Logging in the Sacramento Mountains, 1892-1927

By Pat Rand
(Author’s Note: Material for this article came from the archives of the Sacramento Mountains Historical Museum and interviews with Bill Dees, Phil Fuller, and Mark Hare.)

With the organization of the El Paso and Northeastern Railroad by the Eddy Brothers in 1897, running north out of El Paso, there was an immediate need for a large amount of lumber from which to make railroad ties. A scouting party was sent into the Sacramento Mountains to determine if it was feasible to extend a railroad line up to the summit and bring timbers down to the newly founded city of Alamogordo.
When the report indicated it would be practical, two new companies were organized by the same people who invested in the EP & NE Railroad. The Alamogordo and Sacramento Mountain Railroad was formed to operate a line from Alamogordo up to the proposed resort of Cloudcroft, and the Alamogordo Lumber Company was established for the purpose of operating a lumber industry in the Sacramento Mountains.
Agreements were drawn up between the two newly-formed corporations in 1898, which included provisions that the Lumber Company would build and equip a sawmill capable of cutting 50,000 board feet of lumber per day, it would provide 110 railroad cars for transportation of the logs, and it would build the necessary laterals and tramways to deliver the logs to the railroad. The Railroad Company would construct and provide a railroad line from the mill to the summit of the Sacramento Mountains, would receive all logs delivered to it and transport them to the mill in Alamogordo, and return all empty cars to points designated by the Lumber Company.

In 1899, the Lumber Company built its plant in Alamogordo on the west side of the railroad yards and, on October 5th, the new sawmill began operation. It was equipped with the usual collection of support shops and outbuildings, including a two-story, 40 room boarding house. Logs were being loaded onto the railroad at Toboggan, where a spur extended into the timber. A steam loader was on hand at that point. Another spur was run into Bailey Canyon, and a logging camp was built in the vicinity. As soon as the railroad reached the head of Cox Canyon in June 1900, spurs were run eastward down Pumphouse Canyon and southeasterly down Cox Canyon. The line down Pumphouse Canyon dropped into James Canyon, where another logging camp was built, including a four-track engine house and an elevated water tank.

In these early years, logging was done with hand saws and animals – usually horses and mules, but occasionally oxen – were used for hauling. Logs were skidded to landings along the railroad spurs, where they were hoisted onto the log cars by steam loaders. Usually, they would be accumulated until an entire train could be loaded. In May 1901, the railroad handled 850 cars of logs, representing two trains a day, seven days a week. During August 1901, the Alamogordo Lumber Company filed deeds for 26,000 acres of timberland in 489 parcels and used government land scrip to obtain as much as 30,000 additional acres.

In December 1901, the lumber company ordered $15,000 worth of equipment for a wood preservation plant and, by June 1902, the plant – located next to the saw mill – was operating, producing treated railroad ties and timbers. About this time, the work of cutting and skidding the trees to the railroad spur was being done by a sub-contractor, the New Mexico Tie and Timber Company. In May 1903, the railroad line was completed to the head of Russia Canyon, where a logging spur headed east down the canyon. A logging camp, made up of about 100 wooden cabins and several larger buildings, was built about a mile from the junction. It consisted of a commissary for the Tie and Timber Company, a railroad shop, a roundhouse for the locomotives, a post office, a school house and two cook shacks with mess rooms for the loggers and railroaders.

The Alamogordo Lumber Company had steady customers with its affiliated railroads during construction periods and later as ties and timbers needed replacement, and the mines in Arizona were purchasing timbers in million-board-foot lots. By late 1903, the company assets included 11 miles of logging railroad, four locomotives, a payroll of 650 men and eight to ten million board-feet of lumber in stock. Occasionally, railroad and weather problems resulted in a shutdown of the sawmill due to a shortage of logs and, in the best of times, it required constant effort to cut enough logs to keep the mill going.

In 1907, a Federal investigation was begun into alleged irregularities in the purchase of timberlands by the Alamogordo Lumber Company from the Territory of New Mexico, and an injunction was issued prohibiting any logging on the lands in question. Although the company had almost 30,000 acres of timber with a clear title, they were apparently not prepared to log those areas immediately. The Alamogordo mill was shut down in late 1907, and all logging operations in the mountains ceased.

In April 1909, the railroad tracks in Russia Canyon were removed and the steel was salvaged. The tracks in Cox Canyon were also removed. During 1909 and 1910, much of the equipment at the sawmill was sold off. The Phelps Dodge Company, which had purchased the land and timber interests together with the railroad, expressed an interest in starting logging operations if the Federal lawsuits were dismissed, but nothing was done until after New Mexico became a state in 1912. The new State courts assumed jurisdiction of the lawsuits and promptly dismissed them.

By this time, the Alamogordo Lumber Company was no longer a viable company. The lawsuits had denied it access to its most useful timber for an extended time period, with the accompanying loss of markets. In order to bring the situation back to normal, it was necessary to form a new company to continue the logging business in the area. The Sacramento Mountain Lumber Company was incorporated in Arizona on August 7th, 1916, and took over the partly-dismantled mill and some of the timber holdings of the Alamogordo Lumber Company.

The new company replaced the old horse and mule logging method with heavy machinery, which consisted of steam operated skidders with booms and cables. New rail lines were built in late1916 into the various mountain canyons, and full trains were once again heading down the hill to the mill in Alamogordo. Unfortunately, problems seemed to constantly face the company. Fires destroyed both timber and railroad equipment, and one of their locomotives was wrecked and out of service for several months. During the summer of 1917, the mill was shut down completely. Although operations were resumed in 1918, the wartime prosperity had declined and markets dwindled. The crowning blow was a fire in January 1919 that destroyed the sawmill, and the entire operation was shut down.

In July 1920, the Sacramento Mountain Lumber Company was sold to the next outfit to try its hand at lumbering in the Sacramento Mountains – Southwest Lumber Company. It had previously been organized by Louis Carr, an experienced lumberman, who had obtained the rights to almost 70,000 acres of hardwood timber – oak, walnut and chestnut – from the George W. Vanderbilt estate in North Carolina, and had cut the timber for 20 years. An immigrant from Italy who arrived in this country as a teenager with 35 cents in his pocket, Carr’s North Carolina lumber business was valued at over three million dollars at the time he began his New Mexico company.

It took some time to repair and restore the equipment from the Sacramento Mountain Lumber Company, but logging and milling resumed in February 1921, and capacity steadily increased throughout the year. A new locomotive was purchased and, by October, production reached one million board-feet of lumber per month. By this time, the railroad was bringing 15 to 16 loads daily down the hill to the mill.

In 1922, the company built a permanent camp at Marcia. It became the terminal for logging railroad operations, with engines bringing loaded cars from the outlying areas for incorporation into longer trains to be taken to Russia. In September of that year, the company purchased the remaining timberland of the Alamogordo Lumber Company, and also purchased additional timber from National Forest and State land. In Marcia, a roundhouse and machine shop were built and equipped to perform the necessary maintenance work on the locomotives and steam loaders used in the woods.

During 1923 and 1924, Southwest Lumber Company continued to expand, extending south and east into the various canyons, and logging in these canyons continued throughout the 1920s. Also, during this time, the company began receiving logs from the Cloudcroft Lumber and Land Company, which was logging on the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation. In 1921, Ben Longwell, who had been involved in various timber operations in the area since 1899, and C.M. Pate – his partner from Louisville, Kentucky – formed the Cloudcroft Lumber and Land Company. Longwell had obtained a contract from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to purchase about 160 million board-feet of pine and fir on the reservation in December 1920. Longwell, who was an experienced surveyor, laid out a railroad line from Cloudcroft to the reservation, a distance of about eight miles. Lack of financing caused a slowdown in construction, and the first logs weren’t delivered to the mill until the summer of 1924.

The shipping cost over 35 miles to the mill was quite high and, in a little over a year – in October 1925 – Longwell and Pate filed a petition of voluntary receivership in the District Court. George E. Breece was an experienced lumberman who had operated mills in Louisiana and Virginia, and had an interest in the White Pine Lumber Company in Bernalillo, NM. He successfully negotiated with Longwell and Pate and, on June 3, 1926, took over the assets and property of the Cloudcroft Lumber and Land Company.

Within a month of the purchase, Breece arranged with Southern Pacific to provide rail and equipment which would allow him to extend his logging railroad, and negotiated with the Texas-Louisiana Power Company on using the waste sawdust from his new sawmill to fuel a proposed new steam power plant that would provide Alamogordo and nearby cities with a new source of electricity. In February 1927, the power plant was completed and went into operation, and the sawmill began cutting timber. In the mountains, logging operations were contracted out, and two crews composed of 300 men were delivering about 75,000 board-feet of lumber to the railroad daily. As soon as the sawmill was operating, work began on a planing mill and box plant, and they went into operation in June 1927.

By 1927, the heavy overhead logging equipment that Southwest Lumber had inherited from its predecessor was disposed of, and logging operations began utilizing the new, practical, Caterpillar tractor more and more. They were used with hydraulic steel arches to pull the timbers. In 1929, a large quantity – more than 15 million board feet – of state timber was advertised for sale in Dark and Wills Canyons with Southwest being the successful bidder. A sawmill was established in Wills Canyon, and rail lines were continued about four miles further down Wills Canyon with branch spurs going up several side canyons.

(c) 2001 Mountain Monthly