Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Trestle Turnout

It’s the day after my adventure on the Dog Canyon’s Eyebrow and I get up feeling better than I have any right to.

Instead of groaning with pain at the very thought of moving, instead of hobbling around like a – well – like an old man who’s misplaced his walker, I roll out of bed with alacrity more becoming a healthy, breeding-age male. (Isn’t our capacity for wild fancies and self-delusion, remarkable?!)

Pleasantly surprised I make a couple brisk circuits of the campground loops on the Quad-B (OK brisk on the downhills, more like a leisurely brisk-ish on the uphills.) to get the blood flowing then settle back in the shelter of the escarpment to contemplate the line between shadow and sunrise creeping towards me across the basin to the west.

But I don’t have too much time to settle and contemplate.

Easter weekend is coming fast and if I’m going to get myself safely tucked away back home on the property before the Thursday evening madness begins I better start heading east.

From here I can head 70 or so miles down US 54 and pick up I-10 then bull my way east at a steady 65 MPH, or I can meander back north a dozen miles and start winding my way eastward along US 82, and I don’t know why I’m even talking about it because there is no question which way I’m going!

The property; home; refuge from the hoards; is only 750 miles away; I’ve got three, OK, more like two and a half, days to get there; and some unfinished business along the way. So meander it is!

Clinging to the mountainside just before the last curve into Cloudcroft when climbing US 82 out of the basin is the Trestle Turnout.

The way things are arraigned in the narrow confines of the space available, the Turnout is only accessible when up-bound. (I suppose you could make a very dangerous and mostly blind U-turn if down bound but you won’t catch me doing that and I would prefer if you didn’t do it anywhere around me either as I’m having too much fun living life right now to have some bone-head screw it up for me.)

From High Rolls up to this point the highway has been following pretty much the same alignment the Alamogordo and Sacramento Mountain RR used when snaking its way up the canyon in the first half of the 1900's and the Trestle Turnout is a good spot to learn a bit about this amazing but little-known bit of human engineering.

(Yep, brace yourself. I’m babbling on about trains again.)

Several posts back I took a couple photos of this, the curved Mexican Canyon Trestle, from the vantage of the Osha Trail.

Today the highway sits on top of the up-bound approach to the trestle, right there where the white slash across the slope is. And if you look beyond that in this photo, up there in the upper left where it’s fading into the mist, you can just barely see a couple legs of the switchback that had to be negotiated to get trains up here.

(I stole this map from the Forest History site. The markings are my own.)

The large circle is the switchback, the small circle the Mexican Canyon Trestle and the green arrow is approximately the viewpoint in the previous photo.
Like trails for people and roads for cars, when there is no other option railroad switchbacks are used to reduce the grade, or angle of climb/decent, in steep areas. Unlike people and cars, trains can’t make sharp turns so when reaching a switchback they have to pull forward until the end of the train clears the switch, throw the switch, then reverse up the next leg of the switchback far enough for the engine to clear the next switch, throw it, then finally pull forward and continue the trip.

Expensive and time-consuming but sometimes there’s no other way to get here from there. But that doesn’t change the fact that pushing a train uphill greatly increased the likely hood of a derailment, of which the A&SM had its fair share!

The A&SM was unusual in the realm of mountain railroading in that it was built right from the beginning as standard gauge (56.5 inches between the rails) rather than the norm for mountain railroading of narrow gauge (usually 36 inches between the rails.)

Narrow gauge bends around mountain curves better than standard gauge and is less expensive to build, but interchanging with standard gauge railroads (In this case the El Paso Northern.) is expensive because of the extra handling of cargo neccessary and the smaller equipment of narrow gauge railroads can’t carry the same loads as its bigger brethren so needs to make more trips. (It takes approximately 3 narrow-gauge boxcars to fill a single standard gauge car.)

Another unusual thing about this logging railroad is that pretty much from its first run, it also ran regular passenger excursions to accommodate all the people looking to escape the summer heat of El Paso and The Basin for the cool breezes of the mountains.

Like railroads tended to do in those days, the A&SM opened up the Sacramento Mountains to economic development, which usually meant a lot of hard work.

When I read this note home from one of the logging-camp workers I had to wonder just how many of todays kids would be grateful for an old coat and willing to work in a place where long-johns are preferable to an X-Box.

As has often been the case, once the highway came through, shown in grey on this 3D map, the A&SM, shown in red, didn’t last much longer.

But that doesn’t mean it has been forgotten

And preservation efforts have kept the Mexican Canyon Trestle from dissolving into obscurity.

Today several sections of the old rail bed, much of it on National Forest lands, have been converted into trails with plans to eventually recover much of the line from La Luz up to Cloudcroft so hikers, rail fans or not, can continue to enjoy the route.

But, from what I saw, if you want to pedal the route bring strong legs, healthy lungs and a mountain bike. This is not flatland railroading!!

Oh, and we’ll be back on the other end of this trestle, up close and personal, in the next post, so if you don’t feel like you got enough railroading in this one, just stand by.


  1. This was all new to me. Thank you. Reminds me of the "route of the hiawatha" up in Idaho.

    1. Yep, only without the crowds and 'trail tickets', but then again the A&SM is a lot steeper so it would be nice to have a shuttle so you could ride downhill and shuttle back up. . . especially on old knees and bony asses.

  2. It's amazing to think the work it took to build that trestle. It would be pretty cool to ride a bike on those as part of the trail. Keep us posted.

    1. You got that right! Can you imagine lifting those timbers and holding them in place while a bolt is driven through??

      OK, tell you what, we go but you ride the trestle while I watch. That dang thing is 60 feet in the air with no railings! Even though it's off limits, kids will be kids and they still climb up the thing to party on certain nights, but I'm not a kid anymore. . .