Steins — a Railroad Ghost Town

Steins, New Mexico. Photo by the Author
Steins, New Mexico. 

Sometimes the unseen hand of fate descends to arrange a unique opportunity. When visiting Steins (pronounced Steens) Railroad Ghost Town, just off I-10 in southern New Mexico near the Arizona state line, I had the chance to take a rare photograph.

We hadn’t been there ten minutes when a pair of Southern Pacific locomotives pulling a train of empty cargo containers stopped at Steins, held up by track repair ahead. I persuaded the engineer to ease the train up fifty feet so I could frame the photo the way I wanted it.

A talk with one of the engineers divulged some interesting information. The train was traveling from Tucson, Arizona to El Paso, Texas - a trip that sometimes takes as long as 18 hours. The entire train weighed in at 4000 tons, one of the lighter affairs, since they average around 10,000 tons. A train takes about 20 minutes to get up to full speed, and about a mile to brake to a halt. Bigger trains and high speed trains take even longer to brake. The larger of the locomotives was a 1994 model, and it stood purring and burping behind us while we talked.

After talking to the engineers, I took the photo of the train stopped at Steins crossing, then went into Steins Mercantile. Owner Larry Link unlimbered himself from his chair and gave me a tour of Stein’s Railroad Ghost Town. The tour costs $2.50 and is well worth it. Between Larry’s tour and interviewing the train engineer, the day was most educational!

The first stagecoaches passed by Steins Peak, 5 miles north of Steins, in 1857, connecting San Antonio, Texas with San Diego, California. In 1858 the earlier stageline was replaced by the Butterfield Overland Stage; the route is more easily identifiable as the old Butterfield Road. The town of Steins was born in 1880, when the Southern Pacific Railroad arrived. The name Steins comes from Capt. Enoch Steen, a U.S. Army officer who participated in the Apache Wars.

Steins Mercantile. Photo by Carla DeMarco
Steins Mercantile.  

Larry pointed out rock and log structures straight out of the 1880s. Bedrooms with children’s clothing and toys, a communal kitchen, and living quarters for an entire family have been re-created. Outside the kitchen was a huge kettle set in a mortared rock wall. When in use, the fire was stoked underneath and the kettle used for laundry or cooking. "The first serving of stew would have tasted of lye soap or dirty socks," Larry said.

He showed me a campstove of the type used in covered wagons. A small iron box that held firewood, about two feet in length, had no legs: When traveling in a covered wagon it was set in a box of dirt. Larry’s research has brought to light the fact that when under attack, pioneer parents would stow their babies in these boxes. The iron protected the child from arrows and bullets.

The collection of artifacts at Steins includes everything from rare books to an unusual "boxing glove" cholla cactus and hundreds of old bottles. Boxes and boxes of stuff still fill unused rooms; Larry and Linda have their work cut out for them. Between his research and inventorying his collection, Larry has become a fountain of knowledge on nineteenth century living, southwestern history, Apache folklore, and railroad history.

Almost shouting distance from Steins is a rock bluff from which many tons of rock were blasted to make the roadbed for the railway. One thousand Chinese rail workers lived at the foot of the mountain at "Old Steins." Larry showed me the antique steam drills that were used in the quarry, explaining that they were called "widow-makers" for their propensity to maim or kill the user. Work in the quarry began in 1878 and continued until 1925. Larry says rock from the Steins quarry was shipped to far points for building projects in addition to being used in the railbed.

Steins grew to a population of 1,300 residents in the early 1900s. The boom years lasted until trains switched from steam to diesel. About 1945, Steins fell into disuse and began a slow dissolve back into the desert.

Larry and Linda Link plan to keep Steins authentic for tourists and serious researchers. Here Larry will guide you on a journey back in time, when Apaches still roamed the surrounding hills; when one small, low-ceilinged room sheltered parents and children alike; and when the railroad was king.