Saturday, February 4, 2012

Yep. It’s Still There

Many years ago, I took several classes in Archaeology as part of a degree in Anthropology.  One of these was a field school.  In other words, we dug big holes in the desert, mostly looking for things that weren’t there, had never been there, and weren’t likely to ever be there.

The site was chosen based on local rumor and legend, both of which turned out to be wrong.  What we hoped might be the remains of an old train stop turned out to be nothing more than the remains of an old adobe house.  Unfortunately, this took a very long time to prove, and even more unfortunately, the dig was in summer.  I love the desert, I even like the heat, but no one can like digging holes in the desert during the searing heat of summer.  We dug.  And we dug.  And we dug some more.  Eventually, the heat made us a little touchy about it.  “Don’t call us diggers, we prefer “Archaeo-Americans”.

Eventually, everyone on the site knew that we were not going to find anything linking old adobe remains with a train.  In a last ditch effort, the professor leading the dig sent another student and me out to canvass the nearby farms and houses.  Surely, someone must know something about that old house.

Actually, it turned out that no one remembered anything about those old adobe ruins.  The walls had been about three feet tall and, as far back as anyone could remember, the only change had been a slow, gradual erosion after each spring rain.  We must have interviewed two dozen people before finally, in desperation, I asked a farmer, “Didn’t anything interesting ever happen around here?”

“No, I don’t think so,” he answered.  “Unless you mean the train.”

Of course, he had our attention.  “What train?” we asked. 

The farmer led us out of his house and deep into a field of cotton.  About halfway across the field, there was a clearing, and in the middle of the clearing was a large sheet of weathered plywood.  The farmer walked up to the board, lifted it up, and revealed a large hole.  As the three of us stepped up and looked down about four feet, we could clearly see… well, it was a train.  To be precise, we were looking at the right side of a steam-powered locomotive.  Or at least part of one.

The farmer told us the story.  About a century before, the land along the Rio Grande turned into a swamp every time it rained.  Since the train line ran fairly close to the river, in many places the train crossed trestles and bridges over the lowest points.  One night, a flash flood washed out one of the trestles.  The next train--a locomotive, wood car, and three boxcars--simply ran off the track and flipped over onto its side in the mud.  The railroad recovered the freight cars but left the aging locomotive to remain where it lay.

Eventually, the river was dammed by the Army and the water used for irrigation, so that the land along the river became valuable farming property and the fields were carefully leveled.  Somewhere in this process, the train was buried and (mostly) forgotten.

For a little while there, two archaeology students thought they had made the find of the year.  We had a train!  A whole train!  This was going to be a great archaeological site, we would dig up the train and put it into a museum.

Unfortunately, reality set in pretty soon.  It would have cost a fortune to dig up that locomotive.  We would have to pay the farmer for lost crops, set up cranes, somehow fix it so that the cranes didn’t sink down and join that train, then transport the train out, repair it…  Are you starting to understand the enormous costs involved?  Worse, it seems the southwest is just lousy with those old trains.  Nearly every small town has a locomotive sitting in the middle of town surrounded by a chain link fence to keep the children off the attractive nuisance.  Some of those towns would pay a pretty penny to have someone haul away the old eyesore.  No one really wants an old locomotive.

But everyone thinks they do.  Word spread about the train.  It’s been a few decades, and to this day, I get at least one phone call a year from someone who hears the story and has a great idea:  Why not dig it up?

Yes, the train is still there.  If you want a train, don’t call me.  Just go to Deming or Silver City and take down the fence and get theirs. 

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