150 years ago this month, in the middle of June 1907, the Cimarron & Northwestern Railroad Company began laying track out of Cimarron, west toward the Ponil timber country, in what is today part of the Valle Vidal Unit of the Carson National Forest.
Work on the tracks had begun earlier that year. The Cimarron & Northwestern was a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Continental Tie and Lumber Company, whose president, T.A. Schomburg was a former Maxwell Land Grant Co. employee. The sole purpose of the Cimarron & Northwestern line was to get timber out of the canyons of the Ponil. This timber would be turned into railroad ties for freight and passenger rail lines such as the Santa Fe and Colorado & Southern, red spruce mining props for the coal fields in the region, and building lumber.
Mining camps and small sawmills to pre-process the lumber grew up along the rail tracks which moved up the branches of the Ponil. Independent logging crews spread out into the forest and were remarkably efficient considering that they were felling the trees by hand. They could often bring in as many as 100 trees per day. The most effective way of doing this was to clearcut, leaving only diseased or deformed trees and the slash from the felled ones behind.
Some of the timber was milled right there in the Ponil. Others were taken to East Cimarron, where it was dried, planed, treated, and packaged before being shipped out. Between the mill, the train staff, and the loggers coming into Cimarron for supplies, the lumber industry was an important boost to the town’s economy.
Even with a slump in lumber prices in the first few years, the project still did well financially, with the Continental Company paying a $6,000 royalty to the Maxwell Company in 1907, $16,000 in 1908, and $87,943 in 1910. For the next ten years, the forest continued to provide wealth to the area, but gradually the supply of usable timber thinned and, almost exactly 23 years after track construction got underway in Cimarron, on June 3, 1930, the company notified the New Mexico Interstate Commerce Commission that they wanted to abandon what was left of the track between Cimarron and the South Ponil. Due to the Depression, demand for timber had dropped sharply and capital wasn’t available for more construction. Even if there’d been a market, much of the land had been sold to private owners and large-operation logging was no longer feasible. The rails that were removed are thought to have been shipped to San Francisco, where they were sold to a Japanese industrialist.
Sources: Lawrence R. Murphy Philmont, A History of New Mexico’s Cimarron Country, UNM Press, 1972; Stephen Zimmer and Steve Lewis, It Happened in Cimarron Country, Eagle Trail Press, 2013.