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National Old Trails Road

The National Old Trails Road at La Bajada, New Mexico

Along with the famous Raton Pass, the twisty La Bajada is the most notable section of the National Old Trails Road and future Route 66 in the Southwest. Below is an excerpt from a draft National Register nomination on La Bajada by Dr. David Kammer (2002).

Dating to Spanish settlement in New Mexico and the Camino Real, the escarpment at La Bajada posed a formidable challenge to the development of a transportation network along the Rio Grande Valley until 1931. During New Mexico’s territorial period attempts to cut a roadway up the escarpment resulted in a series of wagon road alignments, the evidence of which remains today. In 1909 with the coming of the automobile, the Territorial Highway Commission undertook a project to improve the alignment.

Historical Overview

With its cuts into the solid basalt caprock and dry masonry retaining walls, the project was heralded as an engineering wonder along New Mexico’s Scenic Highway that soon became a part of the National Old Trails Road Ocean-to-Ocean Highway. In 1924, the road was realigned along the upper slopes of the escarpment, again with much publicity regarding its engineering feats. With the creation of the federal highway system in 1926, this improved roadway became a part of the U.S. 66 and 85 alignment. That same year construction crews widened some of the hairpin turns to accommodate the buses of the newly created Fred Harvey Indian Detours. They also installed a timber bridge to replace a concrete ford across the Rio Santa Fe at the foot of the escarpment near where a rural tourist camp and service station had opened the previous year. The alignment remained a part of the highway system until 1931 when a new alignment was completed along a gentler slope three miles to the south. .

A prominent landmark since pre-historic times, the volcanic-capped escarpment known as La Bajada presented a formidable barrier to north-south movement that the Spanish colonists first encountered as they sought to establish the Camino Real de Tierra Adendro (the Royal Road to the Interior Land) in the late 16th century. During the colonial period as caravans and settlers traveled the Rio Grande corridor, many attempted to scale the 600 ft. high barrier by following a trail up the rocky, flood-prone gorge of the Rio Santa Fe, the only canyon bisecting the escarpment. Others bypassed it by following the Rio Galisteo eastward along the foot of La Bajada and climbing it just west of the Cerrillos Hills; still others traveled even farther east, opting for the more gentle ascent offered at the western edge of the Galisteo Basin. So significant was La Bajada that the escarpment served to divide New Mexico into two distinct regions: the Rio Arriba or upper river, and Rio Abajo or lower river. Even today, this geographic feature functions as a significant cultural, environmental, and historical line of demarcation within New Mexico’s historic Rio Grande corridor.

During the colonial period as trade developed within the region, the canyon route from its mouth, or boca, to the village of La Cienega at the head of the canyon was the principal trade route between the colonial capital at Santa Fe and Santo Domingo Pueblo. Given the canyon’s susceptibility to flooding and the subsequent boulders strewn along the trail, however, an alternative trail gradually developed, extending southeastward from the village of Cienguilla across La Bajada Mesa to the steep escarpment where travelers carefully descended the steep precipice. It was this route that Zebulon Pike followed after being captured by Spanish soldiers in 1807 before spending the night at the village of La Bajada. Following the American conquest of New Mexico in 1846, the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848, and the creation of the New Mexico Territory in 1850, the military undertook some road improvements. While more attention at first was given to improving a roadway several miles to the southeast, in the 1860s the army worked to open the mesa road to wagon traffic. An account of the descent by Lt. Bourke in 1869 describes the volcanic caprock as “an overhanging vertical wall” and the escarpment as a “sheer precipice of five hundred” feet (Marshall:12). “The only orthodox way of going down La Bajada in those days” concluded Bourke, was for stage passengers to alight and make the descent on foot while the stage descended with its brake locked.

Efforts to improve the road increased during the late territorial period as the potential for automobile travel became apparent and pressure increased to improve the road from Santo Domingo to Santa Fe for the shipment of fresh produce. The Territorial Highway Commission appropriated funds in 1903 and then again in 1909 to open the road to automobile traffic. Using laborers from nearby Pueblo as well as penitentiary inmates, who lived in temporary camps near the project site, engineers dynamited the solid basalt rock, using the resulting large rocks to fashion roughly coursed retaining walls. Laborers then used the rubble to build up the roadbed and construct a curb along the outside of the roadway. Along the inside, they dug a gutter that they sometimes lined with concrete to drain the road and to catch falling rocks. In some instances, iron culverts were placed below the rubble bed and extended slightly away from the retaining walls to facilitate drainage. The template consisted of an 18 ft. wide bed, standard for road construction during that period, with little additional width at the seven hairpins appearing in the section just below the rim. Some of the district’s best remaining examples of these dry masonry walls appear along the basalt section of this 1909 alignment.

Completion of the project resulted in the reduction of the former wagon road’s grade of 28% to 7.5% (Second Biennial Report, 1910:183). It prompted state officials to conclude that the practice of using convict labor offered the territory a means of reducing road construction costs, a practice that reappeared at La Bajada 15 years later when the project to improve the alignment occurred. It also led the Territorial Engineer to conclude that Rio Grande Valley farmers would experience greater success in getting their produce to market, a conclusion that was underscored with a 121% increase in traffic a La Bajada in the months following the project’s completion.

Perhaps the most significant consequence of the completion of the roadway, however, was the increase in automobile tourism. As discussed in the historic context, the 1910s were marked by a popularization of the automobile in which groups led by the nationwide Good Roads Association lobbied both state and federal government for an improved network of roadways. While it wasn’t until 1926 that a federal highway system was initially designated, as in other states a numbered state highway system developed, emerging shortly after statehood in New Mexico. Accompanying these state systems was the emergence of several hundred intra and inter-regional private highway associations. These organizations were comprised of boosters, many who were merchants along prospective routes, who sold log, or guidebooks promoting their routes and roadside businesses.

In New Mexico, the main highway was NM 1 extending from Raton at the Colorado border to Anthony near the Texas border at El Paso. Essentially a linking together of the state’s two best-known historic roadways, the Camino Real and the Santa Fe Trail, the roadway was the subject of the first promotional effort of the State Highway Department when it printed a booklet entitled Through New Mexico on the Camino Real (NMSHC 1915). Published in 1915, it provided images of the new state’s main highway. Designed, in part, to entice motorists traveling to the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Diego to visit New Mexico, the booklet sought to reassure motorists about the quality of the state’s main highway, including its primary engineering feat, the road at La Bajada. Describing the work of the penitentiary inmates and Cochiti workers as “having moved a considerable amount of rock by hand and constructed stone retaining walls at every hairpin turn,” the booklet termed the turns as some of “the most dramatic engineering accomplishments” undertaken by the State Highway Commission.

Further contributing to the significance of the highway at La Bajada was its inclusion as part of the alignment of the National Old Trails Highway. Regarded as one of the most important of the many privately designated highways developing across the nation in the decades preceding the creation of the federal highway system, the National Old Trails Ocean to Ocean Highway Association, as its full title read, represented a splicing together of historic trails associated with the westward movement. Extending from Maryland’s Cumberland Turnpike and following the National Pike to the Mississippi River, it followed the Boone Lick Road across Missouri to Kansas City, where it then followed the Santa Fe Trail southwestward. In New Mexico it turned west following the approximate route of Spanish exploration westward to southern California. In the early days of automobile tourism, it was one of the most significant roads to cross New Mexico. Several state leaders actively promoted it, including Col. D.K.B. Sellers, mayor of Albuquerque, and Ralph Emerson Twitchell, a leading historian and booster during the late territorial and early statehood periods.

First conceived in 1907 as the Missouri Trails Association and promoted by the Daughters of the American Revolution to memorialize western pioneers as well as to promote the ongoing a national healing pertinent to the Civil War, in April 1912, the highway was renamed to encompass its transcontinental character. It gained additional prestige in 1913 when it was proposed in Congress as an “interstate highway,” and in 1914 when the Southern California Automobile Association decided to map the route, erecting markers along the way. Its standing was further enhanced in 1923 when the Automobile Blue Book, the most prestigious guide book for motorists, included the highway as only one of two crossing New Mexico in its mile-by-mile road description section. Even after the designation of the federally numbered highway system in 1926, the organization boosting the National Old Trails Highway continued, with Harry Truman, during his tenure as junior senator from Missouri, serving as its president and proclaiming that traveling it offered Americans an opportunity to learn history (Truman).

Addressing the road at La Bajada, the Log Book for the National Old Trails Highway, described it as “wide enough for two cars to pass easily anywhere, with a volcanic rock wall on the outside” and as “absolutely safe for the most timid driver” (Log Book: 19). Referring to the recently completed realignment descending the escarpment along the wall of Santa Fe Canyon before resuming the original alignment about a mile downhill, the log book entry also included a brief description prepared by James A. French, the State Highway Engineer since statehood. Seeking to reassure drivers, French listed the lower grades, banked roadway and retaining walls, and elimination of seven hairpin turns as evidence of an improved road. Characterizing the drive as one of “safety and beauty,” he nevertheless informed readers that despite its reputation, the old road had also been relatively safe, that “even the danger of the old road was largely mythical.”

Despite French’s reassurance about the older alignment, engineers and the public alike recognized that the numerous hairpin turns with short turning radii and steep grades necessitating that some cars back up the hill to compensate for the era’s primitive fuel pumps required improvements. In 1924, French again engaged the penitentiary to supply inmates, and plans were made to realign the roadway along the upper portions of the escarpment. While federal and state monies had been used to improve sections of the road above and below the escarpment, the highway department itself undertook the realignment, estimating that it would cost about $5,000 (NMHJ Feb.1924:19). Accompanied by a crew from the Fox Film Company, engineers detonated multiple charges of picric acid to blast cuts along the escarpment facing Santa Fe Canyon. Sufficiently removed from the earlier alignment, the blasting caused only a five-minute delay in traffic flow. Working with the rubble from the blast, crews installed corrugated metal culverts as they constructed retaining walls. Descending along a more gradual grade set more on a sedimentary surface than on the solid rock of the earlier alignment, none of these walls are of the height nor do they exhibit the coursing apparent in the earlier retaining walls. Along the common alignment remaining on the lower slopes, workers installed dry rubble masonry guard walls with a one-foot by two and one-half foot cross-section. Less than two years later, the road improvement project at La Bajada was completed when the timber bridge at the foot of the escarpment was constructed to replace a concrete ford laid in 1918 to replace an earlier timber bridge that had been washed out in a flood. Unlike the escarpment projects, the bridge was partially constructed with federal money provided under the federal government’s Federal Aid Project (FAP) and designated FAP 88-C (New Mexico Oct. 1931:10).

With the improved highway, traffic increased. Although the highway department had begun conducting traffic counts a few years earlier, its specific categories and locations sometimes varied so that precise comparisons are sometimes difficult. Despite this obstacle to comparative analysis, the overall figures pertinent to La Bajada show that the average daily traffic count rose from 617 in 1927, the year following the completion of the bridge and realignment projects, to 1,068 in 1928 and 1,565 in 1930. With the increased traffic and the lingering image of La Bajada as a challenging roadway for vehicles and drivers, a service station and small tourist court appeared at the base of the hill, much as similar facilities appeared near other geographical obstacles located along highways in New Mexico.

In 1925, Herb and Wallace Walden opened a small tourist camp and service station located west of the concrete ford across the Rio Santa Fe. With the realignment of the road and anticipated completion of the timber bridge, the site, a former stagecoach stop, was ideal for a roadside business. From there the brothers used their Dodge truck to rescue overheated vehicles and to tow Pickwick buses up the hill while passengers rode in the truck to give it additional weight for the pull. As with other rural service stations, they also constructed a series of small cabins behind their residence, arranging them in a line similar to the spatial organization of other rural cabins. Mary Montoya Walden, who had been born at the village of La Bajada in 1911 and married Herb Walden later recalled that the hairpin turns at La Bajada offered other economic opportunities as well (Ripp: B-1). Motorists sometimes hired local drivers to negotiate the hill, and tourist camp operators in Santa Fe dispatched boys to hand out camp flyers as motorists slowly wound their way around the turns. The painted advertisement for the Santa Fe Campground located along Francisco Street in the late 1920s recalls those advertising efforts.

Even with the improvements brought with the realignment and bridge, the roadway at La Bajada continued to be regarded as an obstacle. When the Fred Harvey Company initiated the Indian Detours in 1926 and the new venture’s director, Major R. Hunter Clarkson, approached New Mexico Governor Arthur T. Hannett about the detour’s itineraries and their suitability for the White buses, Clarkson anticipated using on some excursions, Hannett quickly sought to support this effort at bolstering the state’s growing tourist industry by ordering highway crews to widen the hairpin turns. A year later, however, an editorial in the New Mexico Highway Journal proclaimed that “The jinx at La Bajada must be overcome or tourist travel will be reduced to a minimum on the old trail” (in Carter:3). Acknowledging that even improving its turns could never entirely “offset stage-fright or careless driving,” the editorial concluded that the best way to advertise the hill was as a “beautiful stretch of scenic highway.”

It was with little surprise that in the fall of 1931 the State Highway Commission announced that it was completing construction of a “broad, safe, permanent highway connecting Santa Fe and Albuquerque (New Mexico, October, 1931:8). Dividing the project into multiple units under FAP 88, it had designated the hill section FAP 88-F and shifted the alignment three miles south of the former roadway. Augmenting the traditional road construction equipment of fresnos, wagons and teams with gasoline-powered shovels, air-compressors, several 2 and 6-yard end dump trucks, and Caterpillar tractors, crews cut and filled a new alignment located approximately where the I-25 alignment now ascends La Bajada. Grades were reduced from an average of 5% to 1.4% with the maximum grade at 6%. By late summer, the project was complete, and the 1924 alignment had become obsolete. Over the next few years, further changes occurred as U.S. 66 was realigned to pass through Albuquerque on an east-west axis in 1937, leaving only U.S. 85 aligned on the Albuquerque-Santa Fe highway.

While some writers lamented the closing of the old roadway, yearning for the adventure it had offered, most motorists were pleased with the new roadway. By 1936, the new roadway carried an average of 2,173 vehicles, a number that would have made travel along the older alignment even more precarious. In the decades since its closing, some of the land included within the district has changed ownership so that all of it now lies within the Santa Fe National Forest and Cochiti Indian Reservation. For Cochiti tribal members the old highway alignment recalls their ancestors’ contribution to early road construction in New Mexico. Aware of the significance of the old alignment, the Santa Fe National Forest maintains its portion of the land for multiple uses, including recreation.

Sources Consulted

Carter, Rufous. “La Bajada (the Descent).” Unpublished manuscript, 1980.

Crichton, Kyle. “Lament for La Bajada.” New Mexico. March, 1935: 17.

Kammer, David. The Historic and Architectural Resources of Route 66 through New Mexico. Prepared for the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division, 1992.

Marshall, Michael P. A Cultural Resource Survey for the La Bajada I-25 Improvement Project, Santa Fe County, New Mexico. Prepared for New Mexico State Highway and Transportation Department, 2000.

New Mexico Highway Journal. Various issues 1915-1931. In 1931. The New Mexico Highway Journal was integrated into New Mexico, which subsequently became New Mexico Magazine.

New Mexico State Highway Commission. Through New Mexico on the Camino Real. 1915

New Mexico State Highway Engineer. Biennial Report of the State Highway Engineer. Various reports, 1914-1950.

New Mexico Territorial Engineer. Second Biennial Report of the Territorial Engineer. 1910.

Pratt, Boyd, Charles D. Biebel and Dan Scurlock. Trails, Rails, and Roads: The Central New Mexico East-West Transportation Corridor Regional Overview, Volume 1: Historic Overview. Prepared for New Mexico Historic Preservation Division, 1988.

Ripp, Bart. “La Bajada History.” Albuquerque Tribune 11 July 1988: N.pge.

Road Log for the National Old Trails Highway. Albuquerque, NM: Albuquerque Auto Trades Association, 1925.

...More to come, including the Madonnas of the Trail and impact of the National Old Trails Road on Santa Fe.