Post by Vera Marie
I have been reading a fascinating book about the life and business of Fred Harvey, who helped the Santa Fe railroad draw tourists to the western United States in the early twentieth century, and played a role in creating a market for American Indian art. I plan to write a little more about that later, but first I thought I would ponder the effect of train travel on Tahoma’s life.
During our research for Quincy Tahoma: The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist, the first indication that we got of how important train travel was in the early years of Tahoma’s life, came in those valuable school records that the archivist at the National Archives office in Denver sent to us.
There on the printed form for students, along with details like mother and father, birthdate, previous school attended, etc., we saw a line to fill in the “Nearest railroad station”. Now that’s a detail you will not find on school forms nowadays! Not only that, but Tahoma, who lived in northern Arizona near Tuba City, had to travel slightly more than 77 miles from his home to his “nearest” railroad station in Flagstaff, Arizona–a journey of an hour and a half by car. However, his family did not have a car–they traveled by wagon. So getting TO the railroad station took almost as long as getting from there to Albuquerque on the train.
The next interesting thing we learned was that there was no railroad station in Santa Fe. Instead, the train stopped at the tiny community of Lamy, New Mexico. So when Tahoma was switched to the Santa Fe Indian School, he traveled 15 miles by bus from Lamy to get in to Santa Fe.
Yet, for the Navajos and pueblo Indians living in the remote stretches of northern Arizona and New Mexico, rail travel certainly was faster, more convenient, and easier (if more expensive) than traveling by horse and buggy.
We know that the Navajo artist traveled to Flagstaff from Santa Fe for a July 4 PowWow in the 1940’s, and he probably made that trip more than once. He also could have used the train to get to Gallup for the All-Indian Ceremonial. We also know that he took the train home to see his adoptive family, the Saganitso’s at least one time, and they drove into Flagstaff from Tuba City in their horse-drawn wagon to pick him up.
The trains were drawn by steam engines and had tablecloth-service in the dining cars, provided by Fred Harvey. Harvey’s empire also included restaurants along the way like the one at the beautiful La Posada hotel in Winslow, opened in 1929,(Corrected date) and recently restored. Tahoma, who was perennially broke, may never have had the opportunity to eat at one of the Fred Harvey establishments, but it is interesting to consider him riding the train from Santa Fe and Albuquerque, through Gallup.
I can picture him gazing out at the stark beauty of the painted desert near Winslow as the train chugged to Flagstaff.
Or gazing up at the Navajo’s sacred mountains of the West–the San Francisco peaks.
Train travel is not what it used to be. Have you traveled in the west on trains? What is the most memorable image in your mind from that trip?
Photos of the Flagstaff railroad station and La Posada Hotel are by Vera Marie, the others are from Flickr, used by Creative Commons License. Please click on those photos to learn more about the photographers and see more of their work.