Belen's Train Yard & Harvey House (Part 1)

BELEN, NM—If you like trains (and who doesn't), consider this: 35 miles south of Albuquerque is one of the busiest train yards in the west. Belen, New Mexico handles over 100 trains every 24 hours. That brings up two questions: Why? And...So what?

Oh, Little Town of Belen
The American West was born in New Mexico. Don Juan de Oñate established an actual colony here north of present-day Santa Fe with 560 colonists in 1598—about 25 years before Plymouth Rock and almost a decade before the founding of Jamestown, Virginia. Eventually, the colonists of El Rio Arriba (The Upper River) were searching for new land to cultivate and many headed south to what was called El Rio Abajo (The Lower River). First Albuquerque was established in 1706. By 1740, several Albuquerque families received a land grant of 200,000 acres for the Belen townsite and they moved south once again. "Belen" is, of course, Spanish for "Bethlehem."

El Millonario and the Belen Cut-Off
The railroad arrived in Belen in the summer of 1880. The route connected Chicago with southern California. However, there were a couple of problems with it: specifically, Glorieta Pass and Raton Pass. The steep grades caused problems such as extremely slow speeds for the freight trains and the resulting congestion, as well as the need for helper engines to get the trains over the passes.

Belen merchant Felipe Chavez, known locally as El Millonario because of his worldwide investment holdings, convinced the Santa Fe railroad to build a rail line from just north of Belen skirting the south end of the Manzano Mountains to Texico west of Clovis on the New Mexico/Texas border. Although this route to Chicago was only five miles shorter, the maximum grade was only 1.25% as opposed to the 3.5% grade at Raton Pass. Completed in 1908, this new line became known as the Belen Cut-Off. Even now, both Belen and Clovis each receive around 100 trains every day.

So What?
Belen was now New Mexico's “Hub City,” a designation still proudly displayed on many of the city's signs. Trains from the north, east, west, and south ran through the Belen rail yard. All this traffic meant Belen attracted the interest of America's foremost restauranteur and travel host, Fred Harvey.

Harvey had already constructed the wonderful Alvarado in Albuquerque in 1902. It was huge. It was fancy. Designed by Charles Whittlesey and with Mary Jane Coulter responsible for the “Indian Room,” the Alvarado was one of the best hotel/restaurants in the southwest.

Belen, however, was not going to get such a luxurious building. In 1910 Fred Harvey built the two-story “Harvey House” that still stands next to the rail station. Though modest in size, it did have a dining room that seated 64 people and a lunchroom with a large U-shaped counter.

Incredibly, none of the building materials were local; everything was shipped in from somewhere else. Even stranger, none of the labor utilized in the construction was local; all the workers were brought in from elsewhere. It is said that this was because the relationship between Fred Harvey and the Santa fe railroad included free rail transportation.

In any case, the Harvey House had two other things that brought a smile to every visitor who came to Belen on the train.

Harvey Girls
By far, the most important and memorable feature of any Harvey House were the Harvey Girls. The Harvey chain recruited attractive, educated young women from the east to work in the restaurants. They signed up for adventure, travel, and the decent money. They received room & board as well as a small wage plus tips. Their black and white heavily starched dresses and aprons were famous.

The girls lived upstairs from the restaurant. In Belen there were 14 double rooms upstairs. Each room was 12 feet by 6 feet--with a closet, two white iron beds and two brown dressers. The bathroom was down the hall. They also had a house mother who made sure the girls kept the eleven o'clock curfew.

During the 50 year life-span of the Harvey Houses, from about 1880 to around 1930, it is said that Fred Harvey was the largest employer of female labor in the U.S.

That Amazing Portal
The other feature that truly distinguishes the Belen Harvey House is the amazing portal that faces the train tracks. This portal is, without a doubt, the best porch left in the state of New Mexico. It used to be almost totally covered in vines. They have been trimmed back, but it is still absolutely the best place in town on a warm afternoon.

Sit back on one of the benches and watch the life of the train yard: trains switching, picking and dropping off cars, trains arriving, departing, men on ATV's racing around, engineers pulling their wheeled luggage past the Harvey House at shift change. This may not be your cup of tea, but there is a rhythm of the past that surfaces in all these tasks. Railroads haven't changed all that much in the last 150 years...and sitting under this portal with its broad arches and framed vistas transports the soul to simpler times.

It is easy to spend half an hour doing this. In fact, there are townspeople who come here and do it regularly. Others travel from all over to stand here and take pictures. These kinds of train buffs are sometimes called “foamers” because they foam at the mouth every time a train passes by.

Next Week, Your Trip to Belen
There is more to this story. Next time...
• Two ways to get there.
• The Harvey House Museum.
• Two more things to see.
• Where to eat.
• How the Recovery Act might affect your plans.

Views: 1402

Comment by ramon t on September 28, 2010 at 9:07am
Great read. Here is another great read on the Harvey House in Belen.

My fathers side of the family was one of the 1st settlers in the Belen area. The Belen Train depot is a Safety Check station and refueling yard.
Comment by Laura on September 28, 2010 at 9:09am
Thanks, Johnny Mango. That's one of my favorite day-trips, especially now that the Rail Runner stops right there. I guess we're occasional foamers, too.

We ran into a journalist once who'd done a story on Belen's rail yard there, and she claimed it is the biggest and busiest east-west rail stop in the country. Supposedly there are small hotels/rentals right in the area that charge in eight-hour increments, because that is exactly the amount of break time the train engineers get. Not sure how much of that is true, but after watching for awhile, I can believe it.
Comment by ramon t on September 28, 2010 at 9:49am
Laura - not completely true. BNSF has two hotels on the west end of town off of I-40 and Camino de Llano. The hotels are owned by a company that specializes in accommodations for Rail Roads across the country. These hotels are not open to the public for rental. They direct charge BNSF for the rooms and you are correct that they are used in 8 hour increments. BNSF is direct charged for all the rooms on a daily basis whether the rooms are occupied or not. They have round the clock housekeeping to clean the rooms and get them prepared for the next railroader to come in and rest. There is also a small little cafe on the property.

I know this because my father is an employee of the hotel.
Comment by misterhinkydink on September 28, 2010 at 10:22am
Cool post!!!
Comment by PJH on September 28, 2010 at 10:30am
Belen is in the process of building a pedestrian overpass that will make it much easier for RailRunner passengers to walk to the Harvey House. It is somewhat controversial, being constructed with recovery act money which some people think would be better spent elsewhere.
Comment by ramon t on September 28, 2010 at 10:36am
Another piece of controversy going on in Belen is that FEMA has recently remapped the flood zones and now most of the city is considered a flood zone. This will cost most homeowners in the area hundreds of dollars per year for flood insurance. My BIL received a quote of $900 per year for a small $120k house. My FIL's quote was for $1400 per year. Not good for an area where people don't make a lot of money.
Comment by Ted_Slampyak on September 28, 2010 at 10:41am
Nice piece, Johnny. I've never been to Belen but now I'll have to make a trip down there. Thanks!
Comment by Dee Cohen on September 28, 2010 at 11:03am
Thanks for the info. I'm ready for a field trip this this interesting town. Dee
Comment by Alicia on September 28, 2010 at 11:51am
Love the post but I am a bit ashamed because I have never been there, especially seeing as how my dad works in the Belen yard as a machine operator. Looks like a "bring your daughter to work day" is needed.
Comment by Laura on September 28, 2010 at 11:57am
Ramon T -- thanks for the extra info about the hotels. I always wondered how much of it was true. Now I know!


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