Rails Across America, Part 5
The fifth installment in a series of Dispatches chronicling Ryan Kim’s journey by rail to small towns across America.
Trinidad, described by some as “The Sex Change Capital of the World” on account of a former Trinidadian doctor who pioneered this field of surgery in the 1960’s, started as a trail campsite near the Purgatoire River that became very heavily trafficked in the 1820’s after Spain annexed Mexico, opening up trade between the Mexicans and Americans. The region got its first Western establishment in 1833, when traders established Brent’s Fort, an adobe trading post that served as a staging area for the 1846 Mexican-American War. Trinidad’s first five permanent settlers were actually farmers who started growing crops for passing travelers in 1861, but much of its economy later developed around livestock raising and coal mining. The town was largely constructed by Italian stonemasons and German carpenters, and reached its economic peak around the turn of the century with as many as 35,000 citizens.
Trinidad is no longer a boomtown and much of the old industry has left. The community now suffers the common small-town ailments of weak volunteerism and widespread social service dependency. However, Trinidad is blessed with a many, many strengths including quaint brick streets laid in 1888, a charming Main Street (if sadly half empty), a new train platform used exclusively by Amtrak (while all the noisy and dangerous freight trains skirt around the town’s edge), a location halfway between Denver and Santa Fe, five museums, a free trolley tour of the city provided by the Visitor’s Bureau, the well kept Cimino (chih-MEE-no) Park where a weekly farmers market is held, a clean and welcoming walking path along the river, and outstandingly friendly citizens who go out of their way to greet me or offer rides. Yet, there has been an ongoing and increasing social tension that seems to have distracted many Trinidadians’ attention to their town’s incredible resources.
Many individuals attribute the tension to the convergence of outsiders and deep-rooted native families, sometimes referred to as the “old boy’s club.” It seems non-natives have been attracted to Trinidad for a couple of reasons. Jane, a Houston-native B&B owner, believes that “people from out of town have money, a fresh perspective, and a better appreciation of the architecture.” The former mayor’s wife attributes the 1996 Amendment 17, which raised the potential arrival of gambling to town, to attracting speculators. The effects of outsiders’ arrival over the past two decades is quite visible: much of the downtown is owned by folks from California, Montana, Texas, and even England. Trinidad’s old-versus-new friction has exploded into turmoil in the public sector as well. Just last week, the mayor resigned after citizens petitioned to vote for a recall. In the past year, forty-two teachers have left the public schools, largely in protest of the superintendent’s perceived bad intentions. Divisive and personal bickering has obstructed progress at City Hall and at the public schools, and it seems the citizens have lost the forest for the trees.
Trinidad is at a crossroads, poised for a dramatic leap upwards or an embarrassing stumble and deterioration. In my mind, because of its myriad aforementioned strengths, the town is only a few steps away from small town greatness. The community needs to rally behind a strong and less controversial leader, to refurbish its deeply historic downtown, and to continue support for their local businesses (staving off box-stores as long as possible despite the attempts of the misinformed economic development director). As this happens, I believe, Trinidad can become a truly magnificent place to live and to visit.