Train town: Railroad drives growth

BNSF Railway is Curry County’s eighth largest employer with a workforce of about 500 men and women. About 90 to 100 trains roll through Clovis each day, according to railway officials. (CNJ Staff Photo: Andy DeLisle)

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

The railroad saved Tom Carter. He may have starved. He may have turned his back on the empty plains.

But the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway gave birth to the city of Clovis 100 years ago, and Carter snagged a job.

This year, Clovis celebrates its 100th anniversary.

Back in 1905, Carter was homesteading west of Melrose. He came from Oklahoma for the free land, but discovered unyielding skies, said his grandson, Randy Dunson. Rain records then were slim, and based on exceptionally wet years in eastern New Mexico, said Dunson.

Unable to farm, homesteaders left.

“It was just impossible to make a living,” Dunson said.

“My family jokes they (my grandparents) were the last two, but they were too poor to leave,” Dunson said.

As the Carters tried to eke a living from the land, railway officials were searching for a new transcontinental railroad route, as well as a central location for train maintenance and crew lodging.

On the existing route through northern New Mexico’s Raton Pass, trains were slowed by mountains. Railway officials wanted a flatter and less costly alternative.

The new route, which crosses through central New Mexico to California, was named the Belen Cutoff. With the route mapped out, railway officials were left to choose its central site.

Melrose, Portales and Texico were considered. An area later named Clovis was chosen.

The fledgling towns competed to become the host of the railroad site, according to Dunson, who has traced Clovis’ railroad history.

“This was going to be a big deal for any town that could get a railroad terminal. … That’s a lot of money,” Dunson said.

“If it wasn’t for the railroad,” said Phil Williams, owner of the Clovis Depot Model Train Museum, “Clovis wouldn’t be here.”

Various factors led the other sites to be ruled out: Water in Melrose was unsuitable for steam locomotives; Texico was too close to the Amarillo terminal; and Portales, for some unknown reason, was considered only for a short period.

Railway officials purchased the first land for the Clovis town site in 1906.
Homesteader Clayton Reed and his sister Nellie each sold a 160-acre quarter section for $2,500 apiece. Reed paid $18 for the land.

The railway hired Carter in 1916 as a track maintenance man. He stayed with the company for 28 years. His son and grandson, Dunson, followed in his footsteps.

In 1996, the Atchinson, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway merged with Burlington Northern to become the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, now BNSF Railway.

The rumble of trains — now propelled by diesel fuel — still marks life in the plains town of Clovis, which has steadily grown to include roughly 32,800 residents, according to 2005 U.S. Census Bureau data.

Agriculture also continues to define Clovis, alongside newer industries.

Some 60,000 dairy cows call Curry County home along with thousands of beef cattle and several feedlots. Wheat, cotton, corn and vegetables are the main crops grown in the area.

During World War II, the military set its sights on Clovis. Pilots were trained at a tiny Army Air Corps field. That operation has evolved into Cannon Air Force Base, which is now Curry County’s largest employer, with 4,000 military and civilian personnel.
Another chapter at Cannon will begin in October when training for F-16 jet pilots officially ends and the base becomes the home of the Air Force 16th Special Operations Wing.

BNSF is the county’s eighth largest employer, according to the Clovis/Curry County Chamber of Commerce.

The BNSF Clovis terminal remains one of the busiest in the country, with 90 to 100 trains passing through each day, according to Clovis terminal superintendent Ricky Smith.

The spirit of Clovis’ early settlers, buoyed by the railroad that sustained them, survives in its new generations, according to Williams.

“One of the characteristics of towns along the railroad is a very strong entrepreneurial desire,” he said.

“People who came here wanted to make a fortune however they could do it,” Williams said.

Five names you might not know from Clovis history:
• Clayton Reed: He was farming his land — about the site where First Baptist Church stands today — in October of 1906 when he was approached by a Santa Fe Railway official. “He wanted to buy my claim,” Reed wrote in a 1962 letter to his grandchildren. By month’s end, Reed had sold 160 acres to the railroad, which established Clovis on the site.
• Nellie Moore: She was one of New Mexico’s leading civil rights activists in the 1960s. Former Gov. David Cargo described her as “kind of gentle, but she was also forceful.” Moore’s daughter, Susie (Mitchell) Small, was Clovis’ first black justice of the peace, winning a write-in campaign in 1967.
• J. Harvey Wilson: He was chairman of the Clovis Chamber of Commerce in 1948. Under his leadership, Clovis convinced military officials in Washington to reopen a glider training facility west of town that had been used during World War II. The site today is home to Cannon Air Force Base.
• Rito Mendez: He and other Santa Fe Railway workers heard a child screaming on the afternoon of Nov. 1, 1936. They found a 7-year-old girl had fallen into a 40-foot water tank. Railroad workers formed a human chain, with Mendez at the end trying to pull the child from the water. Lavelle Brown
survived, but Mendez, who could not swim, tumbled into the water and drowned.
• Mae Litchfield Hood: She was the first Curry County woman elected to a public office. She became county clerk in 1940.

Five things about Clovis history you might not know:
• An arch promoting the Lyceum Theatre once spanned Clovis’ Main Street. It was removed, about 1914, after a bar patron tried to climb it and fell from its highest point.
• The Clovis Pioneers baseball team enjoyed a three-decade run in the professional West Texas-New Mexico League. Paul Dean, brother of Hall of Fame pitcher Dizzy Dean, managed the club in 1949 and part of 1950.
• Clovis had at least eight “gambling joints” in its city limits in 1909, according to Mayor E.R. Hart.
• Clovis’ Rotary Club was established in 1938. Coach Rock Staubus was among its charter members.
• The temperature reached 91 degrees in Clovis on Christmas Day, 1919. In May 1935, the city received 4.5 inches of snow.

— Compiled by CNJ
Editor David Stevens

Centennial events

Friday — A time capsule buried in 1957 will be opened at 2 p.m. at the Clovis Fire Department Station 1 at Fourth and Mitchell streets
June 8 — Pioneer Women’s Breakfast at the Clovis Civic Center
June 9 — 100th Anniversary Pioneer Days Parade and Community Cookout at Greene Acres Lake
July 20-21 — Reception from 6-9 p.m. in the Santa Fe Special Train with BNSF Railway executives
July 21 — BNSF Employee Appreciation Breakfast at the Clovis Train Depot parking lot
July 21 — Centennial proclamation through the New Mexico Legislature
July 26 — Clovis Community College historical photo event at Eula Mae Edwards Museum
Oct. 6 — 100th Anniversary Gala Banquet at the Clovis Civic Center

All dates are subject to change.