The J-9 Narrow Gauge Scenic Byway has had many twists and turns, both literally and historically. This isolated road winds through a beautiful and dramatic landscape. It started as a primitive trail forged by early settlers and miners, and became a crude toll road in 1877. In the early 1800s, the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad laid track on the same alignment. It has come full circle - the track has been removed and it is once again a largely unimproved road, now known as Jicarilla 9.
The D&RG Railway Company, incorporated in 1870, planned to lay track from Denver to El Paso, Texas and ultimately to Mexico City. Six branches would serve the booming silver mining areas of Colorado. Both the rough terrain and the cheaper cost of construction and operations led to the company's decision to use narrow gauge track, with rails laid three feet apart rather than the standard 4 feet 8.5 inches. Minimal grading was done in preparation for laying the track, and the line ran through narrow canyons and over steep grades.
In late 1881, the San Juan Branch was completed from Antonito to Durango, and from there to Farmington and Silverton, connecting the east and west sides of the Rocky Mountains. It served isolated farming and mining areas, transporting raw materials like timber and mineral ore, passengers, and tourists. After the silver boom ended in 1893, the freight shifted to agricultural products and timber milled by a Pagosa Springs lumber company. By 1915 the timber supply had nearly disappeared, and the company moved its operations to Dulce, a station on the San Juan Branch, where it built a new mill and company town in 1916.
In 1935 the San Juan Branch stopped operation for freight shipment completely, in 1951 it discontinued daily passenger service, and in 1968 it was abandoned between Chama and Durango. The Cumbres-Toltec (in Chama, 505-756-2151) and Durango-Silverton (888-872-4607 in Durango) lines, which continue in operation today as tourist lines, are all that remain of the San Juan Branch. It doesn't take a railroad buff to enjoy the sound of a steam engine and the rhythmic clack of wheels on the narrow gauge, and the mountain scenery is enchanting.
The greatest significance of this corridor today is the fact that it connects the sovereign nations of the Jicarilla Apache in New Mexico and the Southern Ute in Colorado. J-9 facilitates the exchange of commodities and religious and cultural heritage between the two tribes.
The Utes are the oldest continuous residents of Colorado. Two of the seven original Ute bands, the Mouache and Capote, make up the present day Southern Ute Indian Tribe. They reside on approximately 800,000 acres in southern Colorado. The Jicarilla Tribe consists of two bands: the Llaneros, or plains people, and the Olleros, or mountain valley people. They once roamed a large part of northeastern New Mexico and southern Colorado. In 1887, they were given a permanent reservation in north central New Mexico, which now encompasses one million acres.
J-9 now parallels or overlays about ten miles of the old railroad bed from Dulce northeast to the Colorado border. Most of the original track has been removed, but a short segment remains at the junction of US 64 and J-9 (called Narrow Gauge Street here) in Dulce. Two old D&RGW wooden boxcars sit next to the Jicarilla Culture Center. Several yellow frame buildings with rust trim along the road in town were obviously associated with the D&RGW, but they have second careers as tribal administration buildings.
The canyon closes in on the paved road as it continues northwest alongside Amargo Creek. After about four miles, the pavement and the creek disappear. The station stop of Navajo was here at the confluence of Amargo Creek and the Navajo River. Still present to testify to the presence of busier times are a round yellow water tank with rust red roof and timber supports and a steel truss bridge across the river. A plaque on the bridge says that this was once the D&RGWRR Royal Gorge Route Scenic Line. Where tracks once were, planks were laid to allow cars over the bridge. It outlived even that use and has now been bypassed completely by a modern concrete bridge to the west. Fortunately, it has been allowed to remain, an elegant witness of earlier times.
Continuing north, the road narrows, and rock outcrops and tall pines loom down from either side. Horses graze by the river, which at this time of year is iced over completely in some places. Where you can see it, black water races to Colorado. This is not a road to drive in wet or very cold weather. Where it isn't snow-packed, it is deeply rutted by previous travelers who may or may not have had the luck (like I did) to have been rescued by one of the eight Game and Fish Officers who patrol the reservation's one million acres.
Riding in a train through these narrow, winding canyons must have been an adventure in the late 1800s. Traveling this road is still an adventure, even in the comfort of an automobile.