6/21/17 – The New Mexican Automobile RunwayJune 21, 2017
While sifting through documents at the New Mexico State Archives on a recent research trip, I encountered references to “automobile runways,” a phrase I had never heard before. At first I ignored the term; it was not relevant to our immediate research topic. However, by the fifth or sixth mention of the runway I was intrigued: what was an automobile runway? I mentioned my curiosity about it to Jennifer Stevens, and one or two boxes later, she found the answer in some old blueprints for “Motor Runways.” Automobile runways and motor runways were merely different terms for cattle guards. But that discovery wasn’t intuitive. The blueprints Jennifer found and the descriptions I had read both seemed much more elaborate and unnecessarily complicated compared with today’s ubiquitous and simple design consisting of pipes-across-a-pit. I decided to dip my toes into the history of the cattle guard.
It turns out I wasn’t the first person whose curiosity was piqued. In the 1980s, James F. Hoy wrote a book about the cattle guard and Rodney Webre wrote an article about it in Texas Monthly. Both sources attribute the first mechanisms for blocking cattle to pre-Roman England where stone stiles permitted people to cross a pit that stopped animals. Variations on that design seem to have sufficed until the 1830s when the American railway system put trains and cows in contact with each other. Hoy states that the oldest “railroad cattle guard” was in place by 1836. In the decades that followed, hundreds of adaptations and improvements built upon the simplicity of the ancient device. A search on the Google Patent website for railway cattle guards returned over 150 results from James Forrest’s “Railroad Gate” in 1861 to the 1920s when inventors shifted their attention more to automobile encounters with livestock.
The first U.S. patent for a non-railway specific model of cattle guard went to William W. Brian of Texas in 1916. Since the basic logs-over-a-ditch model of the cattle guard was easy to replicate, Brian complicated the mechanism by adding moveable parts that could make a complete bridge for cattle or autos to pass over when necessary, but that converted into an impassable surface after the crossing. Approximately 15 patents followed Brian’s in the 1910s and 20s, each making elaborate alterations to the base design. Some, like Brian’s, had moving parts. Others were themselves moveable so they could be relocated as necessary. Most used pits or ditches with a bridge of some sort, while others created an arch over a fence. While the designs varied, the patentees’ intent was the same: all were seeking to capitalize on the increasing need to allow automobiles unobstructed passage through range land.
Patented cattle guard inventors spanned the continent from Alabama to Oregon and Canada to Texas, but a disproportionate number came from New Mexico. New Mexicans received four different patents for “Improvements in Cattle Guards” during the teens and twenties, likely encouraged by a state law requiring open travel for vehicles across pastures. None of these four patents, however, were for the automobile runways and motor runways we found in the New Mexico State Archives. And that, in the end, explains more about the cattle guard than any of the patents I reviewed or histories I read. Quite simply, there are a million ways to stop a cow while allowing a car, some very complex and innovative, but the easiest way to do so is essentially the same as it has been for thousands of years. The name “automobile runway” is, however, worth keeping. The specific device it refers to may be long gone, but I plan to add it to my lexicon as a synonym for a device that already has a bundle (cattle guard, car crossing, auto gate, corduroy gate, cattle pass, run-over, stock gap, Texas gate, cattle grid, pass-way, and cattle stop to name a few). Feel free to join me.
– Amalia Baldwin
 Webre, Rodney. “Texas Primer: The Cattle Guard,” Texas Monthly, May 1984. Accessed online on April 4, 2017: http://www.texasmonthly.com/the-culture/texas-primer-the-cattle-guard/; Hoy, James F. The Cattle Guard: It’s History and Lore. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1982; Forrest, James. “United States Patent 33035: Railroad Gate,” August 13, 1861; Review of Patents on Google Patent Website under “E01B17/00: Cattle guards connected to the permanent way.” Accessed on April 4, 2017: https://patents.google.com; Hoy, James. “Cattle Guards,” Encyclopedia of the Great Plains Website. Accessed on April 4, 2017: http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.fol.005.
 Webre, Rodney. “Texas Primer: The Cattle Guard,” Texas Monthly, May 1984. Accessed online on April 4, 2017: http://www.texasmonthly.com/the-culture/texas-primer-the-cattle-guard/
 Brian, William W. “United States Patent 1186273: Combined Bridge and Cattle Guard,” June 6, 1916.
 Review of Patents on Google Patent Website under “A01K3/002: Grids for preventing cattle from straying,” Accessed on April 4, 2017: https://patents.google.com
 Webre, Rodney. “Texas Primer: The Cattle Guard,” Texas Monthly, May 1984. Accessed online on April 4, 2017: http://www.texasmonthly.com/the-culture/texas-primer-the-cattle-guard/; Hoy, James. “Cattle Guards,” Encyclopedia of the Great Plains Website. Accessed on April 4, 2017: http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.fol.005.
 Review of Patents on Google Patent Website under “A01K3/002: Grids for preventing cattle from straying,” Accessed on April 4, 2017: https://patents.google.com; Hickock, Emory and A.H. Hollenbeck. “United States Patent 1344535: Cattle Guard,” June 22, 1920.