Steam locomotives helped build Clovis

By Don McAlavy

Hear that lonesome whistle sound
As it passes through the night.
It’s the old Santa Fe freight train
As it rumbles out of sight.

Back around 1971, I wrote this piece about the steam locomotives leaving Clovis for good. I never published it until now. I wasn’t an historian then, but felt sad about witnessing the end of a by-gone era.

No longer do you her that old whistle. That whistle and the old steam locomotives are gone from the Santa Fe trains. Now it’s just the moanin’ of the diesel engines that haul the freight up and down the line.

The Santa Fe, properly known as the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe Railroad Co., and sometimes called simply “Old John Santa Fe,” built into New Mexico back in 1879, coming over the steep Raton mountain pass. It bypassed the town of Santa Fe completely and headed on down to Albuquerque and on out to the Pacific coast.

It then built the Belen cutoff from the Texas border at Texico, to Belen, some 220 miles further west. It did this to avoid that steep mountain pass.

On this Belen cutoff, right after the turn of the century, it established its shops, roundhouse, depot and division office at a brand new town it created in 1906. The town, soon to get the nickname “Magic City On the Plains,” was Clovis, named after the first Christian King of the Franks in Europe.

For nearly 80 years, Old John Santa Fe built, bringing in settlers, bringing in farm tools, supplies, whatever the settlers needed, and hauling out of here the fruits of these settlers: cattle and grain.

Many settlers found work on the railroad during hard times. It was the settlers and other workers who hired out to the railroad that became the backbone of Old John Santa Fe.

Old John Santa Fe stopped shipping live cattle a long time ago and around 1970 stopped shipping live people across this Belen cutoff.

Now (in 1971), Old John Santa Fe is pulling its office out of Clovis, moving it to Albuquerque … laying off or transferring most of its working men … the backbone of Old John Santa Fe.

Efficiency they call it. Progress. Someone told me it was the union’s fault, as the railroad started contracting men to work the railroad.

Hear the sound as the railroad leaves
As it pulls up stakes and rail
It’s the mournful sound of many a man
As he sees the end of the trail.

Today, in 2004, we know the railroad didn’t leave Clovis. Old John Santa Fe married up with Big Burlington Northern and now there’s more freight trains passing through Clovis on the Belen cutoff than you can shake a stick at. They’ve even double tracked the railroad from Chicago to the Pacific and can run many times the trains as Old John Santa Fe ever did.

But what’s left of the old-time railroaders now shake their heads at the difference. It just ain’t like it used to be! It’s called progress. And Clovis, the child of the railroad, is growing faster than ever before.

Don McAlavy is Curry County’s historian. He can be contacted through this newspaper at: