07 Subtexts 1

The railroad came to Santa Fe in 1880, shocking the sleepy frontier capital into the modern era. Newcomers from the East traveled to the Southwest on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. Soon, society women were balking at the burros roaming the downtown’s muddy streets. Still, they were seduced by the city’s exotic tri-culture.

Allen R. Steele’s Santa Fe 1880: Chronicles from the Year of the Railroad, published in April, is a social history of that time — not a history of locomotives, but of the city as it was and as it changed. Steele crafts his narrative from diaries and letters of people who populated Santa Fe in 1880. Each chapter begins with a quote from an article published that year in The Santa Fe New Mexican.

That winter, Steele writes, Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy had a high fever and was being watched over by the Sisters of Loretto. An order of medically trained nuns, the Sisters of Charity, ran a hospital nearby, but the archbishop, who was especially grouchy in his sick bed, preferred the care of the Loretto sisters, Steele notes. Another detail revealed by Steele: When the Territorial Legislature convened in January, lawmakers found the town unusually crowded and costly. “Rooms were hard to find, much less a house to rent,” he writes.

It wasn’t all religion and politics in 1880, however. Much of the book’s dramatic tension comes from the true crime of the era, as well as from the adventures of Sister Blandina Segale of the Sisters of Charity. Sister Blandina helped found the public schools in Santa Fe, advocated for Native American and Hispanic rights, and once nursed Billy the Kid back to health.

Santa Fe 1880: Chronicles from the Year of the Railroad by Allen R. Steele, is available from The History Press, arcadiapublishing.com.