Thursday, August 17, 2000
Zuni Mountain Tour a Road to Yesterday
By Sue Mannl
For the Journal
High in western New Mexico's Zuni Mountains is a place where time, like an old dead log, has stood still for more than 50 years. And if you've got a car, you've got a time machine.
Take a drive along the Zuni Mountain Historic Auto Tour, which starts in Grants, and you will see where the American Lumber Co. began large-scale timber cutting in 1901 and shipped 35 million to 50 million board feet of lumber per year from the Zuni Mountains to hungry markets in the east.
For the Record
This story has been corrected after print publication to fix an error. It originally said the rails were ripped up and sent to Japan in 1942.
You will also see, in the form of tattered trestles and rusty stretches of rail, the vestiges of the 55-mile railroad laid by the Atlantic and Pacific Line, where once more than 500 men worked to fill 160 logging cars pulled by six locomotives.
Brochures providing detailed driving instructions and a map of the Zuni Historic Auto Tour are available at the Grants/Cibola County Chamber of Commerce, where the mileage count for each of the 18 stops along the 45-mile tour begins.
A sign cut in the shape of a railroad locomotive marks all points of interest along the route. Look for them on both sides of the graded but unpaved road.
You won't want to stay confined to your car, and it's also a fine idea to take a lunch and enjoy a leisurely picnic along the way.
When the rails were ripped up and shipped to Japan, the Zuni Mountain area was changed forever.
Mitchell Brothers actually began the first attempt at railroad logging in 1892. Next came the American Lumber Co., and after it folded in 1913, post-World War I operators such as the McGaffey Co. and the George E. Breece Lumber Co. moved in.
Stanley Lewis still remembers attending the Breece Lumber Company Camp School near Bluewater Lake as a first-grader in 1924. His father was a locomotive fireman, and the family of five lived in a log cabin the company provided.
"Mrs. Maloney was our teacher," says Lewis, "and she taught children from kindergarten to eighth grade in a one-room school." He still carries fond memories of running and playing in the tree-studded hills surrounding the camp.
The average pay for company men was $2.50 per day, and Lewis' mother, Blanche, made extra income by sewing for women in the camp. She charged 75 cents to make a dress, and she would layer and sew a quilt together for $3.
Mrs. Lewis, born Dec. 22, 1899, has lived in three centuries, and today, at age 101, she stays with her daughter Elsie in Ramah. Lewis himself lives nearby on the ranch his parents homesteaded in 1917, and he stops in daily to see his mother and sister.
History of the harvest
In that bygone era of one-room schools and company cabins, loggers harvested pine spears and slid them down a mountain log chute onto railroad cars.
Two men sawed the trees from opposite sides, and felled trees were then pulled by horse wagons to the nearest rail car or chute then loaded onto the train headed east for market. You can see the remnants of this operation on Stop 2 of the auto tour.
A short hike from Stop 4 takes you to Bridge 17 at La Jara. The remains of this trestle (so named because it was the 17th bridge west of Grants) illustrate the use of squared beams rather than logs as timber supports, a design still in use. Previously, railroad bridges had been built in a cribwork style, which required many more logs.
It's a good idea to read all the signs at each stop, because they contain additional information not included in the brochure.
The tour sometimes requires imaginative fill-ins to see railroading life as it existed more than 50 years ago. For instance, once but no longer found at Stop 5 were "set out tracks," which accommodated both standard engines and the smaller Shay or Climax-type engines used in the woods.
Passing Stop 6, you will see a young plantation of ponderosa pines, started as seedlings between 1979 and 1989 by the Forest Service. Almost 9,000 acres of land along the road has been restored.
Pay respect for the private land you cross near Cold Springs at Stop 7.
Because the area averaged 20 to 24 inches of rain per year, nearby homesteaders harvested good crops from dry-land farming. They found a ready food market among the camp workers and their families.
At Stop 9, you will have gone more than halfway 26 miles as you cross the Continental Divide, at an elevation of 9,089 feet.
Shortly after driving through Sawyer (Stop 12), you will see a rich stand of virgin ponderosa pine. Before the heavy lumber harvest, the Zuni Mountains above 7,000 feet were heavily covered in thick timber stands such as these.
The illustrated brochure is remarkably easy to follow as you wend your way toward Bluewater Lake, and finally join Interstate 40 at Thoreau. The altitude of the drive ranges from 6,500 feet at the beginning of the tour to 9,000 feet and higher at the Continental Divide.
The return trip to Grants is only 25 miles along I-40.
And back on the interstate, with the road of yesteryear behind you and the scenery whizzing by, time starts again. The only difference is, you will know a little bit more than you did before.
Zuni Mountain Historic Auto Tour
HIGHLIGHTS: In addition to the scenic beauty, this trip offers an interesting New Mexico history lesson. Makes a wonderful family outing.
LOCATION: The tour begins at the Cibola County Visitors Center, on corner of Iron and Santa Fe Avenue (Historic Route 66) in Grants.
DISTANCE: 45.2 miles.
BEST SEASONS: Late spring to late fall before the snow falls.
CAUTIONS: Roads can be quite muddy after a rain storm, especially between stops 5 through 10. Even when dry, the roads can have deep ruts. Drive on the high side.
MAPS AND INFORMATION: Stop in at the new Northwest New Mexico Visitors (Exit 85 South) or call (505) 876-2783. Brochures with maps are also available at the Grants/Cibola County Chamber of Commerce, located at Iron and Historic Route 66. For information on overnight lodging and restaurants in the area, call (800) 748-2142 or visit Grants' Web site at www.grants.org.
"Of the many volcanic regions I have explored, one of the most interesting is in the Zuni Mountains of Western New Mexico. ... All through the range whose tops are over 8,000 feet in altitude are scattered scores of extinct volcanoes, and their lava flows have overrun many thousands of square miles. The range is covered with a magnificent pine forest a rare enough thing in the southwest growing partly upon ancient flows and cut in all directions by later ones."
Charles F. Lummis, author of "Some Strange Corners of Our Country" (1908).