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Raton Pass

Colorado and New Mexico

The Raton Pass still retains much of its topography and original character today

Raton Pass still retains much of its topography
and original character today
Courtesy of Steven Martin, Flickr Commons

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 passing through deserts, mountains and forests along its route, became the main means of transportation to and from the area.

Raton Pass, at the border of present day New Mexico and Colorado, was one of the most important, yet treacherous, segments of the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail. The pass cut through the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains, allowing wagons access to the vast western territory. Shorter routes were eventually developed, but Raton Pass, which crossed easier terrain, remained in use. The pass played a critical role in General Stephen Watts Kearny’s conquest of Santa Fe and the eventual American annexation of New Mexico in 1846.

As the first major passage west through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the Raton Pass National Historic Landmark celebrates the development of American trade, cultural interaction, and westward expansion.

When Mexico opened its borders to trade with the United States in 1821, a great commercial, military and emigrant trail was born. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains, however, loomed huge and daunting between the western edge of the United States in Missouri and the bustling Mexican center of commerce, Santa Fe. Early explorers, trappers, and American Indian peoples had previously discovered various paths through the treacherous mountains, but before 1821, no covered wagons had made the journey.

Wagons such as this preserved example were not well equipped to handle the narrow, steep and craggy trail through the Raton Pass

Wagons such as this preserved example were not well equipped to handle the narrow, steep and craggy trail through the Raton Pass
Courtesy of Larry D. Moore, Wikimedia Commons

In June of 1821, William Becknell, a horse and mule trader, traveled west from Franklin, Missouri with a wagon and four companions. He would be the first of many to travel via wagon through the narrow, torturous Raton Pass. The path was narrow, steep, and rocky. Some areas of the pass were so tight that only one wagon could go through at a time. Often their wooden axles shredded and snapped on the brutally rough terrain. Still, Becknell proved that it was possible, and many others followed, risking their equipment and lives along the craggy trail for the promise of trading success in Santa Fe.

Soon, however, a new branch of the Santa Fe Trail developed. The so-called “Cimarron Route” was not only 100 miles shorter, but cut across the relatively flat grasslands and deserts of present-day Kansas and Oklahoma instead of through Colorado’s peaks. Although the openness of the Cimarron Route led to frequent raids from American Indian tribes (and the dry desert presented issues of its own), the dangers of the shorter path were still preferable to travel over the difficult Raton Pass. Between the 1820s and early 1840s, most of the wagon traffic along the Santa Fe Trail opted to take the Cimarron Route.

The Mountain Route and its famously dangerous Raton Pass may very well have been abandoned completely, but in 1846, the pass again played a significant historic role. Tensions were running high between the United States and Mexico over land disputes in Texas, a territory that included what is now the State of New Mexico. Both countries lay claim to the land and Mexico disputed the decision of the United States to annex Texas in 1845. President James Polk declared war on Mexico in 1846 and sent American forces into the territory. General Stephen Watts Kearny set out with his famed 1,600-man “Army of the West” along the Santa Fe Trail.

General Stephen Watts Kearny skillfully led his “Army of the West” through the Raton Pass in 1846

General Stephen Watts Kearny skillfully led his “Army of the West” through the Raton Pass in 1846
Public Domain Image

Although the Mountain Branch and the Raton Pass were known for being dangerous, Kearny specifically chose to head west through the mountains, rather than take the Cimarron Route. The steep, narrow Raton Pass afforded better protection from invading forces and an ample water supply, unlike the dry desert along much of the Cimarron Route. Before Kearny and his men arrived, a team of workers set out along the trail to try to make passage easier including clearing rocks and debris from the notorious Raton Pass. In spite of their efforts, Kearny’s journey was still fraught with difficulty. Many wagons were destroyed and supplies had to be left behind.

Weakened, the men emerged from the Raton Pass and expected to meet resistance from Mexican forces that the provincial governor Manuel Armijo sent. They instead found the valley abandoned. Kearny’s takeover of Santa Fe thus was swift. Without a struggle, the United States laid claim to the territory.

The Mountain Branch was again mostly abandoned after its use by Kearny’s army, because traders and travelers still preferred the shorter, easier route. The Raton Pass saw use once again, however, with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860. The vulnerability of the Cimarron Branch was recognized as concerns heightened around Confederate raids. The Santa Fe Trail saw heavy use as a Union Army supply route west, and the narrow, protected Raton Pass was easy to guard. The pass continued to serve Union troops through 1865.

At the war’s end, Raton Pass became part of a toll road for several years that entrepreneur Richens L. Wootton built and managed. Beginning in 1866, the most treacherous part of the Santa Fe Trail was heavily altered by grading, blasting, bridge building, and clearing. The formerly difficult Raton Pass was made passable in all seasons for horses, wagons and stagecoaches alike. While Wootton’s toll road was highly profitable, the advancing western railroad system soon overtook it. By the late 1870s, train traffic replaced Raton Pass and the Santa Fe Trail as a whole, which led to the abandonment of the epic trade route by 1880.

The westward expansion of the railroad led to the eventual demise of the Santa Fe Trail. Today Amtrak still runs rail service through the Raton Tunnel

The westward expansion of the railroad led to the eventual demise of the Santa Fe Trail.  Today Amtrak still runs rail service through the Raton Tunnel.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The railroad that once scaled the pass via a series of switchbacks has since been re-routed beneath the mountain by way of a tunnel. Much of the rest of the rail line still follows the old route of the Santa Fe Trail through Raton Pass and along Raton Creek. Though much of the trail has been wiped out by new highway construction, distinct original segments remain.

The 7,881-foot summit is accessible via I-25 and a New Mexico Welcome Center allows visitors to step out of their vehicles to see the incredible view, once only afforded to travelers of the Santa Fe Trail. 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 celebrates its trail heritage and the Raton Museum interprets the area’s past for curious visitors.

The Santa Fe Trail, as a whole, is a recognized American treasure. The entire 1,200-mile route is a National Historic Trail. Much of it can be traveled by car along the Santa Fe Trail Scenic & Historic Byway, a road-route that follows the path of the original trail.

Plan your visit

Raton Pass is a National Historic Landmark and is located along the Santa Fe National Historic Trail, a unit of the National Park Service. Raton Pass is located five miles north of Raton, NM and is accessible by car via Route I-25.

The Raton Museum is located at 108 2nd Street, Raton, NM. In winter, the museum is open Wednesday through Saturday, 10:00am to 1:00pm. Summer hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 9:00am to 5:00pm. Admission is free at all times. For more information, visit the Raton Museum website or call 575-445-8979.

The Raton Pass National Historic Landmark is the subject of an online lesson plan, Glorieta and Raton Passes: Gateways to the Southwest. The lesson has been produced by the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places program, which offers a series of online classroom-ready lesson plans on registered historic places. The Santa Fe Trail is featured in the National Park Service’s Places Reflecting America's Diverse Cultures: Explore their Stories in the National Park System Travel Itinerary and many additional sites along the Santa Fe Trail are featured in the American Southwest Travel Itinerary.

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