Guadalupe Box Canyon
One of the Gilman Tunnels in the Jemez Mountains
Exploring Gilman Canyon
The Gilman Tunnels were an important part of a railroad feeder
line built to transport vast quantities of virgin timber out of
New Mexico’s rugged Jemez Mountains to the AT&SF railhead
located at Bernalillo. Incorporated on August 20, 1920, the Santa
Fe North Western (SFNW) Railroad tracked a route west across the
Rio Grande, through the Santa Ana and Zia Pueblos, and then north
through San Ysidro toward Jemez Pueblo, where it ran into the
first of many roadblocks.
Back in 1689, the Spanish government officially awarded the Jemez
people title to the lands they occupied. This land grant, later
upheld by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, conferred all rights
of ownership to the Pueblo people and, according to Pueblo tradition,
decreed that the land could not be sold, traded, or as was the
case with the railroad, trespassed upon. Because of past transgressions,
the people of Jemez distrusted the United States, its government,
and all those who sought financial gain at Pueblo expense. Court
battles extending well into the mid-20s delayed, but did not halt,
progress of the fledgling rail line. By 1924, the SFNW passed
through Jemez Pueblo, crossed the Rio Jemez at Cañon, and
proceeded up the west side of a narrow valley into the canyon
of the Rio Guadalupe. Up ahead lay an impenetrable box canyon.
Box canyons form in areas where layers of permeable (soft) rock
lie on top of layers of impermeable (hard) rock. Over millions
of years, water seeps through the permeable rock until it reaches
the impermeable rock and then travels horizontally, eroding the
permeable rock into steep-walled canyons or crevasses. The Guadalupe
Box Canyon was formed by the torrential force of the Rio Guadalupe
as it surged over the volcanic rock walls and cascaded to the
canyon floor below.
Accepting the fact that they couldn’t go over the top
of the canyon, the builders of the SFNW decided to go through
it. Using dynamite, pick axes, and immeasurable amounts of horse
and manpower, two separate tunnels were blasted through the hard
rock. A series of tall timber trestles built upon rock fills that
began two miles below the box canyon carried the train out of
the valley and up toward the tunnels. Several times during construction,
the force of the river washed out the trestles. They were rebuilt,
but when completed in August of 1924, the roadbed through the
tunnels, only five-eighths of a mile in length, cost more than
half the total cost of the railroad.
Beyond the tunnels, the rail line proceeded into an open area.
In 1924, with a workforce of almost three hundred men, the White
Pine Lumber (WPL) Company sawmill began cutting and skidding logs
down to Deer Creek Landing, where they were loaded on to steel
log cars and transported through Guadalupe Canyon. The WPL workers
and their families needed homes and a log cabin camp was set up.
Known as Porter Landing, the logging camp was named after Lyman
Porter who owned the company warehouse and store known as Porter
Mercantile Company. Everything looked promising for the railroad
and the businesses it helped create until several problems arose.
On December 31, 1927, locomotive #102 exploded, and in 1929,
the stock market crashed. By 1930, the SFNW lay idle for fifteen
months and was in serious financial trouble. New investors tried
to breathe life into the failing railroad, but when the MPL shut
down in 1931 because of low prices, the future looked grim. On
August 16, 1936, two men were seriously injured when the locomotive
known as Husler #104 overheated and exploded. They sued for, and
obtained, substantial compensation for their injuries. The final
blow came in 1937, when the logging camp at Porter was abandoned
in favor of a new camp at O’Neil Landing several miles north.
In the late 1940s, a new sawmill, built by the New Mexico Timber
Company, opened in the town of Gilman, located just below the
mouth of the Guadalupe Box Canyon. Trucks were more cost-efficient
and less dangerous to operate, so the old railroad tracks were
removed and the rail bed was converted into a truck route.
As logging in the Jemez Mountains came to a close, consideration
was given to disposing of the property. Efforts were made to develop
vacation properties around Jemez Springs, but most of the land
was deeded to the Forest Service. The tunnels were repaired, the
old log cribbing was replaced with concrete panels, and the roadway
was paved for automobiles.
You can follow the route of the old SFNW Railroad by driving
NM 550 west from Bernalillo to NM 4 at San Ysidro and then north
to Forest Route 485. FR 485 will take you through the town of
Gilman, the tunnels named after William H. Gilman (one-time CEO
of the SFNW RR) and into some of the prettiest, most isolated
county in New Mexico. You can hike. You can camp. You can wade
in the river. You can reconnect with nature. You might see bits
and pieces of old buildings and railroad trestles, but you won’t
see any signs telling you where you are or where you’re
going. True, you might think you are lost, but once you’ve
been to the tunnels and beyond, like many others who have made
the trip, you will surely agree that this is a place well worth
getting lost in.