Railroad West: La Junta as 'The Junction'

Apr 17, 2014

Replicas and remnants of La Junta's railroad past are scattered all over town.
Credit Martha Perez-Sanz / KRCC

La Junta, Colorado is about the 30th stop en route to Los Angeles from Chicago on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief. As the Southwest Chief’s rails are aging and expensive repairs are needed, La Junta is at risk of being removed from the train’s historic route.

Downtown La Junta is sprinkled with cafes and small artisan shops. There’s the Otero Museum, which documents the history of the region, and the Koshare Indian Museum, which hosts native dance programs. Bent’s Old Fort is just eight miles from downtown.

Bent's Old Fort, now a National Historic Site, is eight miles from downtown La Junta. It served as a center of trade in the 1800s. The Southwest Chief's chapter of Trails and Rails runs out of Bent's Old Fort.
Credit Martha Perez-Sanz / KRCC (file photo)

Chief of Interpretation at Bent’s Old Fort, Rick Wallner, calls La Junta a railroad town. "Its railroad history goes way back,” said Wallner.  "There used to be a huge Santa Fe Railroad yard here, and to lose the Chief would not only have an economic impact, it would kind of have a psychological impact, if you will.”

Wallner runs the Southwest Chief’s chapter of Trails and Rails, a partnership between the National Park Service and Amtrak. Volunteers from Bent’s Old Fort get on the Southwest Chief in La Junta and ride it to Albuquerque and back, all while giving passengers a presentation about what they are seeing out the windows—flora, fauna, geology, and landmarks.

“So often, as you’re traveling across the country on a train or driving on the highway,” said Wallner, “nobody’s telling you about all the neat points of interest that are right outside the window. Without the guides aboard, you wouldn’t know that there are Santa Fe Trail ruts out there to the side of the train that you could see, or know the history of Simpson’s Rest in Trinidad, or La Castaneda Hotel in Las Vegas.”

Trails and Rails could continue if the train was rerouted, but it would mean the end of the program along the Santa Fe Trail, said Wallner.

The town was a prominent stop along the old Santa Fe Railroad, according to La Junta City Manager Rick Klein, and that by the turn of the century, the town had about 3,000 railroad workers and a rail yard with a 30-car roundhouse.

“'La Junta,' it means the junction,” said Klein. “I always say that most people pass through La Junta sometime in their life, just by the virtue of where we are in the United States.”

Inside the Amtrak station in La Junta
Credit Martha Perez-Sanz / KRCC

These days, the railroad doesn’t account for much of the employment in town. Director of La Junta Economic Development Ryan Stevens says around 20 jobs could be lost if the train is rerouted. Stevens is more concerned with keeping small-town La Junta on the map.

“In Colorado, there’s a lot of focus and emphasis that goes to the ski communities and up and down the Front Range,” said Stevens. “And when people think of Southeast Colorado and the plains of Colorado, they don’t really think of tourism as being a big economic factor there. It really is important to our communities; we do have a lot of culture here and a lot of museums and things for people to see.”

Klein says they’re looking at building a new multi-modal transportation hub in La Junta. For him, it’s all about connectivity.

“You have people that use it to get to the doctor in the major hubs. You have people who are just traveling by it. You have your foreigners that travel on it, and that’s big, because that’s what they know over in Europe. And if we want companies to look at us, especially in the future, we need to have that passenger rail passing through and stopping right here in La Junta.”

Plans are on hold for the new depot while the route is under evaluation.