Cumbres and Toltec Railroad – Goes Where No Automobile Can

Antonito, Colorado.

The day finally arrived when Lynn and I were scheduled to ride the steam train from Antonito to Chama, New Mexico. The day trip started in the morning and the 64 miles (103 km) would take us most of the day. There are several options for the trip depending upon your schedule. We opted for the entire 64 mile trek with a bus ride back from Chama to Antonito. If you live or are traveling closer to Chama, you can ride instead from Chama to Antonito. Two trains depart from the opposite ends at about the same time and share a single track. About half-way along the route, it will be lunch time. Both trains arrive at Ossier Station just in time for a buffet lunch. At Ossier, the two trains are routed onto separate sidings and when lunch is over, each train continues on the track just used by the opposite bound train. Lunch is included in most of the fare options.

At Antonito, Engine 488 brought us from the high plains of Colorado into more mountainous country in New Mexico. Although both cities are similar in elevation at around 7,000 feet (2134 m), there are many grades to climb and descend as well as crossing the Colorado-New Mexico border 11 times on the trip. After what turned out to be minor confusion about our reservations. Our party of six included Lynn and me, my sister Babe, and her boyfriend, Jeep, and our friends, Fred and Ellen Mast. Our group was not assigned seats together as we requested in the online order process. After a short delay during ticket pick-up, we were told that we could work it out on board the train. Once on board, we shared the issue with one of the friendly on-board staff members. We were given the option to move to an entirely different car that had very few guests and we were told we could sit wherever we wished. Shortly after departure, a friendly conductor stopped by and punched our tickets.

There are four classes of accommodations available listed here from premium to basic. We opted for the third tier Classic Coach car with interior seating. All passengers can step through to the open Gondola car as we did to capture photos without having window reflections in our images. In the photo above, Fred is framing a shot of the engine as the train rounds one of the many curves along the way. On our trip, there was plenty of room in the gondola for our photos, but we also found we didn’t have to walk through the several cars from our own car to get there. We could step outside on the platforms at the end of each car, step out of the way of the door and take photos from there.

With a telephoto lens, it’s possible on some of the wider curves to capture a pretty good view of the coal fired steam engines used on the line. As you will see in the gallery of images, we were allowed to walk all the way up to the back end of the coal car for images. We did find, however, a hat is well advised. You will get covered in coal particulate and should the engineer blow the whistle, you’ll know it. At one point, he released a large amount of steam from a side vent for some reason. It startled both Fred and me as it was quite loud. A photo of the steam release is featured in the gallery at the end of this tome.

At one point, we stopped along the track at a water tower. I figured we’d stopped for water, but after a short delay with no water refill, we were underway again. Since there are no scheduled stops other than Ossier Station and since we didn’t take on water, we asked a volunteer docent why we stopped. At that point he didn’t have an answer but later he stopped by to let us know that one of the cars toward the front had just undergone extensive maintenance and the crew stopped the train to make sure everything was working right on its first day back in service. Sometime later, we stopped again, this time for much longer. Looking out the window, we saw there were several workmen on the outside of the car that was just put back in service. Apparently one of the wheel bearings was having an issue on the car. They jacked up the car, removed the wheel and put fresh lubrication on a bearing sleeve. In the photo above, you can see the sleeve they “greased up” and put back on the train. After about a 15-minute delay or so, we were on our way again.

The delay ultimately led to a late arrival at Ossier Station, but no matter, by the time we got there, the passengers on the train bound for Antonito had already been through the buffet line and were eating. The other train couldn’t have left the station before we arrived as the two trains would have met on the single track. When everyone had time to finish lunch, both trains boarded again and we continued on toward Chama and some of the more mountainous areas along the route.

Just outside a tunnel above Toltec Gorge, a monument to President James Garfield was erected. While the railroad was under construction in 1881, President Garfield was assassinated and was buried in Ohio. Coincident with the President’s funeral in Cleveland, rail workers here at Toltec Gorge held a memorial service for him and eventually a granite monument was placed at mile 315 along the route. The plaque reads:

September 26, 1881

As we neared the summit, of Cumbres Pass at just over 10,000 feet (3048 m), the plains gave way to the Rocky Mountains. At a top speed of 12 mph (19 kph) on the route, there was plenty of time to enjoy the beauty of the area. At railroad crossings and along roadways that paralleled the tracks in some areas, people stopped their cars and many, like the gentleman in the image above, got out and waved. In fact, this person spent his afternoon traveling roads from near Summit Pass to Chama. We would round a bend or cross an intersection and we’d see the white car and get a friendly wave from this obvious steam train aficionado. You’ll see him again in another image in the gallery below. If, like him, you are a fan of railroads, you will find this trip well worth the price of a ticket. I present for your review a gallery of images captured along the railway between Antonito and Chama. In most browsers, you can click on an image below for a better view and to scroll through the gallery.

John Steiner


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