Tuesday, July 7th – Chama, NM elev. 7,892 feet.
We went to Chama Train Station and picked up our train tickets to ride the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Steam engine and train from Chama, NM to Antonito, Co, and ride the bus back to Chama. It was an all day train trip through the mountains of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, with a lunch stop at a cafeteria in Osier, CO.
In 2003, John and I rode this train in coach. There were two bench seats facing each other, and we had both to ourselves. We could also walk back to the gondola car – an open air car with no seats, that gave unobstructed views of high cliffs and mountains. Eleven years later, we decided to ride Tourist Deluxe… We were seated by windows at a table for four. Our tablemates were very nice folks, very easy to spend the day with. Our train car had an attendant, Anne, who served us coffee, soda, water, and juice in souvenir thermal travel mugs with the train logo. Tourist Deluxe was worth the extra $$ just for the table and coffee service! In the morning, Anne offered us donuts, and she came by with pretzels or crackers and drinks in the afternoon.
A little background history of the train line…
The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic railroad is America’s longest and highest narrow gauge railroad. It is also one of our country’s best preserved railroad museums, designated both a National and State Registered Historic Site and National Civil Engineering Landmark. The 64 mile line from Chama, NM to Antonito, CO is a remnant of the San Juan Extension of the narrow gauge part of the Denver & Rio Grande Railway. Narrow gauge (3 feet between the rails) was chosen rather than the more common standard gauge (4 feet 8 inches), so that the railroad could make tighter turns in the mountains, thereby reducing construction costs.
The railroad was built between the booming mining districts in southwestern Colorado in 1880. Crews surveyed roadbed and laid track through spectacular Toltec Gorge, over 10,015-foot Cumbres Pass, and down the 4 percent grade into Chama, where they arrived on December 31, 1880. The railroad was instrumental in developing the natural resources of the region, hauling mineral ore, ore, timber, cattle, and sheep. Economic booms and busts affected the railroad. Except for a brief respite during World War II, the narrow gauge line never recovered from the Great Depression. The discovery of oil and gas in the four Corners region in the early 1950s led to a revival of the line. It is believed this kept the railroad from becoming scrap. Most of the narrow gauge lines in the Rocky Mountains were scrapped in the 1950s.
Cumbres and Toltec scenic Railroad began operating in July 1970. The non-profit group Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad have been responsible for preserving, restoring, and interpreting the historic cars and structures.
The line passes through Rio Grande and Carson National Forests. Most of the line is bordered by rocky ledges, cliffs and formations of varying types. The train passes along the rim of Toltec Gorge, a spectacular, though brief highlight. Conifer and aspen trees dominate with periodic mountain meadows. The easternmost quarter shifts to scrubby and arid rolling hills near Antonito. There are numerous restored historic structures along the line, including two tunnels, bridges/trestles, section houses and water tanks.
My favorite part of the 64 mile ride, was the beautiful mountain scenery we saw in the morning before lunch. Spruce and fir and aspen trees, beautiful valleys, meandering streams, wildflowers, mountains, cliffs, summer cabins nestled in the trees… The scenery viewed from the train was just amazing. The sounds of the train going up hill remind me of the “Little Blue Engine,” chugging “I think I can, I think I can.” Going uphill, the smoke from the engine is heavy and black; on a level surface, white to light gray smoke comes from the smokestack.
We stopped a couple times to take on water at water towers. Once we stopped for oil, at Cumbres Pass. At times, the engine would blow out water and steam to clear the sediment from the boiler, and there was a loud spraying and hissing noise.
The steam engines have the most wonderful whistle… Each engineer has their own way of blowing the train whistle and some engineers can really pull the sound out! The sound is unlike the train whistle on today’s diesel engines (that run on freight lines behind our home.)
Train Video with whistle: https://www.youtube.com/my_videos?o=U
About 12:30, we pulled into Osier station and were treated to lunch cafeteria style. There were choices of meatloaf dinner, turkey dinner, or soup/salad bar. The soup and salad I had was filling enough that I never made it to the dessert area… When we heard four long blasts from the train, it was time to board again. We climbed on board with a blast of the whistle…
The train steamed through Toltec Gorge, which was beautiful, rocky, and narrow, and hard to take photos… We went over wooden and metal trestles, and through two tunnels.
Approaching Rock Tunnel, a tunnel bored through 360 feet of solid rock, I had a glimpse of a blue and white columbine, and a few lavender and white columbine flowers, embedded in the rock walls… They were beautiful. I have no photos, as I saw them flash by, 6 inches from the moving train window. We pulled into the station at Antonito, CO and boarded the bus for the 45 minute ride back down NM 17 to Chama.