In late March of 2004, I had the opportunity to meet up with a small part of my family (my parents, an aunt/uncle from Illinois snowbirding in Tucson, and an aunt/uncle from Victorville, CA) in Tucson, AZ, for a couple days. Looking forward to getting out the Colorado cold, I figured there was always time to squeeze in a couple days of railfanning on the trip. What better way to take a mini-vacation - family, two copper-hauling shortlines along the route (the Southwestern RR in New Mexico and the Copper Basin in Arizona), and five days of warm weather on open roads with my convertible. I needed a break from work anyway, so on Thursday night, 25-Mar-2004, I set off southbound for Albuquerque that night, then on to Silver City, NM, the next to meet up with my parents for dinner. It just so happens that the first stop along the route on Friday would be the Southwestern Railroad, covering its length between Rincon, where I got off I-25 southbound, and Silver City, where I was headed for the evening.
The Southwestern Railroad actually consists of three pieces, two of which are adjacent segments out of Deming, NM, and the other the far-off Shattuck Branch out of its namesake town in Oklahoma. I've got the Shattuck Branch queued up for an upcoming Texas trip report, but here we'll be looking at the two copper hauling pieces - the original SWRR from Peruhill, NM (just west of Deming), up to the copper mining regions around Silver City, NM; and the former ATSF, former BNSF Deming Subdivision from the El Paso Sub connection at Rincon, NM, over to Deming and to the original SWRR route at Peruhill.
The Southwestern Railroad got its start on 15-Jun-1990, when it acquired the entire Silver City cluster of lines down to Whitewater Junction, where the western forks (Silver City and Tyrone) met up with the Santa Rita Sub (the line from Whitewater to Santa Rita, via Hurley). (As a note, 15-Jun-1990 is also when the SWRR acquired the Shattuck Sub in OK/TX.) Almost exactly four years later, on 12-Jun-1994, the Southwestern acquired everything from Whitewater back down to Peruhill, just five miles from Deming. Finally, on 8-Sep-2001, the Southwestern acquired the rest of the Deming Subdivision as a way to continue New Mexico operations in the face of falling copper prices and closing mines.
An Overview of the Southwestern's Routes Today
The right fork, going northeast and formerly known as the ATSF Santa Rita Sub, heads up to the SWRR's yard and offices in the former-ATSF depot at Hurley. From Hurley, a large yard goes towards the Chino smelter (owned by Chino Mining, a joint Phelps Dodge - Heisei Minerals company, and formerly Kennecott), and the line continues north through Bayard to Hanover Jct. At Hanover, one fork goes right / eastward towards towards the former town of Santa Rita, now the Phelps Dodge Chino copper mine, once a large source of traffic on the SWRR. The other fork from Hanover continues northward to Fierro, which has little traffic in the SWRR era.
As previously mentioned, the former Santa Rita Sub mainly exists today to serve the Chino Mine. The Chino Mine - the large open pit mine above Bayard - was originally started around 1800, and was worked intermittantly (mainly between Apache attacks on settlements and miners) until the late 1890s, when the richer veins were worked out (rich in those days was >10 percent copper concentrations). With new concentration methods developed that were able to deal with the lower-grade sulfide ores (<2.8 percent copper), the Chino Copper Company was founded in 1909 and modern strip mining began in earnest. Somewhere along the line, Chino Copper became a partnership, with two-thirds owned by mining giant Phelps Dodge, and one third by Heisei Minerals. By the time operations were suspended in 2002, over two billion tons of rock had been extracted from the mine, with an average copper concentration of around 10 pounds / ton.
Also served on the former Santa Rita line is the only smelting and refining complex on the route. Hurley, in addition to being the home of the Southwestern Railroad, is also home to Chino Copper's refining complex. Based on what I've read, it would appear that higher grade sulfide ore at the Chino Mine was crushed on site and had the copper ore separated out by floatation. This sulfide ore slurry was then sent to the Hurley smelter via pipeline, where it was smelted down into reasonably pure copper. Hurley also has a more modern extraction facility, though, in the form of a solvent extraction - electrowinning (SX/EW) process. For SX/EW to work, large piles of low-grade ore are treated with a sulfuric acid solution that leaches out the copper. This solution is then fed into an electrochemical cell, where the copper in the mixture is essentially plated onto what starts as a thin, pure copper electrode. By the time the process completes, a very pure copper electrode weighing hundreds of pounds is produced. While the Hurley smelter itself was shut down in 2002, the SX/EW plant is apparently still running at reduced capacity.
Getting back to the modern SWRR system, the left or west fork at Whitewater goes over to Burro Mtn Jct., where the line to the Phelps Dodge Tyrone Mine splits off to the left. Formerly, the other fork from Burro Mountain went to Silver City, but I don't think this line is still intact much beyond Burro Mtn. Junction. The Tyrone Branch, however, is the only large source of traffic in the Silver City route cluster, as it's the only remaining active mine. Founded in 1921, it too is a large open pit mine, but other than that I can't find much information about it.
The western end of today's Southwestern, from Deming to the furthest reaches at Fierro, the Chino Mine, and the Tyrone Mine, is completely dependent on the mining industry for traffic. With both the Chino Mine and Smelter shut down, the western end is hurting, and in places looking more like a railroad graveyard than an active line. Still, the Tyrone Mine provides some traffic, and the offices are still located in the former ATSF depot at Hurley. The east end is a bit less mining related, and I'm guessing most of its earnings come from car storage and interchange, as well as adding a longer haul for stuff coming from the BNSF headed for the west end of the route.
Historical Background - Before the SWRR
The SP had really gotten the town of Deming off the ground with the arrival of what's known today as the Sunset Route from Los Angeles in Nov 1880. In fact, the town even owes its name to the SP, as it's attributed to Charles Crocker's wife's maiden name (CC was one of the Big Four, and an executive of the SP). In the true tradition of transcontinental building, officials drove a silver spike to mark the RGM&P's arrival and the route's completion in Deming on 7-Mar-1881. Not all was well, however, and the SP refused to develop joint rates or route much traffic via the new ATSF connection. The SP, rather, wanted to complete its own route east, and thus continued building the Sunset Route east of Deming towards El Paso, TX, and New Orleans, LA. Thus, the Santa Fe's first transcontinental attempt was relegated to little more than a stub in the desert that interchanged some modicum of traffic with the SP.
In an effort to make some use of their investment, the ATSF conglomerate negotiated trackage rights over the SP Sunset Route as far west as Benson, AZ. From there, yet another ATSF subsidiary, the New Mexico & Arizona Railroad, built a connection to Nogales, Mexico, in 1882. This, too, proved to be a business failure, and in 1897 the Benson-Nogales line was sold to SP, to be at least partially operated until 1962, when it was completely removed.
Not all was lost, though. The Lake Valley branch, starting from Nutt, a high point on the Deming Sub about halfway between Rincon and Deming, reached the Lake Valley Mine in 1884. This mine, by pure luck, hit the richest silver deposit in New Mexican history, extracting ore that yielded 16,000 ounces of silver per ton, as opposed to the usual of 70 oz/ton. By its closure, it had produced in the neighborhood of 2.5 million ounces of silver. The twelve mile branch was abandoned, however, once the boom ended.
Another project started in 1882, the Silver City, Deming, & Pacific, was to be the line's success story and eventual salvation. With the burgeoning electrical industry, the demand for copper in the 1880s was quite high. While the silver boom that started Silver City, NM, in 1870 had long since played out, there was significant potential for further mining, especially of copper ore, in the area. Original built as a 3ft. narrow gauge, the SCD&P completed the 48 miles of trackage to Silver City on 11-May-1883. The folley of narrow gauge was soon realized, however, and on 16-May-1886, the road was switched to standard gauge operations to better integrate with the Santa Fe system. By 1891, business was booming, and the Silver City & Northern started the 21 mile branch that would eventually extend from Whitewater Jct. to Fierro (by 1899). This is the modern-day line that now passes through Hurley and up to Hanover Junction. The small four mile chunk between Hanover and Santa Rita was built by the Santa Rita Railroad in 1897. All of these - the SCD&P, the SC&N, and the SRRR - were all merged into the ATSF proper around the turn of the century in 1899 and 1900.
The final fork of today's system, the branch to Tyrone from Burro Mountain Jct, was actually built by the El Paso and Southwestern as an isolated stub. It's important to remember that the EPSW was essentially a part of the Phelps Dodge mining company, and was started as a way of hauling ore from their mines to their smelters. It later expanded into a way to reach other railroads for better rates, and finally became a railroad in and of itself, but still vitally tied to the mining company that spawned it. Having built up from their southern mainline at Hermanasas to Deming in 1901 in order to connect with the Santa Fe for shorter hauls and better rates to eastern points, it was only logical to construct the Tyrone branch in 1921 to service the Phelps Dodge Tyrone mine. The branch was isolated, however, with EPSW trains running over ATSF track between Deming and Burro Mountain Jct. This was only shortly before the end came, however, and the falling price of copper forced PD to sell the entire 1200 mile EPSW system to SP in 1922.
Chasing One on the East End
After hearing a bit of unintelligable chatter on the scanner (stay tuned to 160.380 MHz - that covers the whole SWRR), I headed back over to Rincon to check on the local. To reach the south side of the yard, take NM Road 154 west out of Hatch. Right as the road comes to the the junction with NM 140 and turns left across the track to the north side, go rather straight instead and you'll wind up on a road that goes a short way along the south side. It took me a bit to figure that one out, since I'd come in from the east end of Rincon and couldn't find a grade crossing. Sure enough, the whole thing was reassembled at the western yard throat, and aside from the conductor that was down "watering the trestle", everything looked ready for departure. At this point, the train was SWRR 3000, SWRR 28, and seven empties - a tank car, a center-beam flat, four grain hoppers, and a boxcar on the end. (Photo #2) You have to admit, even more than forty years after it was built (June 1963), SWRR 28 (ex-Phelps Dodge 28) is still looking good as a revenue-earning locomotive. You have to love that GP30 profile. (Photo #3) Right around 1330h, they were off, headed westbound towards Deming.
Immediately west of Rincon, the line crosses over the Rio Grande. Not the railroad, but rather its namesake river. My parents, who had also been travelling towards Phoenix via west Texas, had mentioned in passing that the Grande was running extremely full. Sure enough, though you can't see it in the photo, the mighty river is right up towards the top of the piers under the bridge. Photo #4 shows SWRR 3000 leading across the three truss span Rio Grande bridge at MP 1082.9.
West of the Rio Grande, the only major town before Deming, some 50-odd miles west, is Hatch. Hatch's main claim to fame are its world reknown chiles - it even has an annual Hatch Chile Festival around Labor Day. As far as the railroad goes, there's not a whole lot here. There's an old elevator off to the north side of the track, and a team track beside a concrete loading dock on the south side. The loading dock makes for a nice shot of afternoon westbounds, though (Photo #5). West of town, the road (NM 26) and the railway split and are separated by several miles, so this is a good last shot before you launch off into the high desert.
The next paved access to the line that I found was some 18 rail miles west of Hatch, about halfway between the stations of Hockett and Nutt. Hockett may or may not be accessible, but I believe it to be inside a large dairy farming operation, so I didn't really try. The road I picked was local road A030 (Cristian Road) south of NM 26, which crosses the line at grade. There are large dirt parking areas on the south side of the crossing, and you'll put these to good use if you're chasing a train from Hatch (read on). The shots both east and west are good, and locals were friendly, even if curious as to why on earth a guy in a black convertible was sitting by their crossing pointing a large camera down the line. It seemed to take a small eternity for 3000 to arrive, though. I could see its headlight back at what I presumed was Hockett, but it didn't seem to be making any progress. After almost an hour (thank goodness I put a book in the car, for times just like this), we finally got a train working up the grade. (Photo #6) At first I thought they'd picked up a few cars at Hockett. Really, they'd just rearranged things a bit. Note that the tank car is now buried in the train (even though it's empty, and whatever it was carrying before may have very well been harmless), rather than next to the locomotives. Just past the grade crossing, it looks like the climb to Nutt and beyond gets started in earnest, but in reality, I think the climb probably starts several miles back. (Photo #7)
The next accessible point after this is Nutt, where the former Lake Valley branch used to split off. Part of the grade is still visible today, but the trackage is long gone. As you're driving from east to west, it also looks like a summit - but it's not. It's only a false summit, an illusion to those unfamiliar with the route. In all honesty, the road and railway will continue climbing most of the way into Deming. (Photo #8) That's not to say that the SWRR wastes any time through this stretch. Getting ahead of them is still easy with 65 mph speed limits, but it doesn't take all that long for a train to catch up.
Between Nutt and Mirage, the tracks follow the highway perfectly through the high, dry, barren desert landscape. There are quite a few small arroyos crossed on small trestles, both wooden and steel, but very little else of scenic interest. The one exception to that is an old steel water tank and some stock pens before Mirage. The light was horrible, however, so I didn't stop for a shot. Up closer to the actual summit just short of Mirage, though, the scenery begins to change from high desert to a more rocky, rolling terrain. (Photo #10) Mirage itself is the last siding before Deming, and at the moment seems to be used for generating per diem car storage revenue. It has the notable distinction of being one of the few grade crossings you'll encounter between Nutt and Deming, which makes for an easy last grab shot of any westbound. I even got mine with the first direct sunlight I'd seen in an hour. (Photo #11)
From there, it's mostly downhill to Deming, with the line breaking away from the highway and without any way to access the line until the Deming yard proper. When I arrived, there were a large number of UP employees around the yard (this is right on the Sunset Route, don't forget), along with an equal number of conspicuous No Trespassing signs. So, I decided not to dally about the yard, but rather gassed up again and headed up towards Silver City and the rest of the SWRR.
Since I didn't find anything moving on the western end of the Southwestern Railroad, I'll just be telling the west end of the line as a chapter in pictures. Enjoy Chapter 2 as the SWRR's west end in pictures from Saturday, 27-Mar-2004.
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This work is copyright 2004 by Nathan D. Holmes (email@example.com), but licensed under a Creative Commons License.
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All photographs in this trip report were taken with a Canon EOS 10D with a Canon 28-105mm USM, a Canon 100-300mm USM, or a Canon 75-300mm f4-5.3 IS/USM.