Raton Pass connects the the Upper Arkansas River drainage to Northern New Mexico. Control over this route has quite an interesting history. A crooked toll road for miners and tradesman during the infancy of America, a narrow mountain passageway for rail, and a modern convenience, this route was reportedly blazed in 1821. This tract of land through the northern Sangre de Cristo Mountain range has been commodified at every bendy turn, and its importance to the surrounding economy is reflected in its inclusion on the Santa Fe Trail and–more recently–the National Register of Historic Places.
One of the first recorded journeys1 over the pass was made by William Becknell, a businessman fleeing failed ventures and political aspirations in Missouri; he hoped to reverse his fortunes by trading beaver pelts from Northern New Mexico. Becknell left Franklin, Missouri with four companions in September, 1821 with a load of freight to deliver to Santa Fe. By that time conquistadors, trappers, and traders had already established a rough trail through the pass, but Becknell is often credited with being the first to take wagons through the area. However, that portion of the journey has been called into question after the discovery of the diary of Pedro Ignacio Gallego in 1993. Mexican Army Captain Gallego and 400 of his soldiers encountered Becknell far from the area in which he claimed to be, and these writings–along with Becknell’s own journal describing the landscape–show evidence that he and his men probably misidentified the Canadian River and instead crossed at another river south of present day Las Vegas, New Mexico.1
After a month of trading, Becknell left Santa Fe on December 13th, and the men returned to Missouri safely in January of 1822. His investment of $300 in trading goods had returned approximately $6000 in coin. The profits made by William Becknell’s first trading trip brought much needed money and valuable goods into central Missouri where the Panic of 1819 had devastated the local economy.
William Becknell’s description of the pass was accurate enough to scare people away. His depictions of broken wagons, big boulders, and a lack of basic services led most traders along the Santa Fe Trail to choose the Cimarron Cutoff, which cut diagonally across southwestern Kansas and northeastern New Mexico to avoid the mountains. Raton Pass, on the other hand, lay on the Mountain Branch of the trail, which was longer and more difficult but did have more water and less threat of violence from Native Americans struggling to cling to their land. It received far less traffic than the Cimarron Cutoff but was favored by traders with only a few pack animals or light wagons.
Richens Wootton, a trapper like Becknell, saw the pass as an economic investment and decided to build and operate a toll gate restricting access to the trail. Wootton then claimed to have made the road more accessible to wagon travel. His bridges turned out to be narrow, and the road was laced with culverts; many curves were so sharp that wagons could not pass without damage. Some hills were so steep that wagons had to use double teams for the ascent. The twenty seven-mile journey took most parties five days and wrecked many wagons. With few alternatives, the public almost had to use the Wootton Road.
On August 1, 1865, before either Colorado or New Mexico became a state, Uncle Dick ran an ad in the Territory Gazette (Las Vegas, New Mexico) listing charges at the toll gate. Wagons pulled by two oxen, horses or mules cost $1. Wagons pulled by four cost $1.50. Wagons pulled by more than this cost $2. One man on horseback or on foot cost 25 cents. Loose cattle, horses or mules, pigs or sheep cost 5 cents each.2
Wootton built his house and toll gate on the Colorado side of the pass, and daily stage service on the route started soon after gold was discovered in New Mexico’s Moreno Valley in 1867.3
Once the railroad arrived, Wootton declined an offer of $50,000 for his road in favor of lifetime rail passes and groceries for him and his wife. In 1878 the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad (ATSF) beat the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad (D&RG) to the route up Raton Pass, which had space for only one rail line. ATSF decided to tunnel under the summit of the pass to cut down on what was already a steep and grueling climb, but in the meantime it built a temporary track over the pass to allow trains to start traveling the route in late 1878. This marked the end of most wagon and stagecoach traffic over Raton Pass. The railroad tunnel under the pass opened in September 1879.
Two nineteenth-century military crossings are especially notable in the history of Raton Pass. The first came in August 1846, during the Mexican-American War, when Stephen w. Kearny’s Army of the West used the pass to invade New Mexico. Kearny chose Raton Pass for two reasons. First, he could use Bent’s Fort as a base; and second, it had more water than the Cimarron Cutoff, an especially important advantage in the summer. Kearny left Bent’s Fort on August 2, sending road crews in advance to try to improve the route for the advancing soldiers. Nevertheless, the soldiers still had difficulty getting over the pass and lost many wagons descending into New Mexico, which Kearny’s army quickly claimed for the United States.
Raton Pass played an important military role again during the Civil War, as Union forces used Raton Pass to supply troops stationed in New Mexico. In 1862 when Confederate troops were advancing north through New Mexico, a regiment of Colorado Volunteers marched over Raton Pass to reinforce Union troops and win a major victory at the Battle of Glorieta Pass.
When Spain controlled what is now 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 area to both commercial and cultural exchange. The Santa Fe Trail, which spanned 1,200 miles from Franklin, Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico, served as a sort of highway for oxen and horses–not to mention their human passengers.
In 1908 the rail company ATSF completed a second tunnel under Raton Pass to handle increased traffic, but developments in rail around the West signaled the decline of Raton Pass as a major rail corridor. Most importantly, ATSF finished the Belen Cutoff in central New Mexico, giving the railroad an easier route. Raton Pass continued to be used for passengers, but all long-haul trains now took the Belen Cutoff route. In 1908–9 New Mexico used convict labor to build a new highway that crossed the Colorado border near Raton Pass, further reducing traffic through the area.
The majority of traffic through the pass now comes from automobiles. In 1926 the highway over Raton Pass was designated as US 85 and improved. In 1942 it was realigned to the old Wootton route along the Santa Fe Trail, which was more navigable. This route was incorporated into Interstate 25 in the early 1960s, and now provides tourism dollars for the nearby towns of Raton and Trinidad.
Despite being on the less popular Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail, the pass has often been used as a symbol of the trail’s hardships and of the boundary between Anglo and Hispanic cultures. Still an important corridor traversed by a railroad and Interstate 25, the pass was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1961.4
The 7,881-foot summit is accessible via I-25, and a New Mexico Welcome Center allows visitors to step out of their vehicles and stretch or take photos. An informative historic marker for Raton Pass interprets the landmark both at the center and on the Colorado side of the State border. Public access to the land, however, is restricted, as the wilderness is privately owned. The nearby city of Raton, New Mexico celebrates its trail heritage and the Raton Museum, located at 108 2nd Street, interprets the area’s past for curious visitors.
A family of road signs has been initiated across the Santa Fe Trail to help you find original routes, trail crossings, and local sites. Follow the signs exhibiting the distinctive Santa Fe Trail National Historic Trail logo.
Advertisement. Aspen (Colo.) Evening Chronicle, 17 July 1861. Page 1, column 4.
Gallego, Pedro Ignacio. Diary of Pedro Ignacio Gallego. Mexican Archives of New Mexico (MANM), Twitchell Collection, #3 & 120, New Mexico State Records Center and Archives (NMSRCA), Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Greenwood, Richard. “Raton Pass.” National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination Form. Washington, D.C.: Historic Sites Survey, 1975.