Fort Sumner railroad bridge turning 100 this year

By Don McAlavy

The railroad bridge at Fort Sumner is 100 years old this year. The bridge crew knew they had a big job ahead of them. One of the great floods of the Pecos River in 1903 demonstrated to the Belen cutoff railroad crew that the bridge on the Pecos would have to be strong and high.

Then on Sept. 30, 1904, another Pecos River flood submerged the Old Fort Sumner Military Cemetery four feet under the current. Many markers and stones were moved or lost. Even Roswell and Carlsbad suffered the flood waters.

The Landry Sharp Construction Co. established a large camp at the river to begin building a bridge in 1905. Some 300 railroad bridge workers came to do the job. The nearest good water was the Sunnyside Springs, about a mile north of the rails. There had been a post office, stage stop and sheep trading center at these springs from 1878 until 1882. The second Sunnyside beside the tracks was a post office from 1905 until 1910.

Bridging operations were well under way in 1906 and the fine depot building was completed. Harry R. Parsons (father of Bob Parsons of Fort Sumner) said Santa Fe Railroad officials were on the fence about which town the depot served. On one side of the depot was mounted the town name of Sunnyside; Fort Sumner was posted on the other. That seemed to settle the problem at that time.

During construction, one of the crew fell into the wet concrete being poured into the pier. The foreman, upon hearing about the incident, told the crew to keep pouring. The poor lad is still entombed in one of the piers The great railroad bridge was 1,500 foot long.

On July 3, 1908, a tornado with accompanying torrential rain and hail killed five persons and left many injured or destitute and homeless. The railroad bridge survived. A lot of the little village of Sunnyside and the town of Fort Sumner had to be rebuilt.

Sunnyside was a long straight line of businesses along what is now North Fourth Street in Fort Sumner. From the east end of the railroad bridge to a little east of the new depot, Sunnyside was a haphazard scattering of fences, sheds, and shacks. “The tornado and hailstones,” said one old timer, “was the ruin of most all the little sheep drovers.”
The years of 1907, 1908, and 1909 were especially good years for development in the Fort Sumner valley.

Fort Sumner Townsite Company purchased the reservation land where the Navajos and Apaches were impounded during the Civil War from ranchers Doss, Taylor and others in 1907. By 1908, water began to be diverted out of the Pecos to 10,000 acres to form the Fort Sumner Project of the Fort Sumner Land and Canal Company.

On April 17, 1909, the Sunnyside Review newspaper reported that the side-by-side towns resolved their differences and merged to become the one town called Fort Sumner.

The Legislature of 1913 created a county named Sumner, but Gov. William McDonald vetoed the bill. Finally in 1917, with much credit going to the late J. E. Pardue, the new county of DeBaca was created. It was named for former Gov. Ezequiel Cabeza de Baca.

The Alamogordo Lake dam above Fort Sumner was opened in 1937. It furnished water to the Fort Sumner Valley and provided flood control and flood control was what the railroad bridge needed to survive.

Railroad traffic began on the great railroad bridge in 1907. The railroad, Fort Sumner, and New Mexico got their money’s worth from that stout iron and concrete bridge. It has never been washed out.

Most of the information reported above came from Randy Dunson, an employee of the Santa Fe Railroad. He’s also an historian and editor of The Pecos Handbill that City Printing, Inc. published in the mid-1990s for the railroad employees.

Other information came from Harry R. Parsons of Fort Sumner and his historian son, Bob Parsons.

Don McAlavy is Curry County’s historian. He can be contacted at:
dmcalavy@telescopelab.com