I didn't know what to expect.
My future father-in-law, Ed, invited me to join
him on an old-fashioned train excursion criss-crossing the Colorado/New
Mexico border between
Chama, NM and Antonito, CO. Ed, a native New Mexican, always
finds interesting spots and I knew it would be a good opportunity
for the two of us to do some man-to-man bonding before the upcoming
wedding. I had no idea I would be transported back in time
along the way.
I took a non-stop from the chaos of Los Angeles
to the relative tranquility of Albuquerque where Ed met me and
we set off on the
three-hour drive north to Chama. Arriving at dusk, we made
a review of the little town and the railroad yard where steam engines
were still simmering from a hard day's work. The sounds and
smells of burning coal heightened our sense of adventure.
A bar at the top of town quickly caught our attention
and we soon settled into a couple Mexican beers. I noticed a large pig-like
creature mounted on the wall along with several other game animals
and asked a local if it was a havolina or a wild boar. Looking
up from his pool shot he replied, "Don't know, but I think
I went out with his sister last night". As the laughter
subsided I looked around the bar and realized we were in a classic
Western bar, with a rich, colorful history.
Chama has certainly seen its share of characters
since the tracks came over the Cumbres Pass and into town in
December, 1880. It
all started several years before with an ambitious plan by General
William Jackson Palmer to create a north-south rail line from Denver
all the way down to El Paso, Texas and then on to Mexico City. But
the explosive success of mining camps in the Colorado Rockies diverted
his plans and he was soon laying tracks to interconnect these growing
outposts of capitalism.
The scenic, rugged, 64-mile stretch between Antonito
and Chama that we were to travel the next day was the high-point
of the larger
270 mile Denver & Rio Grande Railway stretching from Alamosa
to the little mining town of Silverton. Building this section
involved some of the most daring engineering feats in the West.
Two tunnels more than 300 feet long had to be drilled through the
mountains. Precariously, workers then stretched a narrow wood
trestle across the Toltec Gorge 1,100 feet above the rocky river.
But the last leg, over the Cumbres Pass and into
Chama proved to be the greatest challenge of all. At an altitude of 10,015
feet (still the highest active rail pass in the U.S.) the narrow
gauge tracks were painstakingly spiked into place throughout the
severe snowbound winter of 1880. Battling frostbite and twenty
foot snowdrifts, crews worked the rails into the ledges and cliffs
of the pass, finally making their way down into Chama. By
the time they arrived, Chama had just opened its first post office
and boasted a population of 1,000 eager to reap the rewards of
the new rail line.
Ed and I awoke the following morning with a slight
twang from tequila, but eager for the day's adventure. At the station,
about 250 people were gathered for one of the last trips of the
season before the snow arrived in late October. I glanced
up the valley and was reassured to still see golden aspen lining
the tracks and knew that we were not too late for the fall colors. While
we waited for the engineers to adjust knobs, stoke the coal, and
bring the huge steam engines to life, I could feel a quiet sense
of awe among the crowd. It was as if time stood still and
we had been transported back to 1880. But a hard pull on the
whistle shook us from our stares and the call for "All Aboard!" scattered
us to our assigned seats.
We found ours towards the rear of the train, conveniently located next to a
roofless car. We settled in as the great machine creaked and groaned its
way up the valley. Immediately I was struck by the clear and vivid landscape. Bursts
of yellow and green lined both sides of the track and a perfect blue sky rolled
over hillsides as far as the eye could see. The steam engine cut through
the silence of the countryside as its plume of ash-filled smoke trailed into
Staring out as we meandered over the hills my mind drifted back in time, imagining
what it must have been like for those who were here before me. I thought
of the miners who headed up into these hills seeking their fortune, and of
the many who rode back empty-handed. I thought of the very wealthy who,
in the late 1800's when Pullman cars were attached to these little trains,
traveled in true Victorian opulence. Chairs were plush and some even reclined. Asian
rugs decorated the floors, and windows were of fine beveled glass. Passengers
could order figs in cream for 25 cents, sardines for 30 cents, a porterhouse
steak for $1.15, and Veuve Cliquot Yellow Label Champagne at $4.00/quart.
Ed and I settled for a couple of tacos for $6.25.
The light took on a strange quality as the sun
began to fade. Beams
of light cut through the smoke and trees lining the track. I
spoke with Ed and others about how far away the rest of the world
seemed. I wanted to know more of the train's past as we crossed
the Cumbres Pass at 10,000 feet and wove our way down the rickety
mountainous decline towards Chama.
By the early 1900's, ore shipments and passenger
traffic dwindled to a fraction of their original volume. Henry Ford's new automobile,
with its promise of personalized travel, was cutting deep into
the rail-car business. And with the onset of The Great Depression
the death of the little rail line was only a matter of time. The
Denver & Rio Grande management began by closing and removing
a few stations, then whole spurs, and finally entire extensions. By
the 1960's, after a series of further cutbacks, it was over, and
the trains were simply left to rust.
But fate had a different plan for the old railway
line and in 1970, after a public outcry, the states of Colorado
and New Mexico
decided to buy the 64-mile stretch between Chama and Antonito. That
summer hundreds of volunteers came from all over the country, giving
up their summer vacations to work on the railroad. They cleared
the tracks and replaced ties and spikes. Several engineers
went to work on Òold faithfulÓ engine #487. They
toiled long into the night over stories of its heroic past and
the seemingly impossible runs it had made over the mountains.
On October 4, 1970, after seven hours building
up her first head of steam, the newly christened Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad
made its initial run. One hundred and twelve workers and locals,
braving the Autumn chill, stood in gondolas as the train made the
64-mile trip. Well-wishers cheered at every road-crossing
and a band of masked horsemen even staged a mock train robbery
in the spirit of the moment. As the train rounded the corner
into Chama there began a grand celebration that lasted well into
the night. They had saved the train.
As our train pulled into the station, Ed and I
also felt a sense of satisfaction. The trip had been so much more than either
of us expected. We had seen and photographed the most vivid
fall colors I have ever witnessed, and our time together formed
a lasting bond that continues to this day. But it was the
character and history of the place that came as an unexpected surprise.
As folks were leaving, the engineers and conductors
gathered at the side of the train. Laughing and telling
stories, they were covered with ash and soot and looked as if
a different century. And just then, I realized that I also experienced
something else on this trip; nothing I can put a finger on or
describe in any real detail except to say that on that day, it
though I had traveled through time.