Smoke, Steam and Steel

Story and photos by Rich Grant

There is nothing quite so romantic as a steam train -- the sound of a steam whistle echoing off the mountains, the huge plumes of smoke billowing into the air, the chug-chug-chug as the pistons hiss and steam, the clickity-clack of the wheels as they roll over the points, the cars swaying back and forth.  You can imagine the fireman up in the cab, shoveling coal as fast as he can as the engineer looks out the window, his eyes on the track ahead, his hand on the whistle cord. 

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That’s the steam train image poet Edna St. Vincent Millay was no doubt thinking of when she wrote the lines that summarize the feelings of every rail buff:

“My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I'll not be knowing,
Yet there isn't a train I wouldn't take,
No matter where it's going.”

And of all the romantic steam railroads in the world, it’s hard to imagine one that compares with the Cumbres & Toltec that crisscrosses the borders of Colorado and New Mexico 11 times as it climbs up and over the Rocky Mountains.  

Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and Bat Masterson all rode this train.  So did Indiana Jones -- at least in the movies.  On film, Indy grew up beside the tracks and loved to hop on passing circus trains.  It was also in the movies that the train was robbed by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

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Today, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is the highest operating steam railroad in North America, climbing almost two miles above sea level to the 10,015-foot summit of Cumbres Pass.  It’s the only railroad that is owned jointly by two states, Colorado and New Mexico.   And it’s also the longest steam railroad on the continent, covering 64 miles through forests of evergreens and aspens, along narrow ledges in canyons, burrowing through tunnels and over 100-foot high trestles.

But what really sets this railroad apart?  It is the most authentic steam train on two tracks – a “Williamsburg on wheels” – a complete historical re-creation of railroading in the 1880s.

Of course, the first thing you need to know about railroading in the 1880s is that it was not always comfortable.  The train travels at an average speed of 12 mph.  The seats in coach are – well, let’s just say they’re authentic (if not hard). Cinders and smoke fly backwards, and if you stand outside in the gondola car or open your window, you can expect at times to be covered with both.

But that’s the great thing about the Cumbres & Toltec.  Don’t expect wine trains or rock concerts.  Unlike many tourist railroads, the C&TSRR, as they like to call it, is authentic.  You can walk between cars, or ride outside between cars on their small platforms.  From the outdoor gondola car you can practically touch the trees passing by (though don’t try it – even at 12 mph, keep your hands inside the train).  The Parlor Car Class lets you ride in luxury once reserved for railroad barons, including an outdoor deck at the end of the train.

Since the tracks travel where no roads do, you are completely off the grid.  Don’t worry about people talking on their cell phones or emailing – there is no coverage up here.  You’ll need to bring a jacket because it can be cool on the train, even in summer.  But there are some modern concessions.  There’s a delicious lunch mid-way through the trip, restrooms on the cars, and there’s even a bar car.  You don’t think Doc Holliday went six hours without a drink, do you?

How a Honeymoon “Detour” Changed Railroading

The Cumbres & Toltec was built in 1880 as part of General William Jackson Palmer’s dream to construct a railroad from Denver to Mexico City.  Palmer had been a hero in the Civil War, winning a Congressional Medal of Honor for his exploits as a cavalryman.  After the war he headed west and in 1870 met and married Mary “Queen” Mellon.  For their honeymoon, they  took an extended trip to the highpoints of Europe, visiting such famous and beautiful sites as …..the coal mines of Wales!  It’s hard to know what the new bride thought of skipping Paris to see Welsh coal mines, but the General wanted to see a new-fangled narrow gauge steam train they were using to transport coal.  

At the time, nearly every railroad had different gauge tracks, but most rails were four feet or more apart.  Narrow gauge trains with rails just three feet apart were popular in Wales because they were cheaper and could make tighter turns. This also made them perfect for the Rocky Mountains and Palmer ordered steel rails from Wales and set out to build his railroad.

Though it never reached Mexico, the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad did change history, bringing gold and silver from the mining towns of Leadville, Durango and Silverton.

With money from the railroad, the Palmers continued to lead interesting and traveling lives.  The General founded Colorado Springs, owned a castle near Mexico City, and made large donations to numerous colleges, including Colorado College in Colorado Springs and Hampton University in Virginia, a university built at the end of the Civil War for African Americans.

But with the decline of silver in 1890, the railroad didn’t fare as well.  By 1969, the track between Cumbres, NM, and Durango, CO, had been torn up and the railroad filed for abandonment on the rest.  The states of Colorado and New Mexico came to the rescue.  Recognizing the historic importance and the fact that it could become a major tourism attraction, in 1970, the two states jointly purchased nine steam locomotives, more than 130 freight and work cars, and the Chama yard and maintenance facility for $547,120.

The C&TS began hauling tourists in 1971.  Today, the railroad is operated for the states by the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad Commission and the Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, a non-profit, member-based organization whose mission is to preserve and interpret the railroad as a living history museum for the benefit of the public, and for the people of Colorado and New Mexico, who own it.

All Aboard!!

The train can be boarded in either Chama, NM, or Antonito, CO.  Most people will take a full day excursion and return to their cars by the railroad’s bus (which covers the same distance in a sixth of the time!).  However, there are also half day excursions and dinner and sunset rides.

What’s it like?  The scenery is the same in either direction.  Leaving from Chama, the scenic journey unfolds the moment you chug out of the station with a gradual climb into the mountains, rolling through the meadows and aspens of the historic Lobato sheep ranch and over a high trestle that spans rushing Wolf Creek.

As the train climbs higher, the view backward reveals the entire Chama Valley, considered the most scenic alpine area in northern New Mexico.  Here, the locomotive is blowing huge plumbs of black smoke as it crawls up a 4 percent grade to Cumbres Pass, the highest mountain pass reached by rail in the United States. The train hugs a sheer rock face as it reaches the summit, where there are alpine meadows sprinkled with aspens that turn bright gold in fall.

After the pass comes Tanglefoot Curve, followed by 137-foot-high Cascade Creek Trestle, the highest on the line.  The train then pulls into the rustic townsite of Osier, CO, which is the midway point and a stop for a delicious all-you-can-eat hot lunch of turkey or meatloaf.

The train that departed from Antonito will meet the Chama train here.  Passengers from Chama can return to Chama, or continue on the journey to Antonito.

For those continuing, the train leaves Osier and approaches scenic Toltec Gorge.  Inaccessible by car, there are two long tunnels and Phantom Curve ahead, named for a rock spire that casts a ghostly shadow. The rocky gorge plunges 800 feet and the train snakes carefully along a narrow ledge where the view is straight down.

From here, the terrain softens into hills as the train descends through acres and acres of aspen trees and magnificent views of Colorado. The train departing from Antonito to Chama has, of course, experienced the same scenery, only in reverse.  It’s the ultimate “bucket list” steam railroad trip.  Just ask Indiana Jones.

RESERVATIONS:    To make reservations, go to:  www.cumbrestoltec.com  The 2016 season will begin May 28, 2016 with daily trains leaving Antonito and Champa.  The house in Antonito, CO, used in the movies as the boyhood home of Indiana Jones is now a bed & breakfast where you can stay before your rail trip.  There are several small inns in both rail towns, and Pagosa Springs and Alamosa, Colorado, or Taos, New Mexico, are all nearby.

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