Sandoval Signpost


An independent monthly newspaper serving the community since 1988
  Time Off

Locomotive 487 leads the charge as the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad moves cars serviced over the winter in Antonito, Colorado, to Chama, New Mexico, for the 2016 tourist season.

All aboard a coal-fired time machine

—Bill Diven

With a whiff of coal smoke, and the shriek of a steam whistle, locomotive 487 tugs five passenger cars out of Antonito, Colorado, bound for the San Juan Mountains and New Mexico. As the town and highway slip away, so does the 21st century. Soon, the twentieth century vanishes, as tracks and train twist and climb through a landscape that rail travelers first saw in the 19th century.

The first train to reach Chama, New Mexico, arrived barely a decade after completion of the first transcontinental railroad.

“What we have here is 64 miles of 1880, and no one else has that,” John Bush, president of the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad, told the Signpost. “As you ride the train you see the 1880s at the same speed as the 1880s… Steam trains are a time machine.”

The C&TS began its 46th season on Memorial Day weekend and continues with daily and special trains through the turning of the aspen leaves in September and October. The line connects Antonito at the south end of the San Luis Valley with Chama, set hard against the San Juan Mountains. In between are high plains, mountain forests and meadows, bridge canyons, 800-foot deep Toltec Gorge, and 10,012-foot Cumbres Pass. Pronghorn antelope are frequently seen near Antonito and deer, elk, and an occasional bear make appearance in the higher country.

While the transcontinental line was built to standard gauge—four feet, eight-and-a-half inches between the rails—the Chama line was part of an extensive network of three-foot, narrow-gauge railroads. That network spread into Colorado’s mountainous mining areas reaching Silverton on a surviving remnant still seeing steam trains from Durango and dipping down to Farmington, NM, where the sturdy steams hauled oilfield pipe into the 1960s.

At its peak, the Denver and Rio Grande Western narrow-gauge track from Denver split in Antonito with the long-gone Chili Line, branching off to Tres Piedras, Española, and Santa Fe. Chama remained a railroad town, although it looked like the end was at hand when the D&RGW filed to abandon the line in 1969 and began pulling up the rails.

Instead, the states of Colorado and New Mexico leapt in, created a two-state railroad commission, bought the line, and began hauling tourists in 1971. The C&TS became a National Historic Landmark in 2012 and, last year, carried nearly forty thousand passengers who both rode the time machine, and helped support the economies of the two towns.

In mid May, the C&TS moved passenger cars from the service shops in Antonito to Chama where the railroad maintains its fleet of steam locomotives. Most of the thirty passengers that day were travel writers and other journalists invited along for what the railroad hoped would be a positive experience worth writing about.

In charge of the train was conductor Ray Martinez of Chama, whose railroad roots on the line date to his grandfather, who helped maintain the track. Martinez’s two sons and his wife also work for the railroad. “I started out in 1974,” Martinez said. “I started cleaning out the coaches, did fire patrol, did brakeman, did track work, and worked my way up to conductor.”

Trains depart from Chama and Antonito, offering daylong out-and-back excursions to the lunch stop at Osier, Colorado, and through tickets with a return by bus. Toltec Gorge is on the Antonito side of Osier while Cumbres Pass, the summit of one of the steepest rail lines in the country, is on the Chama side.

Special trains this year include a Geology Train on June 19, a Botany Train on August 12, Sunset Dinner Trains on select Saturdays in July and August, and a July 4 train that includes dinner at Cumbres Pass and fireworks in Chama. There also are half-day trips.

Details on schedules, fares, and accommodations from coaches to parlor cars can be found on the C&TS website

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