El Malpais
In the Land of Frozen Fires: A History of Occupation in El Malpais Country
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Chapter VI:

U.S. troops remained at the malpais post through part of 1869 to finalize the transfer of government property to the second Fort Wingate, located at old Fort Fauntleroy (Lyons). Civilians had long sought to settle in the rich, fertile Ojo del Gallo Valley but fear of Navajo strikes had dampened their ardor. Now that the threat of Navajo attacks had diminished, citizens flocked to the valley, much to the concern of the neighboring Acomas. The Acomas complained bitterly that non-Indian developments in the valley infringed on Acoma patent rights. They argued that Acomans had farmed the region prior to the establishment of Fort Wingate, and indeed they had. Acoma fields at one time extended north of present-day Grants, westward to Ojo del Gallo, and southward as far as Cerro Carnero. [1]

Soldiers were summoned to Ojo del Gallo to preserve peace and to evict the squatters. The trespassers appealed to sympathetic officials in Santa Fe. Santa Fe sided with the settlers, many of whom were ex-soldiers and had served at old Fort Wingate. To appease the Acomas, some dishonest settlers openly bribed tribal representatives, promising to back their boundary disputes with Laguna and give them money if they withdrew their land claim to the Ojo del Gallo region. Some unscrupulous and naive Acomas accepted the terms and supplied the surveyors misinformation regarding their western boundary that omitted the Ojo del Gallo valley from the land patent survey. To make matters worse, the Acomas finished second best in their land squabble with the Laguna. Indian Agent, Benjamin H. Thomas, presiding over the case wrote in 1877, "While I am firmly of the opinion that the Acoma Indians would be defrauded of a valuable portion of their Grant--the Old Fort Wingate site--should a patent issue on the basis of this last survey, I nevertheless recommend that the survey be approved." Thomas listed his reasons citing under item number two: "The Acomas have only themselves to blame for the loss of Old Fort Wingate district, because they falsely swore it away for a consideration." [2]

During the dismantling of Wingate--predominantly Spanish-Americans, ex-soldiers, and citizens--built a cluster of homes, in 1869, within a mile of the old post. They called their new settlement, San Rafael. [3] Resources were plentiful. Timber and adobe from the post became the nucleus for new homes and outbuildings. The industrious settlers adapted the military's irrigation ditch for use in supplying water to their homes and field crops. The village grew rapidly. In just one year, according to the 1870 census, its population exploded to 678, surpassing the populations of older and more established communities like Cubero (population 581) and Cebolleta (population 630). Settlement patterning in San Rafael polarized into two distinct districts. Transfers from Cubero and Cebolleta settled the northern half of the town. New arrivals comprised primarily from the Rio Grande settlements, gravitated to the southern portion. [4] Settlers developed an economic base centered around livestock, principally sheep, the standard-bearer of economics in frontier New Mexico.

Houses in San Rafael typified New Mexico's adobe-style characteristics with one minor exception--the adobe included deposits of volcanic ash, a by-product of the nearby lava flows. Once dried, the blocks of volcanic adobe produced a solid building material. Vigas dissected the ceilings and were covered with a roof of boards and planks. To finish the roof, a compacted layer of earth usually one foot thick, blanketed the planking. Gypsum lined the exterior and interior walls of the homes. Imported from Los Cerritos del Jaspe, located at the base of Mount Sedgwick, the huge chunks of gypsum were broken into smaller components and inserted in an oven to bake. Workers pulverized the oven-heated gypsum into a powder. Adding water transferred the powder into a paste that made a lasting coat of plaster. [5] Early San Rafael furnishings were spartan. A fireplace usually adorned one corner of the room, utilized for both cooking and eating. Hand-hewed furniture, heavy and durable, filled the home. Chair seats were secured by tacking or weaving leather strips across the frame. Compacted straw or wool was stuffed into bed mattresses, and if beds were not part of the household inventory, the mattresses were stored on planks next to the wall. Floor coverings, if any, consisted of washed-sheep pelts. [6]

As San Rafael prospered, Spanish-Americans began a regimen of expansionism beyond the bulging limits of the community. Five miles north, Don Jesús Blea homesteaded on the Río San Jose later to become site of the town of Grants a decade later. Ten years before Blea's homestead, Don Diego Antonio Chávez had attempted homesteading, and thus became the first homesteader in the immediate vicinity of the malpais. In 1873, the federal government produced the first survey of the malpais. The plats were done, not so much for benefit of future homesteaders, but for the railroad companies who received title to the lands in exchange for building transcontinental railroads through the area.

Besides the thriving town of San Rafael, other small communities emerged along the western flank of the malpais. Individual families homesteaded west and south of the Zuni Mountains. The well-established corridor linking Ojo del Gallo to Zuni Pueblo prompted travelers and traders to take up residency in the region. The village of Tinaja, three miles north of El Morro, blossomed in the late 1860s. Originally dubbed San Lorenzo, it was renamed Tinaja, Spanish for "earthen jar" because a nearby Indian ruin fit the description. [7] Tinaja's existence evolved around the sheep industry. By the 1880s the community boasted several families in the area. [8]

The country surrounding Tinaja became a seedbed for a new wave of missionary activities. In the winter of 1876-1877, Luther C. Burhan and Ernest A. Tietjen brought the Church of the Latter Day Saints to Tinaja, hoping to plant a colony. A smallpox epidemic enveloped Tinaja forcing Burhan and Tietjen to seek a healthier climate. The Mormons moved about a dozen miles west and established their colony four miles from the site of the present town of Ramah. They built two communities called Sevoia and Navajo. [9] The Mormon knowledge of controlling water supplies in New Mexico's arid climate, and their affinity for communal living attracted modest converts among the Navajos. A decade later Church enrollment exceeded 100 members. In 1886, the town of Navajo made formal application for its own post office. The postal service rejected the proposal, replying that a village by that name already existed in New Mexico. The Mormons then changed the name of Navajo to Ramah, after a Book of Mormon. [10]

Despite the emergence of small communities around the malpais, growth remained stagnant until one singular event transformed the economic fortunes--the coming of the railroads. The idea for a transcontinental railroad along the 35th parallel had its origins in 1853, when Lt. Amiel Whipple headed a railroad surveying party. Although Whipple's route proved practical, Congress failed to appropriate any funds for the project, opting instead to throw its support for a central line. Following the Civil War, Congress renewed its efforts to link east and west coasts with a series of transcontinental routes. In 1866, Congress proffered lands but no funds for completion of a northern and southern rail link. [11] Even without construction funds, Congress' offer of free land ranked as a sufficient inducement to propel the highly competitive railroad companies to vie for the coveted routes. The government's generous land offer guaranteed the railroads a one-hundred-foot strip right-of-way plus support land for railroad stations and machine shops, all tax exempt. Congress sweetened the pot by offering extensive land grants consisting of alternate, odd-numbered sections on each side of the line, 20 miles in the states, and 40 miles in the territories. Should any of the strips contain homesteaders, an additional 10 miles of land would be added as indemnity land from which the railroad received compensation. Upon completion of a 25-mile segment inspectors verified track completion and then gave the railroad company title to the land. [12]

In 1866, the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad based in Springfield, Missouri, garnered a Congressional charter to build along the 35th parallel. The proposed path originated at Pacific, just west of St Louis, and continued westward across the Indian Territory to the Canadian River. From the Canadian it would traverse the open plains to Albuquerque, then sweep along the 35th passing the malpais country of western New Mexico. Termination of the Atlantic and Pacific tracks was the Colorado River, across from the future site of Needles, California. From the California state line, the Southern Railroad would build the steel tracks into San Francisco. Congress imposed a deadline of July 4, 1878, to complete the project. [13] Financial troubles beset the A&P from the outset. By 1872, the company had completed only 361 miles of rail, stopping at Vinata, in the Indian Territory. The Panic of 1873 added to the A&P's misery with the railroad company plummeting into receivership by 1875. The St. Louis and San Francisco Railway Company (Frisco) purchased the A&P stock in a bid to finish the line. It, too, fell victim to financial problems and provided little in way of construction.

Meanwhile, the Atchinson, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad worked vigorously to complete its network of steel rails between Topeka and Albuquerque. Early in June 1879, the AT&SF reached Las Vegas, New Mexico. Consuming 1.5 miles of real estate per day in track construction, the railroad surged southward toward Santa Fe. East of Santa Fe at the village of Lamy, one blow from a mighty hammer unified tie with rail ending Santa Fe's economic love affair with the Santa Fe Trail. The Santa Fe Trail, long the corridor linking mid-America to the Southwest, became obsolete overnight. No longer would the crackle of the bull whacker's whip ring out over the dusty landscape. No longer would settlers have to endure prolonged hardships or risk death and injury at the hands of highway men and recalcitrant Indians. Now, for the price of a railroad ticket, they could ride the steel rails in relative comfort and at a fraction of the cost in their westward migration. The great trail became a dusty memory.

Even as the AT&SF steamrolled towards Albuquerque, company officials pursued plans to share in the lucrative west coast traffic. In 1880, Santa Fe Railroad executives entered into a business partnership with the financially strapped St. Louis and San Francisco Railway. Under the agreement, the Santa Fe purchased one-half of the A&P stock held by the St. Louis and San Francisco. Contract stipulations specified the AT&SF must finish its tracks to Albuquerque, nearly complete anyway. Using the A&P charter, both the SL&SF and the AT&SF shared equally in the expenses of constructing the tracks westward from Albuquerque. [14] The section of rail between Albuquerque and California was designated the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad Western Division. [15]

Grading began April 8, 1880, from Albuquerque. The physical act of laying down track commenced in July. The route of the rails from Albuquerque veered south for 15 miles to Isleta before pointing west. Railroad engineers ordered the detour to circumvent terrain problems west of Albuquerque. From Isleta the tracks sliced west to Laguna Pueblo where it picked up the 35th parallel. The construction crew resembled an army, consisting of 4,000 men and 2,000 mules. Most of the workers came from Irish backgrounds, but other ethnic groups swelled the rank and file in the mammoth undertaking. [16] When possible the railroad company hired locally. All able-bodied Acoma and Laguna Indians willing to work were offered temporary jobs. Track layers and graders were paid $2.25 per day; spikers and iron men received $2.50. [17] West of Albuquerque workmen spiked down track at a clip of two miles per day. A portion of the line entered the Acoma grant for which the railroad negotiated a lease with the Tribe. While constructing tracks along the northern tier of Acoma property, workmen severed an irrigation ditch. The Atlantic & Pacific Railroad compensated the Acomas by repairing the ditch and paying $500 in damages. [18]

Development of towns adjacent to rail lines normally provoked controversy. If not careful, the railroad company became entwined with political hagglers and investment speculators, all vying to influence the railroad on where it should establish its towns. To prevent outside intervention, railroad executives maintained utmost secrecy. To the profit-conscious railroads, careful consideration in selecting townsites hinged on access to water and investment return. [19] Between 1870-1886, the AT&SF launched more than 100 towns. Many of the villages became temporary "hell on wheels" as the railroad built west. Other towns earned a permanent station and prospered by railroad development. [20]

About the end of January 1881, steel rails invaded the malpais along the valley of the Rio San Jose. They penetrated the arid, lava-strewn domain to a point four miles north of the village of San Rafael at the site of Don Jesús Blea's homestead. An important event occurred at Don Blea's homestead, the railroad company selected it for a railroad stop. [21] Originally dubbed Grant, it took its namesake from the trio of Grant brothers. The Grant Brothers had the railroad contract to build the tracks through the malpais. Grant rose from the volcanic ash and lava beds near Blea's homestead. The area possessed the key resources required for establishment of a town--water, wood, and economy. Another factor figuring in the decision to build a station at Grant, was its location, centered about halfway between Gallup and Albuquerque. A closer inspection reveals that Grant probably owed its existence to neighboring San Rafael. This thriving agricultural community, located on the western edge of the malpais and four miles south of Grant Station, offered economic potential railroad executives coveted.

Section House
Figure 3. Section House, Grants Station, New Mexico, July 1881.
Photo by Ben Wittick, Collections in the Museum of New Mexico.

With a coaling depot installed at Grant's Station, the malpais landscape changed abruptly. Stacks of cut lumber hauled in by flatcars transformed the stark terrain into a cluster of dwellings. Before long, telegraph poles punctuated the escarpment linking the region to the outside world. By January 1882, the population of Grant became sufficient that the United States Postal Service approved a post office for the village. In order to provide service for the inhabitants, Simon Bibo built a trading post. He acquired a portion of Blea's property and established his mercantile business next to the tracks. [22] Grant flourished briefly during the hubbub of railroad construction. The work gangs, however, pressed westward leaving in their wake a struggling outpost in the malpais. But the railroad had left an indelible mark on the region, perhaps more than any single event before or after. The coming of the steel rails permitted the area to gain an economic foothold that attracted a slow but steady increase in population. The Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, later to be totally absorbed by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, had implanted a faint heartbeat into the malpais. Whether the railroad's economic gamble succeeded or failed hinged on the quality and variety of people to meet the challenge.

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Last Updated: 10-Apr-2001