For almost four decades I have been driving US Hwy 550 from Durango, CO to Farmington, NM. Just passed the state line, one mile into New Mexico is a building with “Clarkdale” painted on the facade.
Part of Denver & Rio Grande Western?
It is within a quarter of a mile of the right of way of the Farmington Branch of the abandoned Denver & Rio Grande railroad. I always assumed that it might have been linked someway with the railroad. I have Googled Clarkdale and everything I could think of to find out about this mysterious building.
The Mystery Solved
I finally found the answer in a new booklet “Place Names of San Juan County NM”, by Stephen Lane Wood. Lane’s book is available at the Aztec Museum or the San Juan County Historical Society. This unincorporated area is called Riverside, also called Hendricks or Hendrix, and was established as early as 1876 and actually had a Post Office from 1905 until 1938.
A Brief History
As for the building in question, it was owned by E E Clark. With the new highway and the booming railroad business brought on by the discovery of oil in the San Juan Basin, he saw what he thought was a great business opportunity. He opened a restaurant and envisioned the further development of the property. He named it “Clarkdale”.
One local resident remembered it, from the 1950s, as a “little store where you could get sodas, candy, and other goodies”. Another lifelong resident remembered it as a grocery store.
Many people have passed by in the ensuing years, wondering about Clarkdale. But E E Clark’s prosperity never came and his building still stands and a monument to his vision.
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The railroad was instrumental in the settling of the American West. With the railroads came prosperity to the towns and territories it serviced.
Railroad building was complicated and incredibly confusing. Companies merged, were taken over by larger roads, went bankruptcy, went into receivership or were abandoned. Some tracks were removed. Owners simply walked away from others.
One of the more important lines was the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. It filled the needs of the mountain communities of Colorado. It went “Thru the Rockies. Not Around Them”
General Palmer and his “Baby Road”
General William Palmer, a Civil War veteran, Medal of Honor recipient and civil engineer. He founded the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad in 1870 with the purpose of tapping the perceived lucrative markets in New Mexico. Palmer’s first-hand knowledge of the Ffestiniog Railway in Wales led him to choose the, never before used in the United States, narrow gauge rails due to lower cost of construction and equipment. Palmer aggressively promoted his idea and it turned out to be a major selling point for his funding efforts.
The “Rio Grande’s” original plan was to push south to Pueblo then up the Arkansas River to its confluence with the Rio Grande River. From there the route would follow the Rio Grande River to Albuquerque and on to El Paso, Chihuahua, Mexico. There he hoped to connect with the Mexican Central Railway and open a trade link with Mexico.
His plan “B” was to expand south from Pueblo over Raton Pass, through Santa Fe and on to El Paso. Due to aggressive competition, particularly from the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, he was forced to adopt this alternate plan.
The First Spike
The first spike for the fledgling Denver & Rio Grande Railroad was driven at the bottom of 15th Street in Denver on July 28, 1871. Construction progressed as far as Colorado Springs by October 25, 1871.
The new railroad planned to tap into the rich agricultural, lumber and mining resources of the new Colorado Territory, as well as passenger traffic. Palmer planned to connect the mineral-rich territory of Colorado with the Rio Grande Valley which was described as” a garden only to be benefited by the presence of rail service”.
Financing the Railroad
Palmer was plagued throughout his empire building by a lack of funds. He was, however, a master of fundraising. He would sell stock in the railroad, holding controlling shares. He would then sell bonds for construction and Palmer’s own construction company would build the lines.
One of his other techniques was to offer subscriptions to pools that formed land companies up and down the railroad. These land companies offered predesignated townsites to subscribers and conveyed in railroad stock. Thus, towns were formed in locations decided upon by the railroad from lands granted to the railroad by the federal government for the right of way. If a neighboring town was in the way they were merely bypassed. Towns would then be built by Palmer’s construction company.
Palmer Builds His Empire
The Rio Grande railroad reached Pueblo, which had been established by General Palmer’s Central Colorado Improvement Company, in 1872. The Central Colorado Improvement Company established the first steel mill in the area in 1881. The Colorado Coal & Iron Company would become the largest employer in Colorado. Palmer built the facility to produce the rails for his railroads. It utilized local resources; coal from Trinidad, iron from the San Luis Valley, limestone from Pueblo and water from the Arkansas River.
From Pueblo, the Rio Grande extended its line up the Arkansas River. It arrived in Canon City on July 6, 1874. Canon City became the staging point for all shipments of goods going south and west. Palmer’s Central Colorado Improvement Company now had control of the lucrative high-quality coal deposits and was operating at full capacity.
From Pueblo, Palmer extended his line to El Mora, just north of Trinidad in 1876. The Santa Fe Railroad’s terminus was only as far west as Las Animas, Colorado, 80 miles to the northeast. Palmer wanted to take advantage of the lack of freight service available to the coal fields around Chucharas and El Mora and the goods coming north out of New Mexico. Trinidad would serve both purposes.
The Panic of 1873 slowed expansion of the railroad and all of Colorado’s economy for the next three years. However, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe did push on reaching Pueblo in 1876. The fight was now on!
Palmer proceeded west arriving in Chuchara in February of 1876 and onto El Mora in October of that year. From Chuchara, he began to push west toward La Veta Pass and Alamosa in the San Luis Valley, arriving in July of 1878 as per his original plan.
Palmer Loses the Race to Raton Pass
Meanwhile, the Santa Fe headed for Raton from Las Animas to tap the coal deposit between there and Trinidad. In 1878, they beat the Rio Grande crew to the pass by only hours and laid claim to the right of way.
A great deal of legal maneuvering ensued. There were acts of sabotage and threats of further violence. Finally, the Santa Fe hired local gunmen to protect their interests.
Faced with financial difficulties and armed resistance, the Rio Grande gave up its fight for Raton Pass. The dispute appeared to be over, but the battle heated up the following year.
The Royal Gorge Railroad War
With the discovery of silver in Leadville, both railroads made a dash for the Grand Canyon of the Arkansas, the Royal Gorge, in the spring of 1878. The Rio Grande already had a track into Canon City, two miles east of the mouth of the gorge. The Santa Fe rushed to the same spot.Royal Gorge-1892 Both railroads began grading west of Canyon City. The Santa FE crew actually arrived at the mouth of the gorge, once again, before the Rio Grande crews and laid claim to the right of way.
Court orders were issued, gunfighters were hired by both sides. Acts of sabotage destroyed equipment and track. Threats were made, but there was little violence and little bloodshed.
Over the next two years, through injunctions and restraining orders, possession of the gorge went back and forth no less than four times. During this period, the Rio Grande had possession but no funds to operate or build. So the rights to operate and build in the gorge were leased to the Santa Fe. The Santa Fe continued to make improvements.
Finally, on March 27, 1880, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Rio Grande making the lease null and void. Unwilling to continue the battle, the Santa Fe agreed to relinquish rights to the Royal Gorge and a settlement was reached.
The Tripartite Agreement, known as the “Treaty of Boston” awarded the right to the Royal Gorge to the Rio Grande. The D&RG would pay $1.4 million to the Santa Fe for work completed plus “court costs”. The Rio Grande could not build east of its current north-south lines or south of the 36th parallel and east of the Spanish Range (Sangre de Cristo Range) in New Mexico or to Trinidad. The Santa Fe could not build, in Colorado, west of the Rio Grande’s existing north-south line or north of the 36th parallel west of the Spanish Range except for their line already to CanonCity. New Mexico was open west of the Spanish Range. Both sides were banned for a period of 10 years.
Thus ended the Colorado Railroad War. It opened up the way for the Rio Grande to move into the mining districts and the territory west of the front range.
Over La Veta Pass
Anticipating competition, Palmer had planned the route following the Arkansas River from the very beginning of his push to El Paso. In 1876, fearing pressure from the Santa Fe railroad at Raton Pass, he started his expansion over La Veta Pass and on into the San Luis Valley. He planned not only to tap into that region’s rich mineral and agricultural markets but this was his backup plan. If his plans to reach El Paso via Raton Pass failed he would simply head west to Alamosa and follow the Rio Grande River south through Albuquerque.
With the failed attempt, in 1878, to reach Raton Pass ahead of the Santa Fe, Palmer was deprived of the lucrative New Mexico traffic. Pressured by competition from the standard gauge competitors Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe and the Kansas Pacific, Palmer knew he couldn’t stand still. He pushed west out of Chuchara Junction, Colorado arriving in Garland, Colorado on July 1, 1877, and in Alamosa, Colorado July 10, 1878.
The original narrow gauge line over La Veta Pass crossed the Sangre de Cristo Range at an elevation of 9,380 feet above sea level. At the time, it reached the highest elevation of any railroad built in the United States at that time. It was an engineering marvel, steep and winding. The Rio Grande railroad billed it as “The Scenic Line of the World”.
Between the years of 1890 and 1899, the line was converted to dual gauge and then to standard gauge and was moved south 9 miles to better accommodate the larger heavier equipment and to better work with the standard gauge lines servicing the territory.
The years from early 1878 to early 1880 saw little expansion on the Rio Grande. All of Palmer’s funds were going to fight the “Royal Gorge War”.
Santa Fe or Bust?
Prior to the Treaty of Boston, the Rio Grande had laid track as far as Antonito, 29 miles south, with plans of going to Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and El Paso. With the agreement not to build south of Espanola, NM, Palmer switched his attention westward to the mining districts in the San Juan Mountains. He would continue his Chili Line on to Espanola arriving there on December 30, 1880.
Now that Palmer had lost his bid for the New Mexico trade he turned his focus to the mineral wealth of the central and the southern Rocky Mountains. Alamosa Colorado became the hub of this expansion. He went west to Del Norte, Colorado, through Wagon Wheel Gap and into Creede, Colorado in 1891. He headed north to connect with his Royal Gorge branch in Salida, Colorado. His main focus became the line west from Antonito, Colorado to Durango and Silverton in the San Juan Mountains.On to the San Juans
On to the San Juans
In November of 1879 contracts were let for the grading of the new San Juan Extension of the Rio Grande. Work on the line began in early 1880 and pushed west towards Cumbres Pass and Ogier, Colorado. The new line was to run from Antonito, Colorado, through Chama, New Mexico and onward to the Animas River near the town of Animas City, Colorado.
The line snaked along the New Mexico /Colorado border on the north side of the Los Pinos River. The line followed the natural drainage of the Los Pinos River through narrow canyons and valleys and through the Toltec gorge where the line clung to the side of the canyon 600 feet above the river. It continued on through two tunnels and over the 400 foot long Cascade Creek trestle to Cumbres pass at 10,015 feet. From that point, the line followed an old wagon toll road downhill following the Wolf Creek drainage. Where Wolf Creek joined the Rio Chama, the line crossed the deep drainage on the 300 foot long Lobato trestle.Durango and Smelter Mountain
Next Stop, Durango
The railroad reached Chama, New Mexico on December 30,1880 and established a division headquarters. Chama was the midway point between Antonito and Animas City making it an ideal service point. Here they constructed a roundhouse, oil house, sand house, coal tipple, water tank, and bunkhouse. The line now proceeded west from Chama, through the high desert of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. Elevation changes between, and the Animas River and Chama are relatively minor so construction proceeded rapidly. The line arrived in what was to become Durango, Colorado on July 27, 1881.
As a side note, the small town of Animas City was the original destination of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, San Juan Extension. As excited as the residence of Animas City were to have a rail connection to the outside world, they were unwilling to meet Palmer’s demands for free land for the new town. So, in typical Palmer fashion, he simply built a new town 3 miles south of Animas City naming it Durango, after Durango Mexico and Durango, Spain.
In its early days, the line crossed numerous timber bridges over nameless creeks and rivers. Over the years many of the smallerSurviving timber bridge at Hermosa bridges were replaced by fills and culverts. A few of the timber bridges survived. The rest were replaced with steel girder construction to facilitate heavier engines and rolling stock.
The Riches of the San Juans
The rail line between, New Mexico and Durango Colorado was rich in natural resources. The ore mined around Red Mountain and Silverton was shipped by rail to smelters in Denver and Pueblo. Coal mined near Hesperus was used to fire the locomotives, for the coke mills in Silverton and for home and business heating.Pagosa Junction 2014 Timber was another valuable commodity shipped on the rail lines. Logging spurs sprouted off the mainline at Gato(Pagosa Junction) and Chama. Other spurs branched off at Lumberton and around Taos.
Oil also became a factor. In 1935 oil was discovered 13 miles west of Chama in the “Gramp’s” oil field. Oil was piped to Chama and sent by tanker car to the Oriental Refinery in Alamosa. Oil was discovered near Farmington ad oil field freight kept the road open into the 1960s.
The Farmington Branch was opened in 1905 to haul produce and livestock to the miners and eastern markets. It was also built to prevent the Santa Fe from building a line north from Gallup.
A great deal has been written about the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad and the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. My focus, going forward will be on the abandoned rail spurs that split from the Rio Grande mainline.
I hope you have enjoyed the article and I hope that you will come back for future articles on the small but very important abandoned spurs and branches.
This narrative is but a brief overview of the history of the Denver and Rio Grande in southwest Colorado and northwest New Mexico. I have tried to be as accurate as possible in my portrayal of the events of the time. Please leave any comments in the comment section. Any suggestions or any additions are greatly appreciated.
Gold had been discovered in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado by John Baker’s party in 1860. The Civil War put the rush of miners on hold for a brief period. The fact that the land belonged to the Ute tribe complicated matters.
A treaty in 1868 established a reservation for the Ute Tribes. It encompassed roughly one-third of Western Colorado. It was designed to remove the Tribes from land deemed desirable to the Anglo-American settlers.
By the late 1860s, miners were encroaching upon Indian land and by the early 1870s had poured into the San Juan Mountains, disregarding treaty provisions. As long as they stayed in the high mountains around Silverton, trouble was kept to a minimum. But as Anglos began filtering into the valleys, tensions increased.
The Brunot Treaty of 1874
The Brunot Treaty of 1874 provided for land in the high mountains to be ceded to the government for settlement. In return, the Utes would retain hunting rights in the San Juan Mountains and control of the area along the Colorado/NewMexico border.
In 1874, per Presidential Executive Order, the area along the Animas River between the Colorado state line and Farmington, New Mexico became part of the Jicarilla Apache reservation. This area was a buffer between the feuding Southern Utes and the Navajos. The Jicarilla Apaches refused to take possession because the land was not within their tribal range. It was also adjacent to their traditional enemies, the Navajo.
By 1876, the Apaches had still not taken possession of the land and the Executive Order was rescinded. By another Executive Order, the land was opened for settlement in 1878.
By 1884, settlement in the area between Cedar Hill and Riverside, NM was well underway. The first settlers in the area were cattlemen and sheepmen from Colorado and Texas. They settled along the San Juan, La Plata and Animas Rivers. By 1881 there were as many as 1,000 settlers in these valleys.
The land north of the New Mexico border, which was known as the Ute Strip was still on Ute land and not available for homesteading. By Presidential Proclamation in 1899 unallotted portions of the Ute Strip were opened for settlement.
The homesteading of Elco Colorado
The first homestead in the newly opened area was that of James Frazier. The area was first known as Five Mile Mesa to the homesteaders.
The Nicholson-Sease Stage Line and various wagon freighters would pass thru the little settlement on their trips between Durango, Colorado and Farmington New Mexico. It would become a United States Post Office in 1905 and the name would officially become Elco, Colorado.
Arrival of the Railroad
In August 1905 the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad branch line to Farmington, New Mexico reached Aztec, New Mexico and began service later that year. The tracks were laid on the opposite bank of the Animas River from Elco.
William Burton Bonds, known as “Dad Bonds”, along with his team of Percheron draft horses hauled timbers and ties for the railroad construction crews. The railroad named the station after William, calling in Bondad. Bondad, Colorado became the name of the community, much to the consternation of some of the jealous neighbors who wanted it to be named after themselves.
The Bondad station became the drop-off point for the mail as well as a passenger stop. As far as I can tell, Elco was still the name of Post Office, school, and cemetery.
Emma Frazier was the postmaster of the new Post Office. She ran the Post Office out of the Frazier home. The mail was first delivered on the stage and after the railroad arrived later that year, it was dropped at the Bondad station across the Animas River. The mail was then brought across the river on horseback to the Post Office.
Sometime between 1905 and 1910 the Bondad wagon bridge was built by James Frazier with the help other neighbors in the Five Mile Mesa area. Emma Frazier continued as postmaster and mail carrier with help from Olive Frazier, Mrs. Temple Cornelius, and Stella Frazier. The Post Office closed in 1914 due to financial reasons. Many rural offices closed at this time. The RFD (rural free delivery) system may have come into play. Also, the “Great War” in Europe was raging and United States involvement loomed on the horizon.
By 1910, Elco had a school with 35 students, ages 6-16 years old, grades 1-8. The school was located near the Frazier home and doubled as the church on Sundays. The school closed, most likely around the same time as the post office as schools were being redistricted.
The communities in the area, although separated by distance and politics (some in Colorado, some in New Mexico) were all close-knit. Sunday picnics and other social gatherings were well attended in Sunnyside, Elco, Riverside, and CedarHill.
Oh, those hand cars!
One of the main forms of transportation outside of wagons and buggies were hand cars operated by the railroad. They were used to transport workers along the new railroad line. They were hand pumped, but still light enough to be lifted from the tracks and hidden in the underbrush when not in use by the railroad workers. This, however, didn’t keep them from being used by mischievous teenagers.
At times some of the local teenagers would sneak a hand car and go for a joy ride. One of the favorite places was a swimming hole where the Florida River entered the Animas. The Frazier house was just up the hill from the wagon bridge and Mr. & Mrs. Frazier had an ice house. That meant ice cream.
Folks didn’t have to wait for the next train to travel to visit their neighbors. Handcars were apparently available for public use. Photos show as many as eight adults piling onto a hand car and pumping their way to the next stop. Along with the pump hand cars, there were “no-pump” cars. These were coupled to the pump cars and more folks would be able to travel quickly between settlements.
Later on, motor cars were available and no pumping was required. One could buy a four horsepower car for $85. For a few dollars more, you could upgrade to a six horsepower car.
On Friday nights there were parties at either Elco, Sunnyside or Riverside. On Sundays, church services were held at the Elco schoolhouse.
Some of the boys found another use for the hand cars. They would tie their horses to them, sit on the hand car, hold onto the rope and see how fast they could get them moving then let go of the rope. If they had started from Sunnyside or Elco, they would have to, of course, pull them back uphill.
Nothing is left of Elco today except the cemetery and the Bonds Ranch. The Frazier home still stood in 1971. I have included a photo of what might have been their home. It is the only one left constructed of adobe brick in the area. The Bonds Ranch was the home of Edward and Josephine Bonds. Josephine was the daughter of Edward Hendricks. The Hendricks family was one of the original homesteaders in Riverside, New Mexico, 4 miles to the south. The Bonds Ranch is still family owned and operated.
I hope you have enjoyed my article. I have strived to be as accurate as possible. If you have any comments or additional information please contact me and I will make additions or corrections.
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A special thanks go out to Linda Bonds for her photos, the handwritten documentation of the Hendricks/Bonds family history by her grandmother Josephine Hendricks Bonds and my interview with her in April 2016.
Also to Susan from a brief email chat and more photos.
Thanks to Linda and Jeff Jahraus for their story about Elco, CO-written by Mrs. John Bryce, at Jahraus Living, Elco, CO
Thanks to the Durango Herald for two interviews with Edith Rhodes in April 1971