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Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad Chama to Osier 7/6/2021

by Chris Guenzler

Elizabeth and I woke up in Chama, did our usual Internet things before going in search of breakfast. However, Chama is a very small community and as restaurants were open for the Fourth of July weekend, they closed this day, Tuesday, so none of them were open. We got into the car and found Speedway Gasoline station open and I bought two packs of doughnuts and and orange juice and Elizabeth had an apple fritter and orange juice. After I talked to Sarah Jennings last night, I learned that she and Bart were in Alamosa and riding from Antonito to Osier today. Our plan was to ride from Chama to Osier and meet them for lunch. In a perfect world, this would have worked. We came back to the room and I wrote the Pike's Peak story while Elizabeth caught up on e-mails. At 9:00, we walked over the road to train station, picked up our tickets and purchased two steam engine lapel pins for the engine we would be riding today.

Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad (C&TS) is a 3 ft narrow gauge heritage railroad running between Chama, New Mexico and Antonito, Colorado. It runs over 10,015 ft Cumbres Pass and through Toltec Gorge, from which it takes its name. Trains operate from both endpoints and meet at the midpoint. Today, the railroad is the highest and longest narrow gauge steam railroad in the United States with a track length of 64 miles. The train traverses the border between Colorado and New Mexico, crossing back and forth between the two states eleven times. The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad has been jointly owned by the States of Colorado and New Mexico since 1970 when it was purchased from the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railway, saving it from the scrap yards. The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad received the Designation of a National Historic Landmark in 2012 by the United States National Park Service.


The railroad line was originally constructed in 1880-1881 by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad as part of their San Juan Extension stretching from Alamosa, Colorado to Durango, Colorado. The line was constructed with 3 foot narrow gauge track to match the D&RGW's other lines. The line primarily supported mining operations in the San Juan mountains, mainly around Durango and Silverton. The longest and highest portion of the railroad, known as the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, is 64 miles long and was constructed in 1880 in less than 9 months; an engineering miracle even by today's standards, considering the work was all done by hand.

Today's Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad was built in 1882 as a branch line off this main. By the late 1950s mining had dwindled substantially and the line was on the verge of abandonment, but an oil boom near Farmington, New Mexico created a traffic surge that kept the line operating for another decade hauling oil and pipe. By the late 1960s, the traffic was virtually gone and abandonment was applied for. The States of Colorado and New Mexico purchased the 64 miles of San Juan Extension between Antonito, Colorado and Chama, New Mexico in 1970 and started operating the next year under the name of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.

The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad continues to operate daily between May and October of each year with five fully restored steam locomotives. Soon the C&TSRR will have 6 fully restored engines when the D&RGW 168 locomotive is moved from Colorado Springs, Colorado to Antonito, Colorado and restored to service. The 168 will then be the oldest and most authentic steam locomotive in the United States operating. The 168 was built in 1883 and is only one of two remaining of the original twelve locomotives built between 1883 and 1885 for the D&RG line. The other locomotive, 169 is on static display in Alamosa, Colorado and not operational.

Tourist operations

In 1970, the states of Colorado and New Mexico jointly purchased the portion of the line from Antonito to Chama, along with much of the equipment that operated on the line. This section is the most scenic portion of the line, and a part that loops back and forth between the two states. The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad Commission was created by an act of Congress as a bi-state entity to oversee the railroad.

Over the years the railroad has been operated by several operators under contract by the commission, including Scenic Railways (1970-1981), Kyle Railways (1982-1996), Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Corporation/George Bartholomew (1997-1999), Rio Grande Railroad Preservation Corporation (2000-2002), Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Management Corporation (2003-2011), American Heritage Railways (2012) and Cumbres and Toltec Operating LLC (2013-).

1999 operator change

The lease of operator Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Corporation (George Bartholomew) was terminated by commission due to a failureto properly maintain the railroad and its equipment, replenish used parts and making rent payments. Rio Grande Railroad Preservation Corporation, formed by the Friends of the Cumbres and Toltec, assumed operations of the railroad a few months later.

2002 FRA shutdown

In spring 2002 the Federal Railroad Administration ordered the shutdown of the railroad until specific track bed issues were resolved.

2002 forest fire shutdown

The railroad was closed for much of the summer of 2002 by the US Forest Service due to extremely dry conditions, forest fires across the region, and fears that the steam locomotives would cause fires.

2010 trestle fire

On June 23, 2010, a brush fire severely damaged the Lobato Trestle, a long and high deck girder bridge. The railway trucked locomotive 484 and some coaches from Chama to Cumbres so that operations could continue on both sides of the break.

As of Monday, June 20, 2011, the Lobato Trestle was returned to service, and trains were once more traveling the full length of the railroad, from Chama, New Mexico to the summit of Cumbres Pass and beyond, all the way to Antonito, Colorado. This includes the daily lunch stop at Osier.

2012 operator change

In 2012 the Cumbres and Toltec signed a contract with American Heritage Railways to operate the railway; AHR also owns the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, and formerly was operator of the Texas State Railroad. AHR gave notice at the end of the 2012 season that they would withdraw as operator. The C&TS formed a special sub-entity, Cumbres & Toltec Operating LLC, to operate the railway after AHR pulled out. John Bush was hired as president of C&TS in December 2012. Tourist train ride

Trains depart each morning from both Chama, New Mexico and Antonito, Colorado. In peak season there are trains every day of the week in either direction. They meet at Osier, the midpoint of the line where lunch is provided. Passengers may continue on their train to the other end or switch trains to return to their original terminal. Through riders have the option of a motor coach return to their original terminal. All seats are reserved. Seats are sometimes available to walk-ups, but this is rare in peak season.

All passenger trains are pulled by historic steam locomotives that originally worked on this line and others of the Denver and Rio Grande Western. Heavy trains out of Chama may have two locomotives as far as Cumbres Pass. East bound from Chama is the steepest portion so the steam engines tend to work hard and give off an acoustic and visual show. The remaining 3/4 of the eastbound trip is downgrade and the locomotives are fairly quiet. Westbound from Antonito, the grade is much less but the locomotives periodically work harder, especially on the last couple miles to Cumbres Pass.

The line passes through Rio Grande and Carson National Forests. Most of the line is bordered by rocky ledges, cliffs and formations of varying types. The train passes along the rim of Toltec Gorge, a spectacular, though brief highlight. Conifer and aspen trees dominate with periodic mountain meadows. The aspen trees turn a brilliant yellow in the fall making those trips popular. The easternmost quarter shifts to scrubby and arid rolling hills. There are numerous restored historic structures along the line, including two tunnels, bridges, section houses and water tanks.

The Cumbres and Toltec is highly regarded by both railfans and historians due to its relative authenticity and surviving historic fabric. Chama houses one of the most physically complete railroad yards from the steam era in the US. Although portions of the roundhouse, warehouses, and parking lots have been changed, the railroad yard has the ambiance of pre-1960 railroad operations. The yard tracks contain authentic rolling stock and structures of the Denver and Rio Grande indigenous to the railroad line.

All the steam locomotives at the C&TS were built for and operated their entire careers for the Denver and Rio Grande Western. All 2-8-2 Mikados, these range from the relatively small K-27 "Mudhen", 463, once owned by Gene Autry, to the large K-37s, originally built as standard gauge locomotives. The mainstays are the venerable K-36 fleet, produced by Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1925. The only two Surviving D&RGW rotary snowplows are onsite and both have operated for the C&TS.

As Denver & Rio Grande Railroad San Juan Extension, the railway was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. The boundaries of the NRHP listed area were increased in 2007.

The railroad was featured extensively in the 1969 film "The Good Guys and the Bad Guys", and was used in the opening sequence of "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade". The 2014 film "A Million Ways to Die in the West" also featured this railroad.

Railroad operations

The C&TS is 64 miles in length with numerous siding and yards. There are turning wyes at Chama, Cumbres and Bighorn, turning loops at Osier and Antonito and a crossover at Lava. While officially headquartered in Chama, the railroad splits most of its functions between the terminuses of the railroad. The Cumbres and Toltec Commission offices are at Antonito, along with the railroad's main car shop where repairs to rolling stock are performed. The center of actual operations for the railroad is Chama, the site of the locomotive repair shop and the location of most of the historic equipment.

Our visit

We went outside, crossed safely over the tracks and started looking around.

Cumbres and Toltec Scenic K37 2-8-2 492, built in 1928.

Cumbres and Toltec Scenic K36 2-8-2 484, built in 1925.

In the Chama being worked on was Cumbres and Toltec Scenic K36 2-8-2 488, built in 1925.

Elizabeth and our train for today.

Our train set with locomotive Cumbres and Toltec K36 2-8-2 487.

487's builder's plate.

Coach 516, "Lobato", the coach we chose at the time of purchase.

The tender for 488.

Cumbres and Toltec Scenic rotary snow plow OY. We boarded the train sitting by the window opposite each other. The train departed on time. Our tickets were taken and Elizabeth I were the first people to enter the open car.

The train crossed the Chama River.

The train then passed the Jukes Tree.

We crossed the first crossing of New Mexico Highway 17.

Views of the Sugarloaf Mountain.

The train heading to Weed City.

Curving into Weed City

The movie set used in Indiana Jones and the Final Crusade when young Indiana Jones swung off the circus train.

Chama Peak to the north.

Crossing the Lobato Trestle.

Wolf Creek runs under the Lobato Trestle.

The trip to Dalton.

The train scared the sheep as they stampeded down the hill.

The climb to the second crossing of New Mexico 17. We continued to climb the four percent grade but then stopped suddenly. The crew announced that a car on the train had a hot box and that we would be stopped until it was fixed. In all my years of train riding, this is a first being delayed by a hot box on a steam train.

The crew retrieved their fixing equipment from under the open car.

The crew working on the problem and after an hour had it fixed and off we went. We still had a chance of having lunch with Bart and Sarah.

The view while we waited. We took off and continued up the four percent grade.

The purple flowers are called lupins which is a joke to me as in Monty Python's Dennis More skit.

Climbing through the curve which I took pictures of during my 2016 chase.

The lupins are sure beautiful when they bloom.

Curving to the right on another curve.

Curving to the left as we climbed the grade.

Curving to the right.

Curving at the Cresco siding.

The Cresco water tower.

Curving out of the Cresco area.

Another beautiful mountain peak along our route.

The dead trees are from a bark beetle invasion of Colorado that killed off a lot of the trees.

The train climbs another right-handed curve.

Looking back down the valley.

Coming into Coxo and we crossed Colorado Highway 17, the third crossing of the road.

Windy Point which also has many caves on it.

Coxo siding. After passing Coxo siding, the skies opened up and poured down rain and hail so we came back to our seats.

During the rainstorm, the drivers of the engine started to slip.

We came to a stop and they backed up and tried to go up the grade again. We climbed a little bit more and the same result, the wheels slipped. It was then decided to back down the tracks and drop off the last four cars. Our cars would be taken up to the Cumbres siding and then engine would come down and pull up the remaining cars to re-connect the train at Cumbres Pass.

So we backed up and then disconnected the rear four cars before we started up the grade. All this time, all the windows were closed to keep the rain out.

The engine worked hard pulling the four cars up the grade.

Windy Point after the rain stopped.

Curving into Cumbres Pass.

The Cumbres Pass station.

We took on water.

The watering was finished.

Going into the Cumbres Pass siding. This is a new piece of track for me.

The Cumbres Pass section house.

The remains of the snow shed.

The engine cut off our train and went down to the switch to back down to the rest of the train.

The engine backing by our train and heading down the grade.

Another of the snowshed on the Cumbres Pass wye.

The engine returned with the rear four cars.

The engine cut off and then picked our cars up and re-coupled them to the rest of the train. After an air test, we then left for Osier. Our next piece of track is Tanglefoot Curve.

The trip around Tanglefoot Curve.

The trip to the Los Pinos water tower.

The Los Pinos water tower.

Our train took the Los Pinos curve.

The Los Pinos water tower from the other side of the valley.

The trip to the Rio Los Pinos valley.

The Los Pinos River valley.

The highest bridge on the railroad 137 feet above Cascade Creek and 409 feet long.

The Osier Station One Mile sign.

Curving on the last curve of the valley in which Osier is located.

Looking up the Rio Los Pinos.

The lunch room in Osier has been sighted.

Curving the last curve into Osier.

The Osier train station.

The Osier water tower. Despite being late, we were given our full time for lunch. Elizabeth and I had chosen the turkey dinner so when we detrained, we got into the right line then I had turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy and a roll while Elizabeth had the same as well as beans and cranberry sauce. We both enjoyed chocolate cake for dessert and lemonade to drink. I finished first and went outside for a few photographs before I re-boarded the train.

The train and the Osier lunch room.

Our motive power for the trip back. As it started to rain, I returned to the coach but the sun briefly came out. My lovely wife then came out and shot her pictures including the depot and then joined me on board. Since we were the only two people on the train, we took advantage of the situation as the sky had let loose. People slowly came back in various conditions of being wet. We sat in our seats together until the rain stopped which was after we left Rio Los Pinos valley. We returned to the open car which quickly dried and we had it to ourselves for a while.

The trip to Los Pinos.

Curving into Los Pinos.

Climbing around the curve and the grade to the Los Pinos water tank.

Climbing the grade to Tanglefoot Curve.

The train on Tanglefoot Curve.

Curving into Cumbres Pass. Elizabeth and I would relax the rest of the way down the hill to Chama. Just before the narrows, we spotted Bart and Sarah Jennings and I yelled to them to meet us in Chama.

The Chama water tower.

The Chama coaling tower.

Cumbres and Toltec Scenic K36 2-8-2 484.

Cumbres and Toltec Scenic 44 ton switcher 15 from the Oahu Railway and Land Company. Once again, the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad gave us a very unique trip and one we will never forget. A special thank you to our hard-working train crew who managed to pull this trip despite everything that happened. We pulled into Chama and Elizabeth and I detrained and first we found Sarah Jennings who was greeted with hugs. Soon Bart joined us and hugs were exchanged with him. We told our tale of woe and he told us of their perfect trip. It was great to finally see them again in person in Chama as the last time we saw them was in their hometown of Alma, Arkansas in May.

The Chama station.

On the way back to the hotel, we saw this engine this morning when we were looking for breakfast. We returned to the room and I got the pictures ready while Elizabeth did her things on the Internet. We uploaded the Pike's Peak story then wrote todays. Then we called it a night.