At an elevation of 7,798 feet in the Raton Range on the border between Colorado and New Mexico, Raton Pass has served as an important transportation corridor since at least the start of the Santa Fé Trail in 1821. Despite being on the less popular Mountain Branch of the Santa Fé Trail, the pass has often been seen as a symbol of the trail’s hardships and of the boundary between Anglo and Hispanic cultures. Still an important corridor traversed by a railroad and Interstate 25, the pass was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1961.
Raton Pass cuts through the Raton Range, which extends east from the Sangre de Cristo Range at roughly what is now the border between Colorado and New Mexico. Coming from the north, the route ascended Raton Creek to the pass summit, traversed the summit ridge, and descended Willow Creek to what is now the town of Raton, New Mexico. It was a steep and dangerous route that usually resulted in lamed animals, broken axles, or both.
Before the first real wagon road was built over it in 1866, Raton Pass was considered so treacherous that most travelers tried to avoid it if possible. In 1719 New Mexico’s colonial governor, Antonio Valverde y Cosio, crossed the pass, but his report about the journey scared off most subsequent Spanish travelers. Instead, Spaniards and Native American groups such as the Comanche preferred to use easier passes in the Sangre de Cristo Range.
Santa Fé Trail
The Spanish kept their colony mostly closed to foreign commerce, but in 1821 Mexico won independence and opened itself to trade. The Missouri trader William Becknell arrived in Santa Fé just after Mexico became independent, and as a result, he is usually given credit for opening the Santa Fé Trail between Missouri and New Mexico. He is traditionally said to have taken Raton Pass on his way to Santa Fé, but it is more likely that he took a different, even more difficult pass to the east.
No matter which pass Becknell took, his description of the rough route did not encourage many to follow in his footsteps. Instead, most traders hauling heavily laden wagons along the Santa Fé Trail took what was known as the Cimarron Cutoff, which cut diagonally across southwest Kansas and northeast New Mexico to avoid the mountains. Raton Pass, on the other hand, was on the Mountain Branch of the trail, which was longer and more difficult but did have the advantages of more water and less exposure to Indian attacks. It received far less traffic than the Cimarron Cutoff but was used by traders who went up the Arkansas River to Bent’s Fort and then turned south toward Santa Fé, especially those traveling with only a few pack animals or light wagons.
Two nineteenth-century military crossings are especially notable in the history of Raton Pass. The first came in August 1846, during the Mexican-American War, when Stephen Kearny’s Army of the West used the pass to invade New Mexico. Kearny chose Raton Pass for two reasons: first, he could use Bent’s Fort as a base, and second, it had more water than the Cimarron Cutoff, an especially important advantage in the summer. Kearny left Bent’s Fort on August 2, sending road crews in advance to try to improve the route for the advancing army. Nevertheless, the army still had difficulty getting over the pass and lost many wagons descending into New Mexico, which Kearny’s army quickly claimed for the US.
Raton Pass played an important military role again during the Civil War. Because the Cimarron Cutoff was more exposed to Confederate and Indian attacks, the Union used Raton Pass to supply troops stationed in New Mexico. In 1862, when Confederate troops were advancing north through New Mexico, a regiment of Colorado Volunteers marched over Raton Pass to reinforce Union troops and win a major victory at the Battle of Glorieta Pass.
Wagon and Railroad Route
After the end of the Civil War, the trapper and trader Richard “Uncle Dick” Wootton secured charters from the Colorado and New Mexico territorial legislatures to build a toll road over Raton Pass. In 1866 Wootton completed the road, making Raton Pass a relatively easy journey for stagecoaches, freight wagons, tourists, and other travelers. Wootton built his house and toll gate where the serious climbing began on the Colorado side of the pass, collecting $1.50 per wagon. The improved road resulted in a large increase in traffic over the pass. Daily stage service on the route started soon after gold was discovered in New Mexico’s Moreno Valley in 1867.
Wootton’s toll road was the main route between Colorado and New Mexico until 1878, when the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad (ATSF) beat the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad (D&RG) to the route up Raton Pass, which had space for only one rail line. ATSF decided to tunnel under the summit of the pass to cut down on what was already a steep and grueling climb, but in the meantime it built a temporary track over the pass to allow trains to start traveling the route in late 1878. This marked the end of most wagon and stagecoach traffic over Raton Pass. The railroad tunnel under the pass opened in September 1879.
In 1908 ATSF completed a second tunnel under Raton Pass to handle increased traffic, but two other developments the same year signaled the decline of Raton Pass as a major rail corridor. First, ATSF finished the Belen Cutoff in central New Mexico, giving the railroad a southern transcontinental route that avoided the steep grades of Raton Pass. Raton Pass continued to be used for passengers and local freight, but all long-haul freight now took the Belen Cutoff route. The original 1879 tunnel under Raton Pass was closed in 1953, but the 1908 tunnel is still in service for the single Amtrak passenger train that uses Raton Pass on its route between Chicago and Los Angeles.
The second factor in the decline of Raton Pass as a railroad route was the rise of automobile highways. In 1908–9 New Mexico used convict labor to build a new highway that crossed the Colorado border near Raton Pass. Despite its steep grades and sharp curves, the route was selected a few years later as part of the National Old Trails Road across the country, which thousands of tourists used in 1915 to attend the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego and the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.
In 1926 the highway over Raton Pass was designated as US 85 and improved over the next few years. In 1942 it was realigned to the old Wootton route along the Santa Fé Trail, which was less steep and involved fewer tight curves. This route was incorporated into Interstate 25 in the early 1960s. The interstate runs slightly east of Raton Pass and the railroad tunnels under the pass, leaving the summit as the best place to see surviving remnants of earlier routes.