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A railroad arrives, the economy expands

Nothing helped the San Juan Basin pioneer economy more than the arrival of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad.

General Palmer’s railroad reached Chama on the west side of the San Juan Mountains in 1880. By 1881 his railroad reached Durango, the town he created to serve settlers in the Lower Animas River Valley. The D. & R.G. didn’t stop at Durango; it continued up the Animas River Valley to Silverton.

Now seems an appropriate time in this narrative to take a closer look at the railroad’s impacts on various local towns and regions as it passed through Four Corners Country.

The San Juan Basin and Four Corners had much to offer in the way of natural resources. Huge deposits of gold, silver, copper and other valuable minerals were scattered throughout the San Juan Mountains. Also available were magnificent deposits of coal.

A good part of the country at elevations below 9,000 feet was covered with stands of huge ponderosa pine, so big and so old they were called yellow barks.

Many valleys, park-like meadows, and the mountains themselves were carpeted with knee-deep beds of grass. It was supreme cattle country. Those same valleys proved themselves amenable to irrigation and soon were growing oats and barley and rye grasses in prodigious amounts. At lower elevations, specifically in the Aztec/Farmington area, berries, fruit trees, and other row crops did well.

Finally, with a plethora of trout-filled streams, towering mountain peaks and abundant wild life, the whole region was a natural attraction for hunters, fishermen and tourists. Naturally occurring hot springs and soon-to-be-uncovered evidence of an earlier but now vanished, wide-spread Indian population that had lived in homes made of rocks and adobe added to the tourist appeal.

All of the resources mentioned were already extant when the first settlers arrived, but they were of little initial value because San Juan Country was too far from markets. Snow closed most of the roads across the mountains for almost half a year. Consequently, only a few months were available to load the existing resources onto wagons and haul them one at a time to market.

The only really successful industry in the beginning was raising beef cattle. Cattle could be driven overland to market. Even so, once the railroad arrived the cattle industry benefited greatly.

Naturally, since the railroad reached Chama first, it impacted the economy of the upper stretches of the Chama River Valley first. And stretching from north to south through the upper Chama River Valley was mile after mile of Ponderosa pine trees. Logs and lumber cannot profitably be moved long distances by horse-drawn wagons. It is therefore, an obvious observation that the train’s arrival in Chama launched a profitable lumber making industry in the Four Corners, starting with the Tierra Amarilla area in northern New Mexico and spreading gradually to the northern and western extremities of the region.

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