BURY ME OUT ON THE PRAIRIE by Dr. Donal W. Key
In 1902, the railroad began construction of a series of trestles up Abo Canyon, the first and largest at the western base of the Manzano Mountains where the confluence of drainage enters Abo Wash on its way to the Rio Grande some twenty miles across the prairie.
Three smaller trestles on the north side of Abo Wash were put in place approaching the curve in the rail-line crossing the wash. To undertake this massive endeavor, the railroad hired some 700 men, mostly from Kansas and China. Right-of-way for the project cut through a large cattle ranch where water wells had been dug to an abundant under-ground water source.
The railroad made a deal with the rancher to set up camp on the east end of the ranch and south side of Abo Wash, very near the largest trestle. A corral, expansive enough to hold 500 mules and horses, was constructed near-by.
As the work progressed, so did the difficulties of camp life. With a little money in their pockets, and not much to do after hours, the men gambled and otherwise entertained themselves by settling disputes with force. Those who did not survive these rough encounters were buried inside the corral under the cover of darkness, so that by morning, all evidence of the graves had been thoroughly stamped out by mule and horse hooves. No record or remaining evidence exists of the number of men buried inside the corral.
At some point during construction, or shortly after the line opened to rail traffic in 1906, a family of five traveling by covered wagon got caught in a massive snow storm, taking refuge under the smaller trestle. They did not survive. Their bodies were discovered by a rail worker, and they were buried on a slight rise within the railroad right-of-way on the north side of the track, about fifty yards from where they died. Their graves were marked with natural stones and the area was fenced to preserve this family’s private cemetery, protected to this day by the railroad.
La Puerta Natural Burial Ground lies on the south side of the tracks about 500 yards to the west of the site where this family was buried over a hundred years ago. A half-mile to the south and east of La Puerta, across Abo Wash, is the location of the mule corral that became a cemetery of unmarked graves. In the spirit of the history and the choices made to honor the dead, La Puerta allows graves to be marked by natural stone or native plant, or to remain unmarked.
The setting of La Puerta is peaceful, beautiful, and historic. The Manzano Mountains rise to 10,000 feet on the northeast; Abo Wash is a short distance to the south. The two 100-foot railroad trestles that cross it are always in view, with Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) trains coming and going at close intervals throughout the day.
The canyon is home to Bighorn sheep, deer, mountain lion, and birds both large and small. At several hundred feet of elevation, crystal clear spring water flows from inside the mountain to collect in natural rock basins, while vegetation growing on the upper banks allows a hidden and cautious approach to the stream, providing a rich wildlife meeting place. Life and death are close neighbors.
Standing in the sunlight near the stream, the mountains rising sharply a thousand feet on either side, a feeling of serenity is unavoidable. Flying through the pass from east to west, the earth drops away sharply and the expansive view ahead widens abruptly fifty miles in every direction. Being held close by nature or soaring free in the space above it causes something to awaken at the core, reaffirming how valuable each moment truly is.
JOHNNIE RAY - BURY ME OUT ON THE LONE PRAIRIE - YouTube
1.) Harvey House Museum, Belen, NM
2.) Robert Bilbry, ranch owner south of La Puerta
3.) Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad