Steam Treat

An 1880 railroad offers an exhilarating glimpse of Western history

There may be no such thing as a good cinder, but I didn't really mind the one that flew into my eye not long ago. It turned out to be a speck, which I quickly blinked away, but it reminded me that train travel used to be a bit edgier than what you get on today's electric glides. The cinder had issued from the smokestack of a steam locomotive that was warming up to take me and a hundred or so other tourists on a retro joy ride.

Snaking through high plains, forested foothills, and volcanic peaks en route from Antonito, Colo., to Chama, N.M. (or vice versa, if the traveler prefers), the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad boasts a number of distinctions. The route crosses back and forth over the states' boundaries 11 times during the 64-mile journey (at one point we were in New Mexico for a grand total of two minutes); its apex, the 10,015-foot-high Cumbres Pass, is also the highest point reachable by passenger train in the United States; and the Cumbres & Toltec holds a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. Oh, and judging from the reactions of just about everybody onboard, this railroad is a source of unmitigated delight.

Saving America's Treasures

In 2007, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad Commission received a $300,000 grant from Save America's Treasures, a public-private partnership between the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Park Service, for the restoration of the railroad's oldest locomotive, Engine 463.

Our seven-car train was only minutes out of Antonito, chugging west through a broad expanse dotted with olive-green sagebrush, yellow-blooming- rabbitbrush, and purple mountain asters, when we crossed the first of many fabled spots on the route—Hangman's Trestle (also known as Ferguson's Trestle). The name comes from a long-ago incident involving a fellow named Ferguson, who after committing an unspecified but evidently heinous crime was nabbed by a posse and sentenced to death. Trouble was, no structure suitable for a hanging presented itself. And so, according to local historian Doris B. Osterwald, the vigilantes "supposedly commandeered a locomotive sitting in the Antonito yards and ran it out to the trestle where there was enough height for him to hang without touching the ground."

Another vivid name cropped up as we negotiated the extremes of Tanglefoot Curve, which follows such a loopy, convoluted course that if our train had been a few cars longer, it might have chased its own tail. Even though the Cumbres & Toltec was built with a narrow gauge for easier negotiation of steep terrain, it couldn't climb this particular slope head-on. Therefore: a long, lazy train-track doodle.

While we're on the subject of tales, there was once a railroad fixture called the telltale—a metal bar with dangling, knotted ropes—under which the train would pass. The Cumbres & Toltec still has one of these, and docent Butch Garrison offered one possible explanation of its purpose: "In the old days brakemen rode outside and on top. When the train came to a tunnel at night, the telltale would hit them and warn them to lie down."

The gentle pace was just right for all the storytelling: seldom more than 22 miles per hour and more often about half that, in deference to the lofting, curving route. The train's rocking motion inspired goodwill among passengers, especially out on the open-air observation car, where strangers chatted with each other and joked with the docents. If I had my way, the world's next major peace conference would take place on the Cumbres & Toltec, where even the most intransigent foes would be hard-pressed to sustain their animosity.

The Cumbres & Toltec is a remnant of the Denver & Rio Grande Railway, part of its San Juan Extension, built to serve the silver mine district of the San Juan Mountains starting in 1880. Early in our itinerary, we passed a restored log section house and a cluster of outbuildings—relics of the original maintenance facilities. The section houses were spaced several miles apart, with one caretaker and his family living in each one. His job was to keep the line in working order for three and a half miles in either direction. Typically two passenger trains steamed through per day, along with several freights. At the time, this part of the world was so remote that the railroad itself would have been the section man's only regular link to the outside, bringing in supplies and newspapers and mail.

After the mines played out, oil discoveries helped support the local economy, and the railroad also carried lots of timber and livestock. According to an article published in the railroad's newspaper, "Passenger service had long depended on the notoriously bad roads of Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado," and as those roads improved, the railroad's fortunes declined. By the 1960s, the San Juan Extension was no longer viable. In 1969 the Interstate Commerce Commission granted the parent firm permission to abandon the line, bringing an end to the U.S. era of freight haulage by steam locomotive. But local activists and railroad preservationists agitated to save the most scenic section, and a year later the states of Colorado and New Mexico jointly purchased the Chama-to-Antonito right-of-way, equipment, and facilities. Today the line is operated by a two-state commission and the C&TS Management Corp., with help from the Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. Open from Memorial Day weekend until mid-October, the C&T provides both instruction and amusement. In the words of our other docent, Geoff Gordon, "We think of it as a living museum."

If You Go ... 

The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad runs daily from Memorial Day weekend until mid-October. Lobato Trestle is now open. Trains depart from the Chama, N.M., and Antonito, Colo., stations at 10 a.m., and passengers can ride the entire 64-mile route (which takes just over six hours), or travel halfway to Osier, Colo., and return. For more information call 888.286.2737 or visit cumbrestoltec.com

The calendar said it was still summer on the day of our ride, but high in the southern Rockies, autumn was well along. That made it showtime for aspens. Interspersed among stands of ponderosa pine and blue spruce, the aspens accessorized the hillsides with yellow scarves and ochre necklaces. We didn't see much wildlife—just a marmot, down alongside the Los Pinos River—but glimpsing a mountain lion was a tantalizing possibility. "I've never seen one," Garrison admitted, "but I know people who have." Cattle were plentiful, though: The right-of-way is surrounded mostly by federal land, on which the animals graze. "The charge is $1.38 a month per animal unit," Garrison explained. "An animal unit is one horse, a cow and her calf, or five sheep. The ranchers bring their livestock up here in the spring, turn them loose, and come back to round them up in the fall before snow makes it impossible to get them out."  

Ordinarily, the stop for a cafeteria-style lunch at Osier, Colo., marks the midpoint of the excursion, but for our group it came near the end. Last summer, Lobato Trestle, between Osier and Chama, caught fire. How this happened, investigators can't say. There were no signs of arson, though one possible explanation is that a live coal escaped from the engine intact. Gordon noted that, "as is common with railroads, [the C&T] was massively underinsured"; repairs will cost an estimated $2 million. For us, then, the day ended at Cumbres Pass, where buses waited to ferry us to either Antonito or Chama.

Throughout the journey, something had been nagging at me. Coal was the fuel that powered our trip, and the mildly acrid odor of coal burning in the locomotive's engine kept reminding me of the trains I played with as a kid. Except how could that be? Those toy trains ran on electricity (remember the transformers?), not coal. I thought my mind was deceiving me until I mentioned my Proustian sentiments to another observation-car denizen, a 40-something Vermonter with a lot of boy left in him. "You remember right," he assured me. "Some of those train sets came with a supply of oil which you would apply to get that smell."

It turned out he and I weren't the only riders who had regressed. As we all reluctantly filed out of the train at the top of Cumbres Pass, another traveler's remark about her husband could have summed up the whole Cumbres & Toltec phenomenon: "For him it's like being a kid again—playing with trains all day."

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