The state Cultural Properties Review Committee recently moved to protect the Apache Canyon Bridge by placing it on the State Register of Cultural Properties. At the same time, the group nominated it for the national register. The bridge crosses Apache Creek, a headwater of the Rio Galisteo, on private land less than a mile from the Valencia exit off Interstate 25. It dates to about 1850, when the Santa Fe Trail was thriving with travelers heading to New Mexico from western Missouri. The span sits at the beginning of the trail’s final approach to Santa Fe. The bridge functioned until 1880, when it was supplanted by the railroad.
You wouldn’t want to cross it in its current condition, said Tom Drake, spokesman for the Historic Preservation Division.
Its stone abutments are deteriorating, and the wood frame planks are peeling and pocketed with holes, he said. Erosion in the steep stream channel is undercutting the support, despite some 20th century repairs.
Early state records show workers spent $18 repairing the structure during the early 20th century.
The state recognition gives the bridge — located on private property — tax credits for preservation and stabilization for up to half its expenses up to $25,000, Drake said. Aside from the prestige of the national honor, to be placed on the National Register would draw attention to the site to help secure additional financial support, he added.
Historians say few bridges were built along the Santa Fe Trail, because stream crossings were generally fords. But at Apache Canyon, the channel was deep and steep enough to make that difficult, if not impossible. The bridge straddles a 20-foot arroyo.
The Santa Fe Trail was a major trade route in the Southwest, beginning in 1821. During the 1862 Battle of Glorieta Pass, the bridge ferried soldiers from both sides during the fighting. A strategic Union victory ensured that New Mexico remained in the U.S. The bridge is mentioned in historic accounts of the fighting.
The bridge’s pivotal historic moment occurred in 1862, when Gen. Henry Sibley and about 3,000 Texans invaded the New Mexico Territory in an ill-fated attempt to secure it and the Colorado gold fields for the Confederacy, according to the nomination petition. Outside of Santa Fe, a series of battles erupted, driving the Confederates back to Texas. The bridge was likely spared because of the inability of either side to move artillery or wagons without it.
During the heyday of the Santa Fe Trail, the route had to support large Conestoga wagons favored by traders to minimize the Mexican tariff of $500 per wagon. The route was the superhighway of its era, with various wagon “schemes” employed to avoid taxes by the merchants, according to the Santa Fe Trail Association.
Sometimes, traders consolidated the contents of three wagons into one just outside the city. By 1860, trade along the trail netted $3.5 million with more than 2,000 wagons transporting goods — cloth and silks, needles, thread, buttons, shawls, handkerchiefs, knives, files, axes, tools and, in 1824, “green spectacles.”
On the return trip to Missouri, the wagons hauled silver coins, processed gold, wool and mules.