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?
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.
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.
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.