Two plumes up Cumbres Pass: Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the last Rio Grande narrow gauge freights

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Monday, August 27, 2018

Where were you in 1968? For me, I was a kid growing up in North Carolina. In my mind, it is hard to believe that 50 years have passed. But they have, perhaps, with the exception of that timeless railroad location, Chama, N.M. This is where the Rio Grande prepared its forces to battle against gravity for the summit of Cumbres Pass, and where for the last 46 years the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic has sent its tourist trains across 64 miles of Rio Grande’s San Juan extension in a quest to turn the clock back to the late 1920s. Last weekend, 75 lucky Trains magazine customers gathered for two days of action on the narrow gauge as we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the last steam-powered freights on a Class I railroad.

For the occasion, the C&TS graciously allowed K-36 No. 488 to assume the role of a sister narrow gauge 2-8-2, No. 483, which played a significant role in the last runs in 1968: Along with sister No. 484, it powered the last westbound freight in August 1968. No. 484, still operational, joined No. 483 in doing the honors Sunday with a 20-car photo freight from Antonito, Colo., to Chama. The day before, No. 483 led a 13-car freight, made up of boxcars and sheep cars, from Chama to Cumbres with No. 484 acting as a rear pusher. That also replicated the last eastbound freight across Cumbres in 1968, although that train had a K-37 in the lead, and none of those at the C&TS is operational.

We were fortunate to have on hand Russ Sperry, Ernie Robart, and Olaf Rasmussen, who photographed the last trains in 1968, and who wrote our feature story about the event in our June 2018 issue. Russ showed more of his photos at Cumbres Pass Saturday night, where we all gathered for dinner. We were all wowed with his fantastic shots of a fleeting portion of U.S. railroad history.

So many people were instrumental in planning and operating the trains for this event. I don’t have the space or time to thank them all. The railroad management and train crews did an outstanding job. And I do need to single out my friend Kevin Gilliam, who produced our latest video offering, Rio Grande Narrow Gauge Freights. He selected and coordinated our photo locations, which produced outstanding results for passengers from across the nation and as far away as England and Australia. You can purchase that DVD here:

We’ll be back with another great photo charter event next March when we visit the Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad to photograph newly restored and rare 2-4-4-2 Skookum and Polson 2-8-2 No. 2. We’re down to only a dozen tickets of 42 available. If you’d like to join us on our next railroad photography adventure, details are here:

The two plumes of smoke that marked our special anniversary train are etched in my mind. I hope that 50 years from now we are still marking the end of regular Class I freight service by steam in the U.S. and celebrating the living narrow gauge preservation that is the Cumbres & Toltec. When you stand on the main street in Chama, it is 2018 beneath your feet. But when you look toward the shop and yard, it is still 1928 and the Rio Grande and the narrow gauge are fighting the good fight on Cumbres Pass every day.  

PS: Look for more photos of this event in our November issue, available in early October.



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