minute diversion off the I-25 to a National Monument site that was established in 1851. For forty years, to quote the National Park web site, it “functioned as an agent of political and cultural change, whether desirable or not, in New Mexico and throughout the SW.”
Fourteen miles beyond Fort Union is Wagon Mound National Historic Landmark. As the name suggests it is located at the foot of a butte and was a landmark for the wagon travellers.
Wagon Mound lies near an important junction where the Santa Fe Trail parts into two routes. Wagon Mound is on the Cimarron Route near where the other trail takes travellers along the Mountain Branch. The two trails come together once again near Fort Dodge, Eastern Colorado. The Cimarron was the most favoured route as it was more direct, easier for wagons and shorter by 100 miles. This had to be weighed up against the possibility of more frequent Indian attack and lack of water.
Further along and just south of Raton we came to a rest stop. The facilities proved to be comfortable, clean and well maintained. There was warm water to wash hands. There were sheltered picnic tables and trees for shade. A sign indicated another significant Santa Fe Trail site a mile to the west. We imagined it wouldn’t have had the luxuries we just experienced. It had been a popular rest stop nevertheless, for travelling pioneers. Named Clifton House, it was a popular overnight stopover for weary travellers as they neared their destination of Santa Fe.
Raton, near the border of present day New Mexico and Colorado, is situated at 7881 feet on the Mountain section of the Trail. Today much of the evidence of the Santa Fe Trail has been wiped out but some distinct signs still remain if you take the time to fossick. Although this Pass was difficult and dangerous, it offered advantages over the Cimarron Trail.
We left the Santa Fe Trail beyond Raton New Mexico at Trinidad Colorado. The mountain route of the Old Santa Fe Trail continued from Trinidad on to historical Bent’s Fort. The modern traveller can travel 1.5 hours for 89 miles along Road 350. The reconstructed Bents Fort was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960. We visited the site on a previous occasion and can thoroughly recommend it. By the way, ask for park ranger and interpreter, John Carson. Yes, the great grandson of the legendary Kit.
Further along Interstate 25 is Ludlow Colorado. In this small town on April 20th 1914, a seminal event occurred which became a watershed in American labour relations. As part of the Colorado Coal Wars the Colorado National Guard and Colorado Fuel and Iron Company guards attacked a tent colony of 1,200 striking coal miners and their families. An estimated 21 people were killed. Over a 14-month period of strikes, as part of the Wars, in skirmishes between Trinidad and Walsenburg, 200 lives may have been lost. After the Wars, a Congressional report was published in 1915. It was influential in promoting child labor laws and an eight-hour workday.
Of course Native Americans inhabited this area of the country prior to European settlers. A set of interpretive signs at a rest area we visited near Pueblo, makes mention of the Indian Wars. Significantly, 125 miles east of this spot, is a Historic National Monument commemorating The Sandy Creek Massacre. Here, on November 29, 1864, the U.S. Army attacked a village of Cheyenne and Arapaho people, mainly women and children. An estimated 70-500 people we killed.
We were nearing our destination of Monument. Travelling north and passing through Colorado Springs, with the famous 14,000 foot Pikes Peak on our left, we encountered heavy traffic as holidaymakers made their way to various destinations for the Easter Break.
Our minds were struggling with the surreal nature of our journey that day. Our imaginations had to deal with stark contrasts in time travel. In our minds, wagon trains moved through isolated landscapes to the present reality of masses of cars in a built-up city landscape. The irony was, as we joined the traffic queue, the cars were probably moving at the same speed as the wagons