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Unless you're a railroad buff or a Santa Fe booster, don't get on board here

Circus promoter P.T. Barnum supposedly used to pontificate that "there's a sucker born every minute." Naturally, I had to test that theory by volunteering to review this book. As a result, I can report that Barnum was correct in his assumption. In my naiveté, I assumed that a book about the railway moving west into New Mexico Territory would be an interesting read.

I was wrong.

Written by Victoria E. Dye, who was employed for more than a decade in New Mexico's tourism industry, All Aboard for Santa Fe chronicles the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway Company's control over half the track miles in the territory by the late 1890s.

And if that doesn't cause reader heart rates to increase, the tome (thankfully limited in page count, some of which are taken up with charts and halftones) "details the railroad's promotion of Santa Fe as a place to retreat and explore exotic worlds," according to University of New Mexico Press information. Be still my aortic pump. The intensity level only goes higher when the author promises to "track the emblems, icons and advertising tactics employed by the Santa Fe railroad in its promotions." By now, medical personnel should be alerted and standing by.

The author fulfills her promise of providing information on the subject, but then again, so do calculus textbooks and schematic diagrams of electronic circuitry--none of which are of great interest to a general audience. If you fall into the category of train-history buff, or you're a big fan of Santa Fe itself--hell, you could even be a former chamber of commerce employee still interested in tricks of the tourism trade--have we found a treatise for you.

For those still with us, the book's creator takes readers from the late 1800s into the 1930s, as wheels on rails became the main mode of traveler transport to the Southwest. "AT&SF wielded tremendous power and applied it to make tourism an important financial enterprise, promoting specific destinations to tourists," writes Dye. "To foster passenger travel, AT&SF exploit(ed) the captivating history and alluring attractions and advertise(d) Santa Fe as the essence of the Southwest."

Initially, because of difficult terrain, the railroad bypassed Santa Fe in favor of a more direct route into Albuquerque. But merchants in the town of 6,000 residents wanted a piece of that passenger traffic. The business community funded an 18.1-mile spur from the town of Lamy, N.M., into Santa Fe, "so that tourists could take the additional ride to see unchanging reminders of ancient native cultures that flourished in the area," according to the author. The railroad also smartly hooked up with the Fred Harvey Company to develop promotional materials emphasizing Native American and Hispanic cultures and talent found in the Santa Fe art colony. "This impression was so significant that Santa Fe continues to capitalize on art and culture to attract tourists to this day," Dye notes, also acknowledging that "the AT&SF truly opened the gates for the capitalization of this cultural mecca."

Well, there you go.

A Google search will provide a relatively detailed sketch of the art community's history without the superfluous words--built by the Spanish and founded in 1609, it's the oldest state capital in the United States, occupied for more than 1,400 years, etc. If you're more interested in the fact that the three hotels in the town grew to 28 in the century after the railroad arrived, or that the town population grew tenfold over that same century, read the text.

In today's constant barrage of mind-numbing media messages, it is interesting to read the passages concerning the more subtle marketing methodology employed nearly 100 years ago. Although the railroad's primary function was to ship freight, leisure travelers began to embrace trains as faster, safer and more comfortable than other modes of travel. Southern Pacific promoted fancy hotels and golf courses in Monterey, Calif. The Canadian Pacific marketed its route through the scenic canyons of the Rocky Mountains. AT&SF shilled its attractions in a variety of ways to turn the sleepy Southwestern town of Santa Fe into a flourishing tourist destination.

The book's concluding chapter ("The AT&SF's Lingering Effects on Tourism") credits the railroad with "blazing new trails in promoting scenery, culture and architecture in its namesake town," ergo: "The transformation of a small town to the foremost destination of the Southwest was carefully and painstakingly scripted by the railroad system that bore the town's name."

If the word "painstaking" strikes a responsive chord, the book has six chapters, seven appendices, notes and a bibliography.

More by Lee Allen

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