Cochiti Queen Then: (l. to r.) Ben Forgey, Joe Matthews, Ty Belknap trailer the Cochiti Queen after a somewhat successful test launch in 2001.
(Top) Cochiti Queen Now: Ty and Barb Belknap enjoy their new boat on its second launch.
Relaunching the Cochiti Queen
—Ty Belknap, Signpost
Longtime Placitan Lloyd Melick called me last month to ask if my wife and I wanted to take possession of the Cochiti Queen. He said that he was too old for boating and just wanted his half-size replica of the “African Queen” (fourteen feet in length) to have a good home. He also needed the garage space to keep pack rats out of his pickup. Although flattered by the honor, I hesitated initially because my boatyard is getting kind of full, but then after taking another look at the CQ, I hitched up the trailer and drove her home. I’m as likely as anyone here in the desert to use a classic English river boat—in fact, I’ve already taken her for a spin on Cochiti Lake.
Some Signpost readers might recall the article about the initial launching of the boat that appeared in the December 2001 issue. Lloyd still laughs about that launch and the circumstances that led up to it. He said that he would miss the CQ, but his limited mobility lends itself more to his ham radio hobby.
Lloyd’s interest in boating began when he retired from engineering in 1980. He bought a Hobie Cat and took his wife for a sail—a mistake that has cut short many a sailor’s career and probably a few marriages, as well. He decided that he would build a more stable craft and thus began years of boatbuilding deep in the most remote hills of Placitas. Using wooden strip plank and plywood techniques, Lloyd has built (and given away) a couple of sailboats, a canoe, a rowboat, and most recently the CQ. The boats are so beautifully made that the canoe decoratively hangs from the ceiling of his daughter’s living room. The rowboat was nearly converted into a bookcase.
The CQ was the result of conversations with Lloyd’s neighbor, Diamond Tail Ranch owner Joe Matthews. Both men were fans of the steamboat which had the title role in the classic Bogart movie The African Queen. They decided that Lloyd would build the boat and Joe would build a steam engine to power it. It took about six months to build the only steamboat in New Mexico, piecing together three quarter inch strips of western red cedar and covering the hull with fiberglass and epoxy. Joe spent almost as much time fabricating the engine in his machine shop—practically from scratch.
Bernalillo artist and former Signpost reporter Ben Forgey wrote a story about the project in the February 2001 issue, was caught up in the enthusiasm, and ended up building the teak deck—in itself no small task. Ben also helped launch and fire the boiler of the CQ at Cochiti Lake the first time.
Lloyd’s wife Julie and daughter Pat manned one of his earlier creations which served as the chase boat. I came along to document the historic event along with my father-in-law, the late, great Bob Nethery, who came to drink beer and take pictures.
From the 2001 Signpost article:
“With little ceremony and no champagne, Lloyd backed the Queen into the lake. It floated high and proud, perfectly balanced fore and aft. You could tell by the smile on his face that the many hours of sanding and resultant carpal tunnel syndrome had all been worthwhile. A look of concern remained on Joe’s face, because his moment of truth had arrived. There wasn’t much time to go through a checklist, even if he had one, because the gathering crowd was practically chanting, “Come on, fire it up!”
So he did—filling the firebox with lumps of coal, logs, a bag of hickory chips, and lighter fluid. He added water to the boiler as a panicky afterthought, and the pressure quickly built enough to drive the engine, and off they went—Lloyd at the tiller and Joe sweating away at the engine. Most of us got a little ride around the harbor.
Things seemed to be going great until a little problem developed. The pressure was spiraling as it became increasingly difficult to pump water into the pressurized boiler. We watched Ben rudder the boat toward the beach while Joe desperately shoveled burning logs into the lake, averting a possible explosion.
All in all, it was a successful launch, but when the soot-covered CQ was back in Placitas, Joe pulled the steam engine and took it back to Texas, intending to build a better one. But he never did, and who could blame him? That somewhat hilarious and scary adventure was the only time the CQ was in the water until this past Labor Day.
As I backed down the boat ramp at Cochiti Lake, people in ran over to see the elegant craft. Once again, she floated high and was balanced fore and aft, even without the steam engine. The only problem was the water spurting in from a hole in the hull—apparently a water intake that Lloyd forgot to tell me about. I plugged it pretty well with a cork that we happened to have along, c-clamped oar locks to the deck, loaded my wife and dog aboard, and rowed around for a few minutes before a giant thunderhead rolled in over the Jemez Mountains. Holiday boaters raced to the ramp to escape the storm. The rangers were too busy helping people out of the water to enforce the leash and no swimming rules as my dog swam with me while I pushed the CQ back on the trailer. The storm blew over quickly, but since we had so much help getting the boat onto the crowded ramp, we just pumped it out and went home.
Now the CQ is covered by a tarp, joining the sailboats, canoes, windsurfers, and all the inflatable river craft in our residential boatyard. I’ll try to patch that hole and figure out a better means of propulsion by next spring. Maybe I’ll just borrow an outboard motor and, with any luck, the third try will be the charm.
Dynamic sculpture at heritage center focuses attention on the Fra Cristobal Mountains and northern Jornada.
Shadowy ruts in the Jornada show El Camino Real still exists, more than 125 years after it was last used.
Carreta is typical of the two-wheel wagons that plied El Camino Real.
Fruits of labor on display at museum
In search of El Camino Real: You really have to want to find it
—Bud Russo, Explore! New Mexico
In 1598, nearly a decade before the English landed at Jamestown, Don Juan de Oñate was leading five hundred people in a wagon train north from Mexico to colonize the Tierra Adentro—the interior lands that became Nuevo México, lands the Spanish had been exploring for nearly a century.
The road Oñate proved subsequently was commissioned by the king of Spain to become a royal highway, a vibrant artery of travel and commerce that forever changed the face of the American Southwest. It is such an important part of our history, El Camino Real was designated a National Historic Trail in 2000.
Whether we know it or not, we use El Camino Real every day. In Las Cruces, the old road enters the city from the south at the village of Tortugas. It lies beneath Espina Street until it crosses Lohman Avenue. Then it runs under Mesquite Street. From there, it edges under Three Crosses Avenue at North Main Street and heads toward the river, where it went past Fort Selden, built in 1865 to protect travelers from attacks.
In Albuquerque, Broadway south of Central Avenue now parallels El Camino Real. After Central, the royal highway snakes along where Edith Boulevard is today and on past Alameda Boulevard toward Sandia Pueblo.
When the camino reaches Bernalillo, it splits into two paths—one parallels Acequia and the other Camino del Pueblo (NM Highway 313). North of town, the two paths reunite and the old road pushes on past San Felipe and Santo Domingo Pueblos.
At Santo Domingo, El Camino Real leaves the Rio Grande river valley and heads along Rio Santa Fe northeast toward the city of Santa Fe, although its terminus was originally Santa Cruz and later Taos. It passed through La Ciénega, Las Golondrinas, and El Alamo.
Today, Agua Fria Street parallels the old road as it wends its way toward Santa Fe Plaza. Knowing this did not satisfy me. I wanted to find out if there was a remnant of the original road, not something buried under a yard of gravel and asphalt. So I went in search of it.
I once saw an aerial photo in the Branigan Cultural Center‘s exhibit in Las Cruces, Crossroads of History, showing a segment of I-25, a dirt road to the east, and the remnant of El Camino Real even farther east. I was determined to find it, to stand where so many had traveled and celebrate the history of my adopted home state. I was particularly interested in the stretch through the harsh Jornada del Muerto.
Until the last century, when people were able to dig wells a hundred or more feet deep, there was no water in the Jornada. Travelers camped at Paraje San Diego, near today‘s Radium Springs, and then headed north into the Jornada. The reason was quite simple. North of Radium Springs, the Rio Grande bends to the west, and the land is comprised of sandy bottoms and dunes, deep arroyos, and steep escarpments unsuitable for heavy wagons or even carretas. In the Jornada, the land was flatter and relatively easy to cross. But it was ninety miles before the traveler would find water at Paraje de Fra Cristobal. People could carry water for themselves, but not enough for their horses, mules, and oxen. So crossing the Jornada demanded a forced march of three to four days. Longer than that, the animals would die. And if the animals died, the traveler would soon follow suit.
Despite these risks, the road was used for nearly three hundred years before the railroads arrived and rendered it redundant. Interestingly, the railroad parallels El Camino Real through the Jornada, crossing to the left bank of the Rio Grande just before Mesa de Contadero near Fort Craig.
In search of the royal highway, I traveled north to the El Camino Real International Heritage Center only to learn the place I sought was only twenty miles north of my home in Las Cruces.
The trip wasn’t wasted, however. The Heritage Center offers an informative film; exhibits of period artifacts and outstanding displays; an interesting garden of medicinal herbs and edible desert plants; and spectacular vistas of the Fra Cristobal Mountains, the northern Jornada, and Mesa de Contadero (Black Mesa), a major navigational landmark.
It tells the history of El Camino Real following Oñate‘s original expedition. Hal Jackson, in his book Following the Royal Road, writes, “The Camino Real was extended north with amazing speed. It took only seventy-seven years from the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlan in 1521 until Juan de Oñate established a capital in New Mexico in 1598. If this accomplishment is compared with the glacial pace of English settlement westward from the Atlantic seaboard, the difference is striking. Ultimately, the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro became the longest highway in North America, stretching fifteen hundred miles from Mexico City to northern New Mexico.”
Thus, El Camino Real became the major thoroughfare between the capital and the interior, used by the military to maintain order as much as it was used by traders hauling goods and livestock. Sadly, it was also the means by which the unscrupulous transported slaves, mostly native people for mines in central Mexico. In 1680, when the burden of colonial rule became too great to bear, the Pueblo people revolted and the road was abandoned for a decade or more. It saw the re-conquest and pacification of the native peoples in the eighteenth century and the overthrow of Spanish rule by Mexico in 1821. With the opening of the Santa Fe Trail from Missouri and the occupation of New Mexico by the United States in 1846, trade along El Camino Real changed dramatically as populations in settlements increased rapidly. All of this was explained and illustrated at the Heritage Center. It put my inquisitive adventure into perspective.
Still, I wanted to stand on The Road. After discussing my dilemma with Ranger Bruce McHenry at the Heritage Center, we decided the Branigan photo could only have been taken near the Fort Selden rest area. I headed south, juked over onto the dirt county roads at Upham, and followed my instincts. When I thought I could drive no farther south and still find The Road, I stopped and walked east.
El Camino Real has not been used for more than 125 years, ever since the railroad arrived in the 1880s. But you can still find it if you really want to. It’s a shadow of its former glory, but it’s still there. I walked along this seeming apparition of El Camino Real a few hundred yards to the north. The land rose gently in elevation, perhaps about twelve to fifteen feet. Then I turned around. The land fell away to the south, and I was be able to follow the southwesterly trail toward Radium Springs and the ancient San Diego camp site where Juan de Oñate disembarked more than four centuries ago.
The ruts still mark the land. They still point back to our history and point even more to our future. The runways of the Spaceport America, now under development in the Jornada, will perhaps parallel El Camino Real. Adventurous fliers will soar away from the Jornada on a journey, at first, taking them just beyond the threshold into outer space. Later travelers may leave Spaceport America for orbiting space stations or colonies on the moon or Mars. When they leave, they undoubtedly will be able to see the tracks of the ancient road where colonists centuries before ventured forth with the same excitement, anticipation, and uncertainty of their futures.
There are other places where you can stand and marvel at the accomplishments of these brave Spanish colonists pressing heartily into what was for them the unknown. There are accessible remnants of the camino near San Antonio, La Joya, and the Mormon Battalion marker at exit 257 on I-25. Finding the ancient swales or ruts at these sites and others is an adventure but, like I said, you can find El Camino Real if you really want to.
[Reference: Hal Jackson’s Following the Royal Road: A Guide to the Historic Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2006.]
El Camino Real International Heritage Center
P O Box 175
Socorro, NM 87801
How to Get There:
Follow the signs from exit 115 on I-25. Cross to the east side of highway to the junction with NM Highway 1 and drive 1.5 miles south. At the rest area, turn left (east) at the sign; continue past the monument sculpture three miles. The Center is about five miles from exit 115.
To find the remnant of El Camino Real I visited, take exit 19, Radium Springs, from I-25. At the top of the ramp, turn east and, where the pavement ends, turn north on County Highway E-070. Within a half mile, you will see the hay storage area of NMSU‘s Chihuahua Desert Rangeland Research Center. Four miles farther north, the Research Center fence ends at a cattle guard. To your left, on the interstate, you will see the Fort Selden rest area. Immediately past the cattle guard is a two-track. Park and walk east about a half mile along this dirt road. Keep a sharp lookout for the remnant. Riders still use it and I suppose hikers do too.
Fees and Hours:
El Camino Real International Heritage Center is open six days a week, from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. It is closed on Tuesdays, New Year‘s Day, Easter Sunday, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day.
Admission is $5 for adults; children sixteen and under free. Sundays are free for New Mexico residents. Wednesdays are free for New Mexico seniors (sixty or older). Senior groups (ten or more) are $1 per person every day. School groups are free. Admission is also free for members of ECRIHC Foundation, MNM Foundation, AAM, ICOM, and U.S. military veterans.
The Center does not have food services, but many visitors enjoy a picnic on the patio overlooking the mountains and Jornada. There is a wide selection of restaurants and lodging in Socorro and Truth or Consequences.
The Center’s gift shop is open Wednesday through Sunday with items and crafts of Spanish and Mexican origin, arts and crafts by local artists, books on the trail and New Mexico history, and other Southwest subjects.