Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad
Hidden away in a little-known corner of the southern Rocky Mountains is a precious historic artifact of the American West that time forgot. Built in 1880 and little changed since, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is the finest and most spectacular example of steam era mountain railroading in North America. Its equipment, structures and vast landscape exist today as if frozen in the first half of the 20th century.
The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad was originally constructed in 1880 as part of the Rio Grande’s San Juan Extension, which served the silver mining district of the San Juan mountains in southwestern Colorado. Like all of the Rio Grande at the time, it was built to a gauge of 3 feet between the rails, instead of the more common 4 feet, 8-1/2 inches that became standard in the United States. The inability to interchange cars with other railroads led the Rio Grande to begin converting its tracks to standard gauge in 1890.
However, with the repeal of the Sherman Act in 1893 and its devastating effect on the silver mining industry, traffic over the San Juan Extension failed to warrant conversion to standard gauge. Over the ensuing decades it became an isolated anachronism, receiving its last major upgrades in equipment and infrastructure in the 1920s. A post-World War II natural gas boom brought a brief period of prosperity to the line, but operations dwindled to a trickle in the 1960s. Finally, in 1969 the Interstate Commerce Commission granted the Rio Grande’s request to abandon its remaining narrow gauge main line trackage, thereby ending the last use of steam locomotives in general freight service in the United States.
Most of the abandoned track was dismantled soon after the ICC’s decision, but through the combined efforts of an energetic and resourceful group of railway preservationists and local civic interests, the most scenic portion of the line was saved. In 1970, the states of Colorado and New Mexico jointly purchased the track and line-side structures from Antonito to Chama, nine steam locomotives, over 130 freight and work cars, and the Chama yard and maintenance facility, for $547,120. The C&TS began hauling tourists the next year.
Today the railroad is operated for the states by the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad Commission, an interstate agency authorized by an act of Congress in 1974. Care of the historic assets, and interpretation of the railroad is entrusted to the Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, a non-profit, member-based organization whose mission is to preserve and interpret the railroad as a living history museum for the benefit of the public, and for the people of Colorado and New Mexico, who own it.
CUMBRES & TOLTEC SCENIC RAILROAD
This railroad touches a lot of people that visit here. They have the largest roster of volunteers worldwide of any tourist railroad. The trips they offer cover sixty-seven miles of track through some of the most pristine and unspoiled beauty that the San Juan Mountains have to offer. The topography changes that you see vary from the high desert planes to being transported to over then-thousand feet in elevation. The best place to absorb all of this is in their open-air cars. There you'll find one of the volunteer docents, giving a complete historical presentation on every aspect of the line and its equipment. I personally learned more about that railway in one afternoon filming in the open-air cars, listening to everything that the docent was telling the passengers.
From an equipment standpoint, the railway has the largest collection of narrow-gauge equipment in North America. Most of it is out on display in the yard next to the station. You'll see everything from rotary snowplows to cattle cars, box cars and cabooses. The friends of the Cumbres and Toltec Railway are constantly rebuilding and refurbishing the cars and structures along the line. One of the things that stood out the most to me were the people and volunteers that work on this railroad. You'll meet workers that are third-generation conductors to young people working it for the first time, but all of them have a deep passion to preserve and tell this railway's story. The passengers were mesmerized by the scenery on this trip. Most of the comments that I heard were that they never knew that a location like this existed. They commented on how beautiful and historic in nature it is, and that they definitely will be back in the future with family members and friends.
I am personally hoping that we will be able to present to our viewers a complete one-hour historical documentary on this location. This is by far one of my favorite railroads that I've had the honor of working with on our series. As you'll see by viewing the clip above, you too will want to go and be a part of the Cumbres and Toltec experience.
The first time I visited this location, I knew there was something very unique and special about it. Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad is one of the best examples of a historic operating railroad. All the equipment and buildings are original to the line..
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For more information, please call (888) 286-2737