Cover Stories

Under Steam

The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad rolls across generations, through the pandemic and on to the future

Santa Feans can relate to the story of engine No. 168—especially if they pick up her tale in 1938 when she stopped at a city park in Colorado Springs, not unlike our “train park” near the Salvador Perez pool.

Only instead of sitting idle forever, No. 168 was plucked up, placed on a truck, transported to the shop and overhauled after three-quarters of a century out of service.

With clouds of dark coal smoke and bursts of white steam rising into the sky, she pulled a set of historic passenger cars up a Colorado mountainside last month, commemorating 51 years of public ownership of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad on the season’s opening day. The machine manufactured in 1883 is now the oldest in the elite fleet of six authentic steam engines that this week also began the season out of Chama, New Mexico.

That the trains can run in and out of the historic depot and along much of the original infrastructure at all is remarkable, but to see an engine of her vintage puffing along the narrow-gauge railway today is even more rare. She is one of two remaining from her class—a relic from a time when the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad’s lines spun like a spiderweb across the region.

The railway completed the 64 miles of track between Antonito and Chama and over the Cumbres Pass in 1880. No. 168 made many trips over the pass in her lifetime of service in the Rockies. In 1909, she transported President William H. Taft to the dedication of the Gunnison Tunnel, and a photo from the late 1910s or early 1920s shows her under steam at the Chama Depot. She was placed in Antlers Park in 1938; she sat there until the rescue and restoration mission began.

Fourth-generation railroader Max Casisas says her return to the line is significant.

The original Chama depot burned in 1899 and the present depot was built soon after; its “Rio Grande gold” paint is the same shade now that it was in the era of Taft’s visit, striking against the black steam engines and red passenger cars.

“It kind of means that she’s home,” Casisas tells SFR a few weeks before the honorary first run, demonstrating that the engines are gendered and anthropomorphized by those who love them. “I’m glad to know that she’s back alive is what it really comes down to; another old engine brought back to life.”

Casias is the Cumbres & Toltec’s designated supervisor of locomotive engineers, which means in addition to working the last four years to rebuild No. 168, he oversees the 12 engineers and half-dozen firemen who make up the crew and perform maintenance on the equipment. His boss is his dad, Marvin.

His grandfather, Antonio Gaspar Casias, had worked for the railroad before getting drafted into World War II. His great grandfather, also Max Casias, worked for the track crew in Osier, a station at an altitude of about 9,600 feet near the line’s halfway point that serves today as a lunch stop for passengers.

The trains carried freight including coal from deposits west of Chama, timber and mail, plus supplies for mining and livestock such as sheep and cows, and agricultural goods such as pintos and fruit. From the start, the San Juan Extension line, as it was called then, was also exalted for mountain and canyon vistas and sparkling glimpses of rivers during trips people took for sightseeing and transportation.

Yet, the Denver & Rio Grande stopped passenger service on the San Juan when it quit running narrow-gauge lines in the region in the early 1960s as trucks infiltrated the freight business.

Modern passengers who use a mile-by-mile guidebook can keep track of the 11 times the route crosses the state line, and the frequency of the crossings is a stout reason for why both states opted to take joint ownership in 1970 after the commercial operator abandoned the line.

A nonprofit called Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec launched in 1980 has been instrumental in the success alongside train operators governed by a bi-state commission. The organization helped with fundraising for restoration of equipment and facilities along the line and provides docents who serve as guides for guests during rides.

Trains were severely limited for the 2020 season due to public health rules, with more trips allowed in Colorado than in New Mexico. Celebrations planned for the golden anniversary of the tourist line were punted, too. But the number of riders has already bounced back.

The pandemic season’s “bottom line result was it took away three-quarters of the organization’s revenue,” interim CEO Eric Mason tells SFR, “which for an organization the size of the Cumbres & Toltec is a catastrophic event. So, the railroad and its team really had to recreate itself in terms of how it looked at its service, operations and staffing levels....If we flash forward to where we are today, we are sitting at just about pre-pandemic booking levels. We are maybe a few hundred seats short today of where we were year to date in 2019. It is an incredible recovery story so far.”

Yet, that recovery isn’t enough to ensure longevity for the historic landmark. The losses mean a setback of three to four years on maintenance and other capital needs along the path to self-sufficiency the commission has envisioned. While rail operations already cover their own costs, both state governments pay about $200,000 each per year toward the commission’s oversight and also kick in for capital, including about $1.1 million from the New Mexico Legislature this year. The long-term plan is that states won’t have to raise capital forever.

The future involves even more innovation: These steam trains burn coal, and not a small amount of it—5 tons for a one-way trip on an average passenger run. Coal also creates sparks that can threaten a bone-dry landscape. Those are just two of the reasons for another recent project to convert engine No. 489 into an oil-burning steam engine.

And it’s not just engines that get brought back to life. The railway and associated nonprofits have partnered to repurpose old freight cars into seating, concession cars and bathrooms, as well as to restore historic passenger cars to their original states.

Master carpenter Zell Olson is also trained as a steam engineer, but he doesn’t even like to ride the trains anymore. He’s worked on train car restoration all over the country. Of late, he’s labored for years with the Cumbres & Toltec to rebuild the wooden parts on three passenger cars from the 1880s and ’90s and is working on a fourth—replacing damaged and rotten elements with “like materials” and joinery, and returning windows and doors to operation. Elements such as hardware, lamp and seat reproductions give the final touches.

Does he look at the work as saving them? “Yes,” he tells SFR. “Some of the cars I work on are closer to compost and hardware, I would say.”

Restoration requires more than state funding and the passenger revenue can begin to provide, however. The 168 project, for example, used $600,000 from individual and family donations, as well as the Gates Family Foundation and the Narrow Gauge Preservation Association.

“We’re not just saving these old machines. We are maintaining the skills, the ethic and the lifestyle that was the railroad,” says John Bush, who retired last year as CEO and now runs a bed and breakfast in Chama with his wife, Veronica, as he stays active with railroad volunteer groups. The two joined interstate railroad commissioners and others on the historic run No. 168 made as it climbed out of the plains of Antonito and turned around at the wye near Big Horn Peak on May 26.

“You get here and it’s the past as far as the eye can see in any direction,” Bush says slowly, taking in the view. “If you were here in 1919, this is what you would have seen and what you would have experienced. It’s like an eddy in the current of time.”

The jaunt to Big Horn and back takes about three and half hours and is one of the railroad’s new services that includes shorter trips from each direction and eliminates buses that formerly served both ends. For now, though service between the two towns is suspended, fireman and engineer school for the season is already sold out, along with this month’s geology-focused run and the Ironhorse Roundup rides in August. In order to survive, Mason says, leaders need to cultivate “new generations of interest for the railroad.”

By the looks of the steam shop, that’s already happening. On a recent day, it was humming with activity, including two overall-clad 20-somethings with their heads together on the air system for locomotive No. 487.

“A lot of the older guys that have been here for 20 to 30 years have slowly started to retire and now we are a much, much younger crew, just trying to keep things going-—and it’s working. We are kind of carrying the torch,” says Austin Goodwin.

“It’s kind of cool to be learning all of this stuff, because there are maybe a couple hundred people in the country still doing this kind of heavy mechanical work like this. Doing hot riveting and boiler work and heavy running gear on locomotives is kind of a lost art, and there is a lot to know about it,” Dylan Hutson chimes in.

Stathi Pappas went from the academic accomplishment of a master in industrial archaeology to the business end of a wrench as chief mechanical officer. As the project manager for the No. 168 restoration and one of the leaders of the fundraising effort, he rattles off the forensics of the process in the Chama yard and is interrupted by a phone call. His ringtone is one shared by lots of his co-workers: the whistle of a steam locomotive.

“We are continuing this process that was once ubiquitous in this country...and we do it in one of the parts of the world where there is an unbroken tradition of the people here in the communities and the railroad kind of all being together as one,” he says just before the call. “You look at the skill sets and you look at the technology and everything that is sort of around these steam things, it’s pretty intense what you’ve got to do. It’s not like you just rebuild it once and then you run it and you blow the whistle. Everybody thinks the engineer is the hero, but at the end of the day it’s the stuff behind it that is the most special.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong date for Taft’s photo. It’s been corrected.

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