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Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad

Adventurers in the Rockies

Chapter Seventeen

Riding the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad,

from Antonito, CO - 64 miles - to Chama, NM

July 17, 2016



Robin Bowers

Text and Photos by Author

The author retains all rights. No reproductions are allowed without the author's consent.

Comments are appreciated


  After a long day that started in western Nebraska then a stop in Denver and ended here in Alamosa, Colorado, I had a good nights rest here at the Rodeway Inn. In the morning we all met for breakfast at the Country Kitchen in the hotel. Afterwards we met at the car for the drive to Antonito, CO following US 285 south.


  MP -  280.70 Antonito, CO station for Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad elev 7,888 ft.

After arriving we checked in at the station, picked up our tickets and browsed the gift shop. With some time before departure we went outside to see the train and explore the facilities.


Elizabeth, Chris G. and Chris P. heading to check out today's power and to see what is in the yard.


K-27 2-8-2 built 1903, Baldwin passenger service.


Standard gauge and narrow gauge rails.








    This station is the eastern terminus of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad (C&TS). None of the buildings and railroad facilities surrounding the present C&TS depot were here until after the states purchased the line from the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad (D&RGW) in 1970. They were largely built with volunteer labor and a number of financial grants. With a great deal of hard work and community effort, local residents built the small depot, a wye, storage tracks and facilities for servicing engines by the summer of 1971 when the C&TS officially opened for business.


The small old depot is now an office for the C&TS Railroad Commission.


    Antonito came into existence March 31, 1880 when D&RG construction crews reached their newly platted company "town." From Antonito, two lines were built. The mainline San Juan Extension turned west toward the mining camps in the San Juan Mountains, while the New Mexico Extension was built southward to Santa Fe, New Mexico.



Our car for today's ride.


Known as the "Pineapple," It was originally purchased by Scenic Railways in 1972 from the Oahu Railway in Hawaii and later bought by the C&TS. GE switcher, built 1943.

    Four long - and loud - blasts of the whistle reminded us to get on board immediately. And we did. Once on board we went to our car and found a table and dropped off our things. For most of the trip we wouldn't be spending much time in here except for an occasional soda. No, we would be in the next car- the flat-bottom gondola, an open observation car. Be one with nature in the open air. Elizabeth planned ahead and brought a pair of work/safety glasses to protect her eyes. Eye protection is a must when riding behind a coal burning engine. I left my sunglasses in the car only to get a cinder in my eyes several times. The crew carries eye drops for distressed passengers.


Inside our car, Deluxe Tourist Car "Chama." Notice the Fred Harvey style uniform worn by the hostess.

Now our trip begins.


    MP 280.86 - Cross US Highway 285. Between mile 280.90 and mile 283 is one of three locations on the C&TS route where the track is actually straight. As our journey progresses, the novelty of this will become apparent. The meandering, convoluted route chosen by the D&RG was explained by one wit who said the surveying crews simply turned their mule loose and followed it to the summit of Cumbres Pass!

    Just beyond the highway crossing, the old, weathered D&RGW Railroad sign stands along the right side of the track that reads "End of Standard Gauge." This is the point where the wider standard gauge from Denver ended. Beyond this point is "narrow gauge country." The standard gauge third rail was laid from Alamosa to Antonito in 1901.



San Antonio Mt elev 10,908 in New Mexico is the only shield volcano in the continental United States.

    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.


    This line that we are riding today is a remnant of the San Juan Extension of the narrow gauge part of the Denver & Rio Grand Railway (later to be know as the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, or the "Rio Grande"). Narrow gauge (3 feet between rails) was chosen instead of the more common standard gauge (4 feet 8 inches), so that the railroad could make tighter turns in the mountains and thereby reduce construction costs. Wishing to tap the booming mining districts in southwestern Colorado, the railroad headed west from Antonito in 1880. Crews surveyed, graded 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.


    Vegetation is typical of the semiarid west. Much sagebrush, rabbit brush, and native grasses grow with little water. A wide variety of wildflowers bloom when sufficient moisture is present. Purple bee plants, yellow clovers and cream-colored stickweeds bloom during the summer. In the fall, purple asters and other composites are a delight to see. 


    The coming of the railroad was critical factor in the opening up of northern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado. The railroad was instrumental in developing the natural resources of the region, hauling mineral ore, timber, cattle and sheep. The Rio Grande also carried passengers to and from the region. It even carried a first class parlor car on its daily passenger trains until ending passenger service in 1951.

    The railroad had its ups and downs over the years. In 1893 the Silver Purchase Act was repealed and the federal government stopped purchasing silver. This brought a calamitous decline in the railroad's revenues. Subsequent economic booms and busts affected the railroad as well. Good times in the 1920s resulted in the purchase of "modern" engines (still in use today) and the rehabilitation of many freight cars. Except for a brief respite during World War II, the Rio Grande narrow gauge never recovered from the Great Depression, and most of the narrow gauge lines in the Rocky Mountains were scrapped during the 1950s.


    The discovery of oil and gas in the Four Corners area of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah in the early 1950s led to a revival of the San Juan Extension, and it was used to transport equipment into the region. Very likely this single factor prevented the scrapping of this very line we are riding today. However, even that traffic died out in the mid 1960s and the Rio Grande was ready to abandon this line by 1967. It was finally abandoned in 1969, but the combined efforts of railway preservationists and local interests led to the states of Colorado and New Mexico jointly purchasing the 64 miles of track and line-side structures from Antonito to Chama, nine steam locomotives, over 130 railroad cars, and the Chama yard and maintenance facility.




One of eleven crossings of the Colorado-New Mexico state boundary. The D&RG placed stone monuments at each of these crossings, and most are still in place today.

You might see deer, antelope, jackrabbits, cottontail rabbits, gophers and perhaps a coyote or mountain lion along the track and on the hillsides.




Lava Tank. Sitting on a high mesa, Lava Tank once held water for the engines. Water was pumped from the Rio de Pinos river far below.




The lonesome Lava Phone Booth along the track.


As the track gradually climbs into the foothills of the San Juan Mountains, rabbitbrush (also called chamisa), Chrysothammus nauseous, sagebrush and mountain mahogany, Cercocarpus montanus, are abundant.







Looking back to the bottom of Whiplash Curve.




The Yard Limit sign for Big Horn.


The Big Horn wye with the curved tail track.




    MP 299.70 Big Horn Phone Booth. The D&RGW used telephones, placed in booths along the route, so trainmen could contact the dispatcher in Alamosa to report problems and get instructions. The Friends of the C&TS is attempting to preserve the remaining booths. No block signals or radios were ever used on the narrow gauge during D&RGW ownership. The train has climbed a steady 1.42 percent grade most of the way from Antonito. One K-36 engine can pull 36 loaded freight cars. Longer trains need a helper engine cut into the middle for westbound trips. Many snow-fences were necessary along this section of track


We have left the scrub desert floor and now are entering the forests as we climb higher.










Sublette was home for the section gangs, the men who maintained the right-of-way, the ties, ballast and rails. Bunkhouse for other workers, coal storage, water spout and speeder shed. During early railroad operations, the telegraph and trains were the only communication for folks living here.






The Rio de Los Pinos valley in New Mexico.
















Toltec siding was used to accommodate long pipe and oil trains in the 1950s.



   MP 311.30 - Nearing the entrance to Mud Tunnel in New Mexico.


    Unlike Rock Tunnel, Mud Tunnel requires wooden supports over its entire 342 foot length. This 342 ft tunnel was dug through soft, weathered volcanic ash and mud of the Conejos Formation. The Rio Grande had many problems here because the soft rock and mud slides when wet. It was also necessary to line the tunnel with timber - an additional hazard for steam locomotives. During the spring of 1982, the C&TS installed concrete sills so the timbers do not sit on mud, and rebuilt both portals.


Exiting Mud Tunnel.


 MP 312.30 - Phantom Curve in CO is named for the ghostly shapes and shadows seen in the locomotive headlight at night.



    This location was named by early-day D&RG trainmen, who often made the trip at night. They saw the dim shadows strange shapes darting back and forth in front of the engine headlight beam during long, tiring trips. The squealing noises of the wheel flanges rubbing against the rails as the trains rounded the sharp curve added an eerie effect.



    MP 313.20 Calico Cut. A very descriptive name for the soft, rusty-red, orange, purple, maroon and tan-colored loose clay and weathered rock the are the result of the alteration of hard and soft portions of the chaotic breccias of the Conejos Formation. Avalanches and mudslides caused many problems along here for the Rio Grande, particularly during the winter and early spring months when the rocks were wet.



Great views across Toltec Creek Canyon.



MP 315.20 - Rock or Toltec Tunnel elev 9,631. At this point, the track is about 600 ft above the Rio de Los Pinos. This 366 ft tunnel was blasted out of the Precambrian rocks using black power. Because these rocks are so hard, the tunnel did not need to be lined.

    Of the approximately 1,600 miles of narrow gauge built by the Rio Grande, only two other narrow gauge tunnels were ever built. In 1882, one was bored at Grassy Trail, Utah and in 1884 a tunnel was built at Bridgeport in the Gunnison River canyon south of Grand Junction. Later, four tunnels on Tennessee Pass and three in Glenwood Canyon were built to standard gauge dimensions. With so much mountain construction, it is amazing that so few tunnels were needed.


  Entering Rock Tunnel bored through 366 feet of solid rock in New Mexico.


     It was announced that we would remain on our own train set all the way through to Chama. The reason for this was the railroad felt that the Mudhen K27 463 could not handle the train down the four percent grade from Cumbres Pass to Chama. For Elizabeth and I, this would be great because we would now be able to ride behind two different steam engines on the Cumbres and Toltec. So when the train gets near Osier, our engine will cut off and go around the balloon track after the engine from Chama did the same thing. This would get both engines back to their starting points safely.



The engines on the balloon track trading places.



Loco 484 will take us to Chama. K-36 2-8-2 Baldwin built 1925 for passenger service.

    After the engine switched, we then arrive at Osier and got off the train for lunch. Our lunch stop will be at Osier, CO, roughly the halfway point in our journey. The lunch menu has a good variety with something for everyone. The food is made from scratch in the Osier kitchen just like Grandma used to make. We follow the lines on the floor to the serving tables. Meals are all you can eat, and are interchangeable. You are welcome to go to any or all lines. All meals include the salad bar, a great dessert bar and your choice of drink. To serve faster, the main entrees are served cafeteria style. Soup, salad, desert and drinks are self-serve.

    Trains leave approximately one hour after your arrival in Osier. Four long whistle blasts from the locomotive is your signal that the trains will depart Osier in five minutes.

    Leaving the train I entered through the West Entrance of the Osier Dining Hall to the serving tables and selected the turkey dinner over the meatloaf dinner choice. Then a stop at the salad bar and drinks then to find an empty seat at a table. The food was good and was in the style of a home made potluck meal. The lunch was very well organized and the staff had both trains passengers in and out in less than hour.

    After our pleasant repast, we re-boarded the cars that we arrived on to continue our trip to to Chama but with a new engine, # 484.


Looking back at Osier.







The U-shaped valley created by glaciers.


Ranch houses in the Los Pinos River valley





For more pictures of this part of the trip, visit my story of 7/5/16.Chasing the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.




A major blow down of the excess boiler pressure of the steam engine.

Looking down on Rt 17, the highway between Chama and Antonito. The road we'll take back to Antonito on the bus from Chama.



Jukes Tree near Chama, a photo spot.


 MP 344.12 - Our arrival in Chama and the end of our journey.


Our power from Osier.



After a stop at the gift shop we, Elizabeth, Chris G., Chris P and I, boarded the waiting buses to take us back to our car at the station in Antonito. It was a relaxing trip back to our car after a once -in-a-life ride on a historic railroad. Many happy memories were had by all.

We started our drive back to Alamosa but stopped at the Rio Grande Western station in Antonito and at La Jara and then on to our hotel in Alamosa for the night.


La Jara.

Thanks for reading.

Next: Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad & Garden of Gods Park.

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