In February 1880, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad began
construction of the San Juan extension, a route that went from
Alamosa, Colorado to Silverton, Colorado by way of Cumbres
Pass, Chama and Durango. Railroad service to Chama began in
February, 1881 and facilities for servicing railroad
equipment, a depot, warehouses and stockyards were set up
along the route surveyed for the railroad.
The brief period of construction from 1880-1881 was one of the
most exciting episodes in the area’s history and Chama almost
immediately became a boomtown. The possibilities for
development attracted both industrious and disreputable
characters from all around. Individuals interested in
developing the coal mines in Monero rapidly appeared on the
scene as did representatives of the lumber industry, laborers,
engineers and contractors to build the railroad and buildings
required to accommodate the mass of people attracted to the
booming railroad town of Chama.
For many years Chama remained a rowdy and exciting place to
be. It was a very prosperous town with plenty of work and a
great deal of entertainment in the forms of saloons, gambling
houses, moonshine stills, etc. Groceries were expensive and
outlaws, such as the Clay Allison gang, regularly held up the
railroad pay car construction camps with large payrolls,
saloons and gambling houses.
In the past, the main industries of the area were logging,
mining and sheep and cattle ranching. Before the logging
industry clear-cut much of the timber, the vast grasslands one
now sees, were hundreds of square miles of forest. In
pre-logging days the forest was so thick that it was difficult
for a man on horseback to negotiate his way through the trees.
The sheep industry operated on a grand scale until the
depression and the terrible winter of 1931-32 combined to
nearly wipe out the sheep industry.
Chama, New Mexico offers a unique blend of cultures. In the
shops and cafes you will hear a mix of English, Spanish and
Native languages, often used in concert. And you’ll hear a lot
of laughter. Serious conversations often turn to the
environment and politics, as big changes are again underway.
The local economy, once fueled by agriculture, is increasingly
fed by tourism and new businesses started by transplants from
more congested urban areas.