Traveling Through Time
Photographing the Fall Colors Along the Colorado / New Mexico Border by Steam Train.
Written & Photographed by Alex Adams

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 the distance.
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 they were from 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 seemed as though I had traveled through time.