Discovering the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad

Posted by Hayley Enoch
on Wednesday, July 15, 2015

For the past few years, a visit to the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad has been high on my to-do. It comes highly recommended from others who have already made the journey. They ask me if I have “discovered” the shops at Chama and Antonito yet, and then usually go on to praise them with a very specific endorsements. They tell me that the 3-foot gauge Cumbres & Toltec is a place that has been forgotten by time.

This July, I finally had the chance to travel out to the Cumbres & Toltec with my family. I anticipated more than just a train ride, more than the chance to see at least one steam locomotive in operating condition. The place had begun to feel like a puzzle: What does it mean for a railroad to be forgotten by time? Is there something lacking from the experience, or does it allow guests and riders to experience something that has disappeared from most other parts of our world?

The drive out to Chama is a long one--mostly because there is just so much Texas to endure before arriving anywhere at all, and the Western part of the state is famously unvaried and underpopulated. The scenery picks up west of Amarillo, though, and the flat expanses begin to buckle up into chiseled buttes and towering mesas. The prairie grasses become less and less adept at hold their roots here, and yield the red soil to patches of cactus and bristly sagebrush. The heavy rains that have devastated Texas have also poured down on the Southwest, and what little vegetation does sink its roots here has become brilliant green.

The Union Pacific’s Tucumcari Line parallels a good portion of I-40, and the Southwest Chief runs into Albuquerque on BNSF tracks not too many miles north of the highway. A painter given full artistic license would be hard pressed to imagine a more perfect natural backdrop for the trains running through this landscape. I begin to realize that when people speak of New Mexico as a bewitching land, they are referring its isolation just as much as its natural beauty. Anyone who travels here feels a subtle but pervasive disquietude at how infrequent and unique are the forms of life that can survive here. No matter whether he travels by Amtrak or by his own car, he spends a few moments reflecting on how little metal stands between him and the desert.

The Santa Fe Railroad took part of its name from New Mexico’s capital city, and then turned to the land to the north for its soul. I am not being hyperbolic in describing them as amazing, nor did the artists employed by the railroad exaggerate the colors of the tortuous cliffs and how completely they dwarf man and train alike. The Santa Fe’s advertising campaigns conveyed as much pride in their territory and in the native tribes that inhabit them than in the machines they operated. I cannot find better words for the journey except to say that this was the first drive of more than a hundred miles that I wished was longer.

We spend the night in the Little Creel Lodge, one of about half a dozen tourist motels backing up to the Chama River. In the morning we wake up and drive in the general direction of a black plume billowing up from somewhere north of us. In the rest of our modern world, most definitely locked in the progression of time, there are few legitimate sources to attribute a column of smoke. It is usually a signal to flee. Here, though, it beckons for people to come.

And come they do. Cumbres & Toltec is holding a special event for children, the Cinder Bear Train, and enough people purchase tickets the day of the ride that the staff have to add more coaches and, eventually, a second locomotive in the front. There are three locomotives in all dedicated to one trip--the 489 and 463 in front, and the 484 assisting from the rear. 
The initial half-mile or so out of Chama is relatively flat, but the terrain quickly tilts upwards and begins to work the engine. The land here is cut along the same soaring line as it was south of Chama, except here the slopes are thickly covered with trees. We proceed at a slow pace, but not a lazy one. The hollow bark of three sets of pistons and exhaust steam echoes through the hills and valleys, the crews whistle from time to time to coordinate movement, and by the end of the ride, we are all perfumed with the odor of coal smoke. That crisp smell will linger on our clothes, and come bedtime routines we will find our hair matted with cinders. Not everyone who has come on board is particularly interested in trains or railroad history, but all of the passengers seem to appreciate how far this ride is from their normal experiences. They take the moment to pretend that they are returned to their childhood, or are visiting their grandparents’ world.

The mere fact that this train is pulled by steam locomotives, though, isn’t quite enough to convey the sense of timelessness universally described by fans of the Cumbres & Toltec. It’s when I am off the train and walking around the yard and shop that the magic of the place shows itself and I forget what year it is.

The grounds at Chama still include an original water tower, coaling tower, and ash pits. All are in functioning condition and are used during normal operations. Virtually the only thing constructed in modern times are some of the passenger coaches, and those only because the demand for seats exceeded what the Cumbres & Toltec had on hand when they began tourist operations. It isn’t just the steam locomotives that are preserved--almost the entire context and infrastructure for running them survive intact and unchanged.

Walking around these grounds, it occurs to me that the phrase “forgotten by time” is often misapplied. It is euphemistic for places that people have forgotten and from which time has demanded a high toll in faded paint and metal stripped down to rust. Chama is the rare place that does indeed seem frozen in time, unadulterated by the modern conveniences that have come and gone since it ceased to function as a steam-powered freight railroad for the Denver, Rio Grande & Western. There would certainly be easier ways to perform many of the tasks involved in maintaining the grounds and the equipment, but none of them are true to the way the railroads were run when the locomotives were brought into service. The Cumbres & Toltec has been carefully preserved in an anachronistic state by its owners, employees, and volunteers. They value it as much the same way as modern outfits might strive for on-time performance or hassle-free boarding. The world of tourist railroading is better for the Cumbres & Toltec hanging on to its heritage. Hopefully, it will be many more years before time even begins to remember this place. It’s worth keeping that way.

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