Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Colorado's Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad

The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad runs 64 miles between Chama, New Mexico, and Antonito, Colorado, and crosses the border between the two states over a dozen times on its trip. It was built in 1880 as the San Juan Extension of the Denver & Rio Grande, but the difficult terrain required a narrow gauge rail line. Today, the round trip necessitates an overnight stay in one town or the other, or a van ride back to your starting point. Most travelers ride halfway to Osier, where they eat lunch and then return to their point of origin, seeing only half the line. I've ridden the train from both ends on two different occasions, and I prefer the western portion out of Chama.

The trip from Chama crosses Cumbres Pass (10,015 feet high) and the trip from Antonito passes alongside the spectacular Toltec Gorge of the Los Pinos River. These two landmarks provide the name of the railroad. The states of Colorado and New Mexico are co-owners of the line and it is often called a moving museum of travel from an earlier day. It is a Registered National Historic Site. Both the Chama and Antonito train yards are open for inspection of the rolling stock and buildings, unlike the Durango/Silverton line which has its yard fenced off. Here are some photos of the Chama yard...

Author Lucius Beebe called the Cumbres and Toltec "...the most awesomely spectacular example of mountain railroading in North America."

The trip from Chama, New Mexico, up to 10,015 foot high Cumbres Pass entails climbing a 4% grade, much too steep for a standard gauge train. Depending on the consist (the number of train cars being hauled on a given day) it might be necessary to send a "double-header" as you see in the photo below -- two locomotives working in tandem (see the two steam plumes, one from each steam locomotive.)

One of the trestle bridges on the route up to the pass cannot support two of these heavy steam locomotives at the same time, so they must uncouple the lead one, send it across by itself, then have the remainder of the train cross, and then couple the locomotives together again and proceed up the mountain.

Below is a closeup of the tandem locomotives...

Once at Cumbres Pass, which at 10,015 feet elevation is the highest pass reached by rail in the country, the extra steamer uncouples, turns around on the wye (just as it says, a configuration of tracks in the shape of the letter "Y" to allow the locomotive to turn around) and returns to Chama.

This photo shows the locomotives being switched between the two trains at the midpoint stop in Osier where you have lunch. Trains start daily at both Chama, New Mexico, and Antonito, Colorado. However, the entire 64 mile trip is too lengthy to allow a round trip in one day. Your options are to ride halfway to Osier, have lunch in their large lunchroom facility, and return to your starting point (Chama or Antonito), or switch to the other train and wind up at the opposite end from where you began. You could then choose to take a van ride back to your starting point or stay in a hotel and ride the train back the next day.

The tracks are running on a ledge carved into the mountainside as it traverses the gorge area.

Another of many trestles in the route.

The train is about to enter a tunnel...

Below is the 2-8-0 engine 488 pausing at the west portal of Tunnel 2, where it always stops so passengers can glimpse into the deepest part of Toltec Gorge, which is the following photo.

This is a straight-down shot of the 800 foot deep gorge...

If you are really into this, visit The Dome Car showing Darryl Van Nort's pamphlet (24 pages) entitled Rocky Mountain Views (copyrighted in 1914) which was only available for viewing by passengers traveling the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad back in that era The 23 full page photos had been converted to 4-color engravings for the brochure, and these he scanned into computer images on his website. They show towns and scenery through which the railroad passed.

No comments: