Eighty years ago this month, 20 solitary miles beyond Magdalena on the Plains of San Agustín, a large camp began to take shape.
Populated by lonely young men far from home, this remote outpost was known as DG-42-N. It was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps as a home base for their area project, a big part of which was to protect and improve an important New Mexico asset: the Magdalena Stock Driveway.
The CCC was established by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 to provide employment and training to young men during the Great Depression. They certainly had their work cut out for them on the Magdalena Stock Driveway, which not many people are familiar with despite its notable role in New Mexico history.
“The Magdalena Stock Driveway, or Magdalena Trail, has been compared in importance to the famous Chisum and Goodnight-Loving trails,” said Brenda Wilkinson, an archaeologist with the Bureau of Land Management who oversees much of the driveway lands, “but unlike those more famous trails, the Magdalena Trail was used clear up to 1970.”
The Magdalena Trail was established in 1885 after the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad completed the rail spur from Socorro to Magdalena, and was used to move cattle and sheep to the stockyards and railhead from the numerous ranches spread across the western New Mexico countryside, with annual numbers reaching as high as 21,677 cattle and 150,000 sheep, Wilkinson said.
“The Magdalena railhead was one of the most important shipping points in the West, and the stock driveway served a vast area of west-central New Mexico, and even as far as Springerville, Arizona, in the early days. It was a bit like a river system, with tributaries flowing into the main channel.”
Wilkinson said this crucial trail – a pipeline of survival for countless ranchers – faced possible extinction in 1916 with the Stock Raising Homestead Act (SRHA), which allowed homesteaders to claim up to 640 acres.
“Ranchers and stockmen started getting a little edgy after the (SRHA) passed in 1916. They were afraid that if folks started fencing off these big homesteads the trail might be blocked. Ranching is a business, and in order to do business you have to sell your product. For cattlemen and sheepmen that means getting your stock to a buyer, which was done by rail in those days.”
Concerned groups petitioned the Secretary of the Interior to have lands set aside for the trail, and so the Magdalena Stock Driveway was officially designated in 1918, Wilkinson said. But even with the designation, it was still rough going.
“Before the late 1930s, surrounding ranches grazed the stock driveway, meaning there wasn’t much of anything for the moving herds to eat, and stockmen often had to haul feed for the trip. There were also very long distances between water sources, and most were on private land. It was rough on the livestock, and also rough on the stockmen who had to haul feed and pay for the use of the privately-controlled water,” Wilkinson said.
Life in the CCC
This is where the CCC came in. They constructed wells and water troughs along the stock driveway every 10 miles – a typical day’s journey for cattle. The CCC also erected fences along the main route to reserve grazing vegetation for traveling herds. Wilkinson said, “After the fences were built there was plenty of grass, and livestock actually gained weight on their way to Magdalena, increasing profit for stockmen.”
Specific information about DG-42-N is hard to come by, but CCC camps averaged 200 men and typically had four barracks, a mess hall, a recreation hall, latrine, bath house, infirmary, garages, supply buildings and administrative buildings, according to Richard Melzer’s book on CCC life, “Coming of Age in the Great Depression.” Melzer writes that this particular camp boasted a Wurlitzer music machine in its rec hall, and at one time had a bear cub as a mascot, which was released when fully grown.
Not much is left of the large DG-42-N camp today. Gone are mascots and music machines, the buildings and corrals, and the young men who were required to send $25 of their $30-per-month salaries back home to their distant families. A windmill, water tank and a trough keep a few tin cans and building foundations company at this once-bustling site.
“In addition (to the stock driveway), they worked on a lot of erosion control structures to help with conservation of the land, and many of them can still be seen today,” Wilkinson said of DG-42-N’s legacy. “People were desperate for basic human necessities during the Depression, and it was (the CCC) pay that kept many families in New Mexico and across the country afloat. They should be remembered for the lasting effects of their projects on the land, and the lasting contributions to their families, the state and the country.”
Sometimes the best stories are in your own backyard. Or around your dinner table. When Journal intern Joel Wigelsworth pitched this story, he was pretty confident he could get the interview. BLM archaeologist Brenda Wilkinson is his mother.