New Mexico became an organized, incorporated territory of the United States on February 24, 1863. It was a territory for nearly 62 years, the longest period of any territory in the contiguous nation. New Mexico became the 47th state on January 6, 1912.
Just over five months later, a range of bills recently passed by the state legislature still awaited approval or rejection by the governor. One of the bills that was signed into law on June 10, 1912 (110 years ago today) by Governor William C. McDonald officially re-designated the New Mexico Territorial Roads Commission as the New Mexico State Highway Commission. The legislation was entitled an “Act Relating to Public Highways and Bridges.”
The creation of the State Highway Commission provided broader powers, duties and funding opportunities to what had been the Territorial Commission. The powers and duties included: the authority to meet with counties, towns and villages to plan and advise on road and bridge construction; to provide for testing and development of road materials and experimental road work; to plan and construct a state system of roads; and to create county road boards to transfer responsibility for all county road and bridge work. By the end of 1912, all 26 county boards were established, and functioning by 1913.
New Mexico’s first state engineer
Shortly thereafter, James A. French was appointed as New Mexico’s first state engineer and one of three members of the state Highway Commission. Hired to oversee the construction and maintenance of highways throughout New Mexico, French described the roads across the state as “deplorable” and “impossible to travel from county to county with any degree of comfort.”
French’s mission to improve the new state’s roads was made more challenging by the increasing number and use of automobiles in New Mexico. The vast majority of roads in the state were dirt or gravel; the wear and tear of autos contributed to a greater need for maintenance.
During his tenure as state engineer, several initiatives began to enhance access to highways throughout New Mexico. (It should be noted that “highway” is really a misnomer; in reality, the pre-1920 “highways” were two-lane, dirt roads that were later graded and graveled.)
Among the initiatives adopted during French’s tenure were standardized plans and specifications for materials to be used in the construction and repair of New Mexico’s highways.
El Camino Highway
In 1598, Don Juan de Onate led 500 colonists from the Spanish colony of Mexico through remote and unfamiliar country to found what is now New Mexico. The route Onate and the settlers followed was named El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, “The Royal Road of the Interior Land.” Over the decades, the name of the trail was shortened to El Camino Real, “the royal road.”
Despite its fancy name, in reality it was a rugged, often dangerous route that traversed 1,600 miles from Mexico City to what began as the royal Spanish town of Santa Fe. Over more than 200 years, the El Camino Real “brought settlers, goods and information to the province and carried its crops, livestock and crafts to the markets of greater Mexico.”
After crossing the border, El Camino Real ran to Las Cruces. Fort Selden was built in the mid-1800s to protect local settlers and travelers on the route, which continued from there and crossed 90 miles of “flat but waterless and much more dangerous desert, the Jornada del Muerto (‘journey of the dead man’) before reaching Socorro.” El Camino Real then turned north to Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and then ended at San Juan Pueblo, the first capital of New Mexico and the end of Don Juan de Onate’s journey.
Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821. At that time, its northern frontier was opened to foreign trade, and traders began to come to New Mexico carrying goods along the Santa Fe Trail from Missouri. The Santa Fe Trail intersected El Camino Real at Santa Fe, which became the community where the U.S. and Mexican economies met for the next 60 years.
The “modern” El Camino Real Highway
Two years after the New Mexico State Highway Commission was established, its first major accomplishment was achieved. Under French’s leadership, more than 500 miles of the El Camino Real Highway were graveled and opened to traffic in 1914.
Again, despite the use of the word “highway,” it must be noted that these early projects were still gravel roads. Nonetheless, the El Camino Real Highway formed a major part of the state’s highway system, as it had in earlier times. The basically north-south route was initially the only link for many of the state’s east-west roads.
The New Mexico General Assembly passed legislation on January 16, 1918 that approved the establishment of the state’s highway system. At that time, it consisted of just over 4,000 miles of roads and highways. The New Mexico highway commissioner and his staff were charged with the responsibility for the construction and maintenance of this network of roads.
Because of his accomplishments, French helped establish the mission and day-to-day responsibilities that are now carried out by the New Mexico Department of Transportation. Many regard him as the “father” of New Mexico’s state highway system. French served as New Mexico’s state engineer until the end of 1918.
Since the original state highway system was organized in 1918, New Mexico’s highway system has grown to almost 58,000 miles, which is the third-largest state-maintained highway system in the United States.
Today, the New Mexico Department of Transportation (NMDOT) maintains that network of nearly 58,000 miles of roadway, divided into these categories:
- Interstate – 1,118 miles of four-to-10 lane highways that connect states and major cities.
- Primary – 8,111 miles of two-to-six-lane roads that connect cities and towns with each other and with interstate highways.
- Secondary – 48,305 miles of local connector or county roads. Arlington and Henrico counties maintain their own county roads.
- Frontage – 333 miles of frontage roads.
A separate system includes 10,561 miles of urban streets, maintained by cities and towns with the help of state funds.
And yes, Route 66 runs through New Mexico. This fabled road will be the subject of a separate FreightWaves Classics article, but it couldn’t be left out.