I assumed that following the Chihuahua (Che-wah-wah) Trail from Texas to Santa Fe, New Mexico in modern times would include a beaten path, a single trail along a river, crisscrossing along a mountain range. After a few weeks, about all I can confirm is that much like Max Moorhead in 1958, I have allowed myself to be led on and on, “into the myriad circumstances surrounding an insoluble problem.” In order to rediscover the Chihuahua trail with its twists and turns and convergences, one must listen to the local people of the desert.

Map Chihuahua Trail, 1853: Map showing one cutoff to the Chihuahua Trail after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo established boundaries between Mexico and the United States. Drawn in 1853, by cartographer, J.H. Colton;Yana and Marty Davis Collection of Museum of Big Bend’s exhibit ending December 15, 2019 “Five Centuries of Mexican Maps.” Note that three water sources determined the path taken, Rio Conchos, Rio Grande and the Pecos. Courtesy of Museum of the Big Bend,Alpine,Texas (2019 exhibit) https://www.museumofthebigbend.com/exhibits/five-centuries-of-mexican-maps/

It began as gentle curiosity pricked by reading an archived Trans-Pecos Quiz (from the Desert Candle) by Phil Plimmer (© Judith Brueske, see her local shop, Ocotillo Enterprises in Alpine) written in 1998, “Especially for visitors, new- comers, easterners, northerners, and those not in the know.” Then came the road trip, 461 miles of a possible 631 miles…Alpine, Texas to Santa Fe, New Mexico, the northern segment of the trail. My dear husband and I were planning an early November trip to meet our youngest daughter in Santa Fe, so naturally, I thought it would be an opportunity for exploring.

The railroad is said to have replaced much of the Chihuahua Trail, along with highways like Route 66. In Moorhead’s book (pg 184) the Treaty of Guadalupe- Hidalgo of 1848 “brought an end not only to the Mexican War… thereafter the Chihuahua Trail— although developing from a wagon trace into a stage road, into a railway, and ultimately into a paved automobile highway,” was one of several trade routes. Since I could put “eyeballs” on the railroad track, that is where I started.

By 1883, the Southern Pacific railroad formed a backbone covering the former Chihuahua Trail. However, the people who hauled wagonloads of salt, silver, leather, pottery and ore from Mexico to the nascent U.S. port of Indianola, Texas or east to Missouri, supported the missions, ranchers and frontier families before and after trains.

The Hispanic peoples, many descendants from Colonial Spain and indigenous Native Americans, can still be found to tell their stories. Mi amiga Julia Pinedo in Marathon, Texas was born in Marfa, Texas, one of ten children who grew up in a railroad family, and now is the matriarch of five generations of Hispanics who believe la familia is as important as being grateful for the desert sunsets.

At the edge of a field, by Hwy. 20 between Sierra Blanca and El Paso, Texas, there is a brick and concrete bench…the only remains of Ft. Hancock building which housed the soldiers who held the border from 1884-1895.

Hard work has led descendants to become respected cooks, leaders, teachers and business owners in the desert community of Marathon and surrounding towns in Texas.

The Contreras, Ortizes and Pinedos are some of those people of the desert. I am so fortunate that Julia is my neighbor and friend in Marathon. I knew that her husband worked for the railroad so when I asked her about life when she was a young woman, it opened a whole other world I had no idea existed. She began sharing photos and news clippings that included Angelita (Angela) Madrid, born 1880, who celebrated her 99th birthday in 1979. Angela was Julia’s maternal grandmother, who married Ventura Contreras in 1898 and had nine children. Ventura Contreras hauled supplies for the mine and store in Shafter from Shafter to Marfa. With two wagons and six mules, he could make the trip in three days. The men who worked in the mines worked two shifts a day, 12 hours each. Angela literally kept the home fires burning, both cooking over a wood stove and washing clothes boiled in an iron pot. Ventura gave up the freight line in 1934 and died in 1935. Angela moved the family to Marfa and provided washing and ironing for the soldiers at Ft. Russell, and passed away at age 105 surrounded by family. 

Angela’s daughter, Elisa, was born in Shafter, later marrying Julia’s father Guillermo Ortiz. Elisa moved with her husband’s work from picking cotton in Big Spring, Texas to Marfa, Texas, to the railroad town of Haymond about 15 miles south of Marathon off a junction of what is now Highway 90 toward Sanderson. It was a thriving community with the largest railroad express office between San Antonio and El Paso, in addition to a post office, and several businesses. Guillermo worked for the railroad. Families like Julia’s lived in “section” houses made of lumber. There is no mention of running water and electricity.

Southern Pacific provided section houses which had five rooms to a building. Each family had a room. When Julia was six years old, she began attending school in Marathon. Staying in Marathon during the week, she attended the “Mexican” School on the south side. Life changed when her father no longer was employed by the railroad. 

With Guillermo moving to Wisconsin to work, at 10 years of age, Julia had to quit school to help her mother. Her mother, Elisa, provided a laundry service to support the family. In order to wash clothes, water had to be hauled to the house. Jesus Ramos (referred to in The Magnificent Marathon Basin by AnneJo P. Wedin) charged 10 cents a barrel and would bring water to the house from a well down the road filled by a windmill. Anglo and Hispanic neighbors supported each other, while segregated in life by politics and cemeteries in death. Fortunes waned and flowed like the life-giving waters of the Rio Bravo (Rio Grande) for ranching families and laborers, alike.

“El Camino Real,” of which the Chihuahua Trail is a subset, is the old Spanish Trail and the official map and guide can be ordered from caminorealcarta.org. It has a timeline starting with prehistory 4,000 BP through Juan de Onate’s expedition in 1598, to 1821 when Mexico is freed from Spain. “El Camino Real (the Royal Road) de Tierra Adentro” becomes known as the “Chihuahua Trail” for traders moving goods through Santa Fe from the Eastern U.S.

“Images of America, Alpine, 2010” by David W. Keller, archaeologist and historian with the Center of Big Bend Studies at Sul Ross, provides a peek specifically into early life, prehistory and post-railroad in the Alpine and Marathon areas. Keller writes, “…the nearby spring (then known as Charco de Alsate, then Burgess Water Hole and later Kokernot Springs) was a favored campground for prehistoric nomads and later for Spanish explorers and freighters along the Chihuahua Trail. When the Southern Pacific unfurled its line down from Paisano Pass in 1882… Alpine was born a railroad town,” ‘originally named Murphyville.’ Keller says, “THAT is the spring that caused Alpine to be born and that was on the Chihuahua Trail.” 

Keller continues to explain, “Secondly, the Chihuahua Trail, like many trails, branched and converged in different places. It was mostly a single trail, I believe, once it entered the Alamito creek area. Above that, there seems to have been several routes through the Davis Mountains area, including that of the lower cut off trail which was probably prehistoric in origin,” but he says he can’t be certain about that and defers to other sources. Keller clarifies that “Alamito Creek is a different drainage system that heads WEST of Paisano Pass, not in Alpine Valley.”

There are a few historical markers mentioning Hispanics tracing the arduous footsteps of the ghosts of ancestors…wagon wheels and tracks left by the mules and oxen hauling ore from the south. Following Highway 90 out of Marathon, the former Southern Pacific Railroad runs parallel to the highway and cuts a path along the foothills. Twenty minutes out of Alpine is a granite historical marker erected in 1936: “…Mendoza camped at Paisano Pass Jan. 3, 1684. Well known after 1850 as a point on the Chihuahua Trail, an emigrant road to California.” Depending on which source to believe during which period of time, emigrants were headed to California, but the trail split into at least three trails depicted in the 1958 book by Moorehead: one cut-off would lead to the Texas coast and Indianola, and another to Missouri overland for trade to the East.

After the Paisano Pass, the prairie opens in both directions as only the Trans-Pecos can do: stretching to the left for miles to the southwest, until the mountains of Mexico come into focus through the haze; to the right for miles to the northwest, as the U.S. mountains appear closer in blue and pink hues. Five minutes later the railroad goes under a pass near the Marfa Lights viewing area and seems to fork, and five more minutes outside Marfa, a series of markers: a granite marker erected also in 1936 for “Presidio County;” a 1961 marker for “Presidio, the oldest town in America,” referring to 1582, when the first wagon train crossing into Texas was headed by Antonio de Espejo.

Marfa to Las Cruces, three hours 33 minutes and 240 miles. Thirty-three miles from Van Horn, a stop in Sierra Blanca is a must. In downtown there are several markers, but of special note is a metal marker erected in 1968 and titled “Second Transcontinental Railroad joined here in 1881.” Though our hunt is for the Chihuahua Trail, this shows how connections in the 19th century followed that historic trail. 

“Southern Pacific provided section houses had five rooms to a building. Each family had a room. When Julia was six years old, she began attending school in Marathon.
Staying in Marathon during the week, she attended the “Mexican” School on the south side. Life changed when her father no longer was employed by the railroad.”

Another 15 miles down I-10 take exit 78 and find 20 West onto CR 148 for Fort Hancock. This leg of the journey was a real “Ah ha” moment for the Chihuahua. Envision that the green, irrigated fields of alfalfa and flooded ditches and canals sucking water from the river to feed miles of nut trees were not there. At the edge of a field, there is a brick and concrete bench…the only remains of the Fort Hancock building which housed the soldiers who held the border from 1884 to 1895. It was erected by the “Hudspeth Valley Woman’s Club” in 1965. Less than a mile away is the present- day road to the border crossing; Porvenir is a stark contrast to the agriculture fields, as is a Border Patrol facility. Taken together they remind me that more of the trail that was shared between nations is under private and government ownership, and any wagon trace from the land is invisible, except perhaps by air.

Onward to El Paso, 55 miles and mountain time, step back in time. The lovely multi-cultural community is such a relief after the institutional starkness of the militarized border. I-25 north, about 30 miles north of El Paso, the railroad appears again, earthen dams used to hold water, the low walls form fences reinforced with wrought iron around simple colorful homes, stacked shoulder to shoulder like villages in Mexico. Forty-six miles when entering Las Cruces, New Mexico, a state with a whole other flavor. Route 66 is still celebrated as the “Mother Road” which by necessity was laid out over the original “Royal Road” wagon trails. Several scenic byways lead out of Truth of Consequences, but we missed the exit to Upham. Next time, we are making time to exit at Engel for the “Jornada del Muerto” or “Journey of the Deadman.” This is where the trail leaves the Rio Grande and cuts 90 miles across the desert. We began to explore the nicely paved road and crossed two cattle guards before deciding that heading into the unknown would be foolish without more water and preparation.

The website NewMexico.org relates: “In 1598, Don Juan de Onate led 500 colonists through remote and unfamiliar country, encountering people with different languages and cultures…when Onate reached the Piro Indian pueblo of Teypana, his group was near starvation. The Indians welcomed and fed the colonists, prompting Onate to name the place for the Spanish word for help, Socorro.”

“Strange, is it not? That of the myriads who before us pass’d the door of Darkness through, Not one returns to tell us of the Road Which to discover we must travel too.” Translated by Edward Fitzgerald (1859), written by Omar Khayyam (1070).

Thanks to David Keller for clarifying the trail around Alpine. Look for his newly published work, In The Shadow of the Chinatis, A History of Pinto Canyon in the Big Bend, published 2019 Texas A&M University Press and available at local bookstores and online. The Sul Ross University Library and Archives provided hard-to-find books and journals, and thanks to the Big Bend Museum map collection for it’s amazing cartography. Lastly, esta foto cortesia de Julia Pinedo, and thanks for her patience to share her deep knowledge.

– by Debbie Wahrmund