Before the town of Raton existed, wagons which were loaded with goods from the east, traveled the Santa Fe Trail through the mountains over Raton Pass. Later the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railroad brought the town of Raton into existence.
Coal mining, ranching, and the railroad all played an important part in the growth and development of the area.
Historic Downtown District
Downtown Raton is a Registered Historic District in New Mexico. It includes several buildings that were built prior to 1900 that are still in use today. The business loop of I-25 runs the length of Second Street, which includes several blocks in the historic district. One block to the east is First Street where several, beautiful Victorian-style buildings, some of the first commercial buildings built in Raton, are filled with antique shops, art galleries, gift shops, restaurants, thrift stores, and other businesses.
Facing the former Santa Fe train depot and the railroad tracks, the beautiful Victorian buildings greet Amtrak passengers daily. The Walking tour brochure that is available at the Chamber Office explains each of the buildings and its history.
The Santa Fe Depot was built at the turn of the 20th century, and has greeted train travelers for nearly a century. Now owned by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, it continues to provide shelter to Amtrak passengers who are awaiting the train.
Today, although the BNSF still owns the tracks that run through Raton, the railroad is no longer one of the major employers in the area. The last coal mine, which used the railway to transport its coal, closed in 2001.
Also located in the historic downtown district are the Shuler Theater, which was built in 1914 and is still used today for live performances, and the El Raton movie theater, where movies of today are still enjoyed.
Arthur Johnson Memorial Library
The former Post Office building, built in 1917, another historic building in downtown Raton, is now home to the Arthur Johnson Memorial Library.
Ranching, Railroad & Mining
During the peak years of the Santa Fe Trail, northeastern New Mexico was part of the largest singly owned tract of land in the Northern Hemisphere. Lucien Maxwell encouraged many to come and be ranchers on the high plains, mountains and canyons that covered almost two million acres. Gracious and beautiful, these large ranches greatly contributed to the history and development of the area. From these lands, the Maxwell Land Grant Company deeded 320 acres "situated upon the line of the New Mexico and Southern Pacific railroad near the base of the Raton Mountains" to the New Mexico Townsite Company. This became the townsite for the City of Raton.
Cattle ranching and commerce on the Santa Fe Trail established the Raton area as a trade center. When the railroad roared over the Raton Pass in 1879, the city of Raton was born and its progress became unstoppable. The first coal mines opened that same year, providing additional economic opportunities for Raton.
"Raton" was the choice of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway's (AT&SF) chief engineer. A.A. Robinson fought hard for the shorter route over the steep mountains, avoiding the Cimarron Cutoff. A plentiful water supply and the promise of coal cinched the matter. The AT&SF Railroad thus entered New Mexico via the Raton Pass. On the southern side of the 4.5 percent grade the railroad established its division headquarters, including offices, a roundhouse, and machine shops.
Buildings such as homes and shops were moved in by flatbed rail cars from Otero, a town one mile north of the Clifton House, to a new address at the base of Raton Mountain. Forty-three blocks were platted, and the City of Raton was founded in 1880. Entrepreneurs, sharp to the opportunity, acted swiftly. By the second year, the 100 block on South First Street was solidly built up with saloons and stores and the population has risen to nearly 3,000.
A typical Western frontier town, Raton had shootouts in the streets, and theater in the opera house. Those who came to live and work in Raton were cattlemen from Missouri and Texas, and immigrants from Greece, Italy, the Slavic countries and Asia. Nearby towns followed suit, and grew with the railroad: Maxwell, Springer, Wagon Mound, Watrous and Las Vegas, New Mexico. Ranches prospered as new markets in Kansas City, St. Louis, and Chicago became accessible to livestock trade.
The first coal mine opened in 1879; from its inception, coal mining was linked to the railroad. Although ranchers had been mining coal for their personal use until this time, coal brought big business to Raton. Phelps Dodge and the St. Louis, Rocky Mountain, and the Pacific Company established themselves early in the game. Coal was used to fuel the railroad, heat homes and make steel. After decades of profit, diesel trains and gas heat eventually caused the coal mines to close. Raton remained a healthy business town, trading its livestock and developing small industries. Raton's economy benefited when the mines closed, since the company stores closed as well. Miners, who transferred to other work, now shopped in Raton.
The future of Raton is firmly rooted in its past, and the qualities that have always made Raton an ideal place for business are still present today. Location, environmental factors, and a population eager to embrace opportunity guarantee the potential of this long-established trade center.