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ALL ABOARD FOR FALL

Steaming Past Autumn Foliage On Two Vintage Excursion Trains

Cumbres & Toltec Railroad

September 07, 1997|MICHAEL R. BOLDRICK | Boldrick is a freelance writer based in Santa Maria, Calif

CHAMA, N.M. — On a crisp October morning, surrounded by gilded aspen, red oak brush and scented green pines, I pointed my 35mm camera at four hissing, belching steam locomotives preparing for the morning run over a 10,000-foot mountain pass. No fences or railway cops stopped me as I watched engine No. 488 take on 5,000 gallons of water from an 1897 wooden water tower held together, like a giant barrel, with tightly cinched metal bands. My long-delayed trip to ride America's highest and longest narrow-gauge steam railroad was off to a great start.

After half a lifetime bypassing this wonderfully intact railroad yard in remote northern New Mexico, my wife, Kathleen, and I had finally arrived at what's rightfully called "railroading's last good place." We had managed, on a previous trip, to ride the better-known Silverton train out of Durango. But as the Air Force shuttled us back and forth between the Midwest and California, military urgency always seemed to keep the family car off the back roads to Chama. Now, with my military career over, and our youngest off to college, there was time and money to spend in pursuit of a lifelong interest in steam trains.

The 64-mile-long Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad out of Chama, and the 45-mile Durango & Silverton, are the only segments left of the narrow-gauge railroad empire that once included about 1,800 miles of track and brought settlers, miners and ranchers to the high country of Colorado, New Mexico and Utah in the 1880s.

We spent the night at the Lightheart Inn across from the C&TS depot. Instead of lulling me to sleep, the gentle chuffing, occasional bells and lonesome whistle or two, kept me awake anticipating the things I would see after sunrise. Lightheart owner Terry Scobie is used to railroad insomnia and had breakfast ready at the crack of dawn. I wolfed down the quiche, sticky buns and fresh fruit, left Kathleen with a hot cup of coffee and a crossword puzzle and headed for the railroad yard.

Enshrouded in a cloud of steam, l walked beside No. 489 as it chugged past the last operating coal tipple in America. The 72-year-old engine then paused over an ash pit to clean its firebox. The fireman climbed down from the locomotive's cab, stood next to the rails and probed 489's red-hot grate with a 5-foot metal poker. I felt the heat as I watched the fiery cascade of molten cinders from the locomotive's belly to the bottom of the 6-foot open pit.

This morning the C&TS has four locomotives under steam. Two will pull the 10:30 a.m. train out of the depot; the third is on standby should one of the prime locomotives develop a mechanical problem. And the fourth is on "yard duty," switching cars together that will make up today's train.

On an adjacent track, No. 463 sounded a melodic three-toot warning, then backed toward the roundhouse, which serves as a garage for locomotives. Fortunately, steam engines such as old 463--which was donated to the C&TS by cowboy star Gene Autry and restored to operating condition in 1993--are exempt from the government rule mandating ear-piercing beepers for any heavy vehicle equipped with a reverse gear.

In fact, the remarkably intact railroad yard at Chama is exempt from almost everything modern. Little, including the town of Chama (population 1,200), has changed much since the railroad reached it in 1880 on its way to the rich silver mines near Durango, Colo.

Kathleen and I boarded our coach, Ouray, 10 minutes before departure and took assigned seats 23 and 24. Because the train often is sold out, we had reserved space on the Oct. 3 train to Antonito, Colo., two weeks in advance.

Inside, the steel replica of an 1880s wooden coach is spartan. The upholstered seats are covered in beige vinyl, but the legroom is first class, and large picture windows can be opened to admit the fresh mountain air and the sounds of steam.

Fittingly, our 16-car train leaves Chama five minutes behind schedule. A conductor shouts an "all-aboard" that's audible all the way from the last car to the locomotives up front. The engineer waves back at the conductor, acknowledging receipt of the signal and then pulls away from the station. Astride 3-foot narrow-gauge rails, we roll past Chama's block-long business district set on a small bluff overlooking the C&TS' western terminus.

The locals have, so far, resisted the over-commercialization too often found where tourists gather. Most overnight accommodations are in log cabins, 10-unit motels and B&Bs. Restaurants, most specializing in meat and potato dishes, occupy false-front buildings along the town's only through street.

Back on the track, our train is doing what railroads don't like to do: climb a mountain. The San Juan Range ahead was too wide to tunnel through and too long to go around when the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad extended its mainline from Antonito to Chama in 1880.

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