John Fremont Stumbles Into Taos

On this day in 1849, Saturday, January 13, celebrated explorer John C. Fremont stumbled into the Taos plaza so battered by exposure and starvation that no one recognized him.

Fremont had left what is now Pueblo, Colorado, 52 days earlier on a mission to identify a practicable railroad route across the Rockies to California. He had 32 men and 120 supply-laden mules with him.

Even before he’d left Pueblo, there was trouble. He’d already lost a guide. When former mountain man “Uncle Bill” Wootton took a look at the signs and realized just how bad the coming winter was likely to be, he backed out. But former Army Colonel Fremont refused to give up. He’d been forced to resign from the military in a cloud of disgrace two years earlier and was determined to redeem himself. Come hell or high water, he was determined to prove that a year-round transcontinental railroad operation across the mountains was feasible. If men and mules could cross the path he had in mind under winter conditions, then surely trains could, too.

Fremont hired “Old Bill” Williams to take Wootton’s place. While Williams was a brilliant tracker, he  wasn’t exactly known for his tact. Since Fremont was known for his stubbornness, the partnership seemed destined for trouble. And trouble happened pretty quickly. When Williams announced that the expedition should veer from the route Fremont had laid out, trouble ensued. Fremont relieved Williams of his guide duties and gave them to men who Fremont had worked with before but who didn’t know the region.

As Wootton had predicted, the weather turned treacherously nasty and grew increasingly difficult as Fremont’s men tried to force their way through snow-bound canyons and across icy mountainsides. All of the mules either died of starvation or froze to death. Frostbite and snow blindness plagued both the animals and the men. Not only was the expedition’s goal doomed, but the conditions were so bad that the men feared for their lives. In a desperate attempt to make it to safety, Fremont divided his company into small groups and sent them south to try to reach Taos.

John C. Fremont.Simmons 3 wives

Only 21 men of the original 32 would make it out alive and Fremont himself would need weeks of nursing by Josefa Carson before he fully recovered from the ordeal. Even with the survivors in Taos and whole, the loss of life would continue. Williams would die trying to retrieve valuable records and medical equipment  that had been left behind in the rush to escape the winter conditions Uncle Bill Wootton had warned Fremont about.

Although a year-round transcontinental railroad was eventually built across the Rocky Mountains, it was not constructed on the route that Fremont tried to blaze that winter of 1848/49. The glory of that deed would go to other men.  Fremont’s exploring days were over .

Sources:  Alpheus H. Favour, Old Bill Williams, Mountain Man, U of Oklahoma Press,  Norman, 1962; Leroy R. Hafen, Ed., Fur Trappers and Traders of the Far Southwest, Utah State U Press, Logan, 1972; Marc Simmons, Kit Carson and His Three Wives, UNM Press, Albuquerque, 2003.


Timber Rail Moves Out From Cimarron

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.

June 3 article

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.