Goodnight-Loving Trail wasn't the longest, oldest or most heavily
traveled of all the old cattle trails, but it was as drenched in legend
and lore as any of them. For one thing, the trail's namesakes and
their trail provided the main characters and setting for Larry McMurtry's
classic "Lonesome Dove."
Named for pioneer Panhandle rancher Charles
Goodnight and his best friend and partner in commerce, Oliver
Loving, the train ran from Young
County to the fable Horsehead Crossing on the Pecos
River and north to Colorado.
Horsehead Crossing had long been a popular crossing spot for Comanche
and Kiowa raiders on their way back to the Llano Estacado from pillaging
and plundering forays into Mexico.
The crossing was one of the few places where a cattle drive could
cross the river, but the salty water of the
Pecos poisoned many a horse, cow and mule. The name comes from
the horse heads impaled atop mesquite trees near the crossing. Travelers
and cowboys viewed such a sight (and site) as an ominous foreboding.
Loving blazed the northern extension of the trail in 1866, across
the well-watered valleys of northeastern New Mexico before encountering
the rugged Raton Pass. This is where Goodnight
and Loving first encountered Uncle Dick Wootton, every bit
as legendary a character as Goodnight.
Richens Lacey Wootton
"Uncle Dick" Wootton
Pass was the only known route through the rugged Sangre de Cristo
Mountains, but the pass was so narrow and rugged that travelers often
took their chances on the arid plains of Kansas and Oklahoma, where
the total lack of cover made them easy targets for Comanches and outlaws.
Wootton, a former mountain man, scout and explorer, determined that
Raton was the only way through the mountains, so he secured a charter
from the legislatures of New Mexico and Colorado to build a toll road
through a pass between the two territories. Using Ute labor, Wootton
dramatically altered the geography of the pass to build a 27-mile
road that made the pass much easier to navigate. He built a road house
at the site, which provided another license to print money. People
claimed that he hauled barrels full of silver dollars to Trinidad
for safe keeping, and there is little reason to doubt it.
When a Colorado commissioner's court deemed Wootton's toll too high,
he complied with the court's wishes but raised rates on the New Mexico
end to make up the difference.
J. Evetts Haley, in his classic biography of Goodnight, describes
Wootton as "sly, crafty and self-sufficient, as wise in the ways of
the Rockies as any Ute Indian…he ranks next to (Kit) Carson as a scout
Uncle Dick, Haley noted, presided over his camp with "philosophic
so, when Goodnight
and Loving and their herd of Longhorns reached Raton Pass Goodnight
and Wootton, two men not knowing for backing down, had a meeting of
Wootton wanted 10 cents apiece for every cow that used his toll road,
a price that Goodnight
compared, in his usual profane way, to highway robbery. Goodnight
fumed that he would find another pass through the mountains, which
tickled the old mountain man, who assured him there wasn't one. Goodnight
paid up, but he considered the matter far from settled.
later trailed a course some 50 miles to the east of Loving's route
and forged a route through the Sangre De Cristos at Trinchera Pass.
Other benefits aside, no one charged a toll on this portion of the
Wootton was stubborn but he wasn't stupid. He knew he had erred, and
he tried to make it up to Goodnight
by offering to let his cattle pass through free of charge. He knew
that other outfits followed where Goodnight
led, but Goodnight
took his cattle through Trinchera Pass and hundreds of other outfits
Uncle Dick kept his toll road until 1879, when the Atchison, Topeka
and Santa Fe Railroad bought the right of way. People might have expected
him to protest or hold out, but he did no such thing. He saw the future,
and it was a railroad, not a toll road.
"I just got out of the way of that locomotive," he said.
Wootton moved to Trinidad after he closed his toll road, and died
there in 1893 at the age of 77. Goodnight
remained his legendary self until he died in 1929 at age 93.
© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
May 2, 2016 column
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