Located in northeastern New Mexico on the border between New Mexico and Colorado, Raton (pronounced Rah-tone) is the county seat of Colfax County. The city sits at an elevation of 6,680 feet at the base of the fabled Raton Pass.
When the first Spanish explorers arrived in the area in the early 1700’s, the Ute tribe lived in the mountains and the plains were occupied by the Apache, Comanche, and Kiowa. When Mexico won her independence from Spain in 1821, the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail was blazed by William Becknell over Raton Pass. However, in these early days, the trail over the pass could only be traversed by pack animals, so trade moved to mostly to the Cimarron Route of the trail.
At about the same time, numerous mountain men began to explore the southern Rocky and Sangre de Cristo Mountains in search of beaver pelts. These mountain men blazed many of the trails through the area that later became roads and they led many of the early expeditions into the southwest. In 1841, the Beaubien-Miranda Land Grant was granted, giving Charles Beaubien and Guadalupe Miranda nearly two million acres in northeast New Mexico and southwest Colorado. Lucian Maxwell ultimately attained ownership of the land grant, after marrying Charles Beaubien’s daughter. In the span of 20 years, Maxwell went from being a frontier hunter to being the largest individual landowner in the United States — owning 1,714,765 acres. In 1870, Maxwell sold almost all of his land and over the years, the grant was broken up.
In 1846 General Stephen Watts Kearny and his 1,600 men Army of the West made their way along the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail across Raton Pass and making improvements. Afterward, other wagons were able to utilize the route, increasing the number of people who passed through the Raton area.
In the early days of the Santa Fe Trail, a campsite was developed called Willow Springs. Shaded by two big willow trees with a spring that offered a refreshing drink, it was located at the mouth of what would later be called Railroad Canyon.
By 1860, the Majors, Waddell, & Russell Freight Company was hauling wagons over Raton Pass and the same year, Willow Springs was designated as a government forage station site. The army soon built a corral and storehouse to store provisions for the military wagon trains coming through the area. The site also had good pasturage for livestock.
In 1865, Richens “Uncle Dick” Wootton built a 27-mile toll road over Raton Pass with a tollgate just north of the Colorado State line. Until Wootton improved the road, the route across the pass had been in very bad condition and it took five days to travel across.
In 1866 Barlow & Sanderson’s Southern Overland Mail & Express Co. received the mail contract and started running stage service between Kansas City & Santa Fe along the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail on a weekly schedule. Home and swing stations were built and the trip took 13 days. Willow Springs was used by the stage line as a water and emergency station. The same year, Charles Goodnight moved cattle over Raton Pass for the first time. However, because of the high cost of Wooton’s toll road, he moved the trail to the east, using Trinchera Pass for future cattle drives.
Sometime during the 1860’s a two-room jacal log house was built at the site. In 1871, it was taken over by a Mr. Sears who removed the old house and built a larger four-room log house that faced the spring. That same year, the land surrounding the house was taken over by a man named John Thacker who established the Willow Springs Ranch with some 700 head of cattle. By 1874, the owner of Willow Springs Ranch was offering the water for sale to travelers for 25 cents per bucket, at which time, most people postponed their baths and other water needs until cheaper water source could be obtained.
At some point, the spring water began to diminish, and a 70-foot well was dug at Willow Springs. The Barlow & Sanderson stage line utilized Willow Springs as a watering place and emergency station. It was then owned by William Boggs. George J. Pace came to Willow Springs in early 1878 and rented part of the ranch house from Boggs, from which he operated a store. That same year a post office was established in the store and Pace became the postmaster.
In the meantime, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad was building its line across Raton Pass. The first locomotive arrived in December 1878 and the first passenger train in July 1879. The days of the Santa Fe Trail to that point then came to an end.
George J. Pace then moved his store and post office to nearby Otero in 1879 and moved them back to the new city of Raton in 1880. The town was named for the Raton Ridge, a geologic formation located north of the town, and the Raton Pass in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, part of the Rocky Mountain chain.
By 1880, dozens of trains were running through Raton Pass to the fledgling city of Raton and the railroad men boarded at William Boggs place at the former site of Willow Springs. The same year, railroad officials formed the New Mexico Townsite Company and purchased 320 acres from the Maxwell Land Grant Company. They soon began to lay out a townsite that took its name from the post office. Houses and business buildings were moved in from Otero and before long, a number of new businesses were established including the Raton Bank, Grant Central Restaurant, Five-Cent Beer Saloon, a boot and shoe shop, a grocery store, dry goods store, merchandise stores, a barber shop, a photo studio, doctors, lawyers, and the Raton Guard newspaper, which encouraged conflict with the Maxwell Land Grant Company, which was working hard to evict squatters off their lands. In the summer of 1881, the settlement numbered 400 people and the Raton Townsite was enlarged. In 1882, the railroad built a roundhouse and a boarding house for the railroad men, and the Raton Comet newspaper was established.
The rapid expansion of the railroad into Northern New Mexico fueled regional growth in raising sheep and cattle and the Raton Caol Field was developed in the area. The combination of the railroad and coal mining in the early days brought an industrious character to the town, giving it the nickname of “Pittsburg of the West.”
In February 1882 the Bank Exchange Bar was opened by William Burbridge in what is now the 100 block of South First Street. He had come to Raton in 1881 with a partner, Gus Mentzer, from Texas. But the young Mentzer was prone to gambling and excessive drinking, hurting business and causing trouble in the saloon. As a result, Burbridge finally dissolved the partnership and threw Mentzer out. Mentzer returned to the saloon on June 26, 1882, and asked Burbridge to take him back, but when Burbridge refused, all hell broke loose. Mentzer opened fire in the saloon and then ran away, wounding two men as he ran toward the depot and killing two men as he neared the train. Followed by an angry mob Mentzer was hanged near the Raton Bank Building.