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The Chili Line Railroad with a Few Chile Peppers

By Guest Blogger – Robert Dolci

I’ll use Chili with an “i” as that is how rail fans and historians have spelled it since the late 1800s. So why “i” and not “e”? In New Mexico we spell chile with an “e” no matter what type of chile it is. It could be peppers, sauce or even stews. In Texas and Colorado, and just about everywhere else, chili (including peppers) is spelled with an “i”.

The Chili Line, officially called the Santa Fe Branch of the narrow gauge Denver and Rio Grande (D&RG) railway later to become the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, is well known by rail fans, railroad historians and those of us who live in Northern New Mexico. The Chili Line ran between Antonito, Colorado and Santa Fe. Total length of the line not including branches was approximately 126 miles.

Chili Line Train, ca 1920

During the mid to late 1800s railroads started popping up in the United States like weeds in a poorly cultivated chile patch. The Territory of New Mexico was no different. When folks think about what railroad was most indicative of New Mexico railroads, they tend to think of the more famous Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe (AT&SF). Think about it, how could you compare a chile ristra with the Super Chief, Harvey houses and Harvey girls? In 1880, AT&SF did everything in its power to keep the Denver and Rio Grande Railway (D&RG) out of New Mexico. Ultimately, the dispute reached the courts. In March of 1880, the AT&SF and the D&RG publicly signed a restrictive territorial agreement that prevented the southward expansion of the D&RG beyond Española. To fill the gap between Española and Santa Fe, the Texas, Santa Fe and Northern Railroad (TSF&N) was formed. It started operations in 1886. Eventually it was taken over by the D&RG.

Denver & Rio Grande Railroad System, ca 1903

The D&RG decided to build its rail yard facilities where #Española is currently located. Originally it was going to have its facilities in the village of Chamita. Because of land use disputes, it did not work out. During the construction of the railroad facilities, a small restaurant in the area was nicknamed “La Española” by the D&RG railroad workers. Supposedly this was because of the Spanish women working in the restaurant. Some say that the restaurant was nothing more that a burrito and tamale stand and that it was operated by a local Spanish woman. We don’t really know. By about 1900 the name became official and Española was becoming a somewhat significant railroad town.

Puebloan Indians selling ollas at the railroad tracks, ca 1900.

At one point, during the initial planning of the railroad, the D&RG had plans to extend the railroad from Chamita to Chama. Roadbed grading made it all the way to #Abiquiu. Supposedly, the roadbed grading made it to just before where highway 84 crosses the Rio Chama, just beyond Bode’s mercantile going north. I personally have yet to find the reason that the D&RG gave up on its plans to complete the leg to Chama. If I had to speculate, I would say that it was for financial reasons. The railroad was strapped for funds during the late 1800s. The D&RG did extend down from Chama to Tierra Amarilla. Tierra Amarilla Southern Railroad (1892 to 1902), like the Texas, Santa Fe & Northern, was an interim railroad until it was taken over by the D&RG.

The question often asked is, how did the Santa Fe Branch of the D&RG get the nickname of the Chili Line? Another question often asked, mostly just by New Mexicans, is why is Chili most often spelled with an “i” rather than an “e”? To answer the first question: We're not sure how it got the nickname Chili Line. The first time I found that the Chili Line was mentioned in printed form was 1894. No reason was given for why it was referred to as the Chili Line. As far as I can tell, the first time anyone offered an opinion in writing on how the Chili Line got its nickname was in 1941, the same year that the Chili Line ceased operations. Two reasons are most often given on why the Santa Fe Branch got the nickname “The Chili Line”. Reason number one: The railroad shipped a lot of chile peppers. Reason number two: passengers riding the train from Antonito Colorado to Santa Fe saw lots of ristras hanging from portals and vigas. However, looking at D&RG records and newspaper articles between 1880 and 1894, farmers in Rio Arriba County did not grow large quantities of chile peppers. Definitely not enough to ship out side the region in boxcar loads. In the late 1800s and the early 1900s, Northern New Mexico relied on a barter economy. As for the second reason: Between Antonito and Santa Fe prior to 1894 there were not a whole lot of dwellings close to the railroad right-of-way for passengers to see hanging ristras.


If I had to choose one I would choose the hanging ristras. There are a few pictures of ristras hanging from vigas in Alcalde and Chamita. Besides, if it had anything to do with chile peppers why wasn’t chile spelled with an “e” rather than an “i”? I must admit that many, if not most, of the Chili Line experts that I know think that I’m being sacrilegious for even suggesting that there might be a reason other than the two most often given.

Thank you, Bob, for this background blog on the Chili Line!!

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