It’s a long, steep climb up and over the Union Pacific Railroad at Cambray, Luna County, New Mexico. Providing the thrill is a timber, steel and concrete viaduct — the Cambray Overpass. But the thrill may end, as the New Mexico Department of Transportation (NMDOT) contemplates replacing the 80-year-old bridge.
Crossing the Railroads
Constructed in 1929-30, the overpass was built as part of a program to eliminate dangerous railroad crossings in New Mexico — to separate highway traffic from fast-moving freight trains.
The unhealthy mix of automobiles and trains first came to the public’s attention in 1921, when a study revealed 7,000 fatalities had occurred that year at rail crossings across the United States.
In 1924, the first National Conference on Street and Highway Safety recommended state highway departments make the elimination of hazardous grade crossings a top priority. By 1927, at least 19 states had formed agreements with railroad companies to build grade separations.
Starting in 1926, the New Mexico State Highway Department worked with the railroads crossing the state to realign tracks and construct new underpasses and overpasses to eliminate the problem.
Each year the program set a goal of eliminating bad grade crossings, removing 47 in 1929 alone, and building 25 major grade separations between 1926 and 1934. Nationally, 385 hazardous railroad crossings were eliminated in 1929.
The overpasses were often built at a skew to allow passage for freight trains. To provide the extra horizontal clearance, the piers of the Cambray Overpass were arranged at 45-degree angles.
But during its first seven decades of operation, it only crossed one track —the Southern Pacific — and now spans the double tracks of the Union Pacific.
A Sturdy Crossing
The 229-foot-long bridge rests on braced timber bents and huge concrete piers arranged at a skew. Smoke guards, coated rusty brown, protect the deck from errant sparks. Old telegraph lines of the Western Union pass under its east span. Its steep approaches are humped; their shoulders covered with native vegetation.
Started at the onset of the Great Depression, the Cambray Overpass — the fifth grade separation to be built under the program — cost a total of $47,602. Its completion contributed to a program to improve U.S. 80 across New Mexico.
Begun also in 1929, the program paved the roadbed with asphaltic oiling, eliminated sandy stretches and bypassed earlier alignments, upgrading the highway for cross-country travel.
The highway, finished in 1931, became the first hard-surfaced highway in New Mexico, six years ahead of Route 66.
For years the overpass carried the transcontinental traffic of U.S. 80 as well as the Old Spanish Trail, Borderland and Broadway of America highways, giving passengers a high view of the surrounding desert scenery below.
But the construction of Interstate 10 to the north changed everything, diverting traffic and drying up tiny Cambray to its current state of one inhabited house.
Bypassed for over 40 years, the overpass serves a local and sparse population of ranches in western Dona Ana and eastern Luna counties.
One can drive this stretch and never see another living soul. Yet, according to NMDOT statistics, over 800 vehicles cross the bridge daily.
In 2002 the NMDOT determined the overpass eligible for listing the National Register of Historic Places at the state level of significance. They noted the structure was the oldest railroad overpass in the state and remained in good condition.
But its virtually unaltered design is also what threatens its future.
While a 2007 bridge inspection report found the overpass in fair condition, requiring no immediate action, NMDOT considers it structurally deficient — it is narrow and steep and does not meet current standards of road geometry.
Adding to this, the Union Pacific Railroad wants additional vertical and horizontal clearance, which could require demolishing or greatly altering the overpass.
If replaced, so will go one of the last 1920s highway bridges in New Mexico and the thrill of driving up-and-over the railroad.