Going loco over locomotives

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Rail enthusiasts relish riding on historic trains in the area

CUMBRES & TOLTEC SCENIC RAILROAD

Engine 463 K-27 Class makes its inaugural run on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad between Chama,
N.M., and Antonito, Colo. Photo by Janneli F. Miller

There we were, over a hundred of us, standing on a dry sagebrush hillside outside of Antonito, Colo. No trails, no roads, no highways. It was as if we’d been dropped out of nowhere onto this blustery hillside overlooking a dusty valley we were told was the 37th parallel, and a long grade. Gravity Hill, they called it.

Almost everyone in the predominantly male crowd held a camera. Many were engaged in serious conversations about water, heavy metals, wheels, and engineering feats of the past century. A few boys scampered about excitedly. There was an air of impatient anticipation as people chatted, waiting, apparently oblivious to the chilly wind.

Welcome to the world of narrow-gauge trains. I was participating in my first “runby.” What this means is that after you embark upon your narrow-gauge train ride, at some point the train stops when you come to a scenic wayside. Everyone who wants to quickly gets off the train, which then proceeds to back slowly away from where it just stopped.

Ten or 15 minutes later, when the train looks like a toy set against the hillside on the long track, the whistle blows, and a few puffs of smoke hiss out of the smokestack. The crowd cheers! The locomotive picks up speed – sounding like something straight out of an old cowboy movie – and soon people are snapping photos like mad. It does look pretty nice rounding the curve, and when the train goes by, it toots again.

One docent said, “Well, he blew the whistle, at least part of it works,” and was rewarded with a round of laughter from the observers. The camera clicks were audible in spite of the train, which hissed and sputtered as the engine stopped. We re-boarded and the journey continued.

It was May 20, and this was the inaugural charter run of Engine 463 K-27 Class on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, which travels more than 64 miles between Chama, N.M., and Antonito, Colo., and is the longest and highest narrow-gauge railroad in the United States.

The 463 engine was manufactured in 1903 by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia, Pa., as one of 15 locomotives built for the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. It ran regularly over the D&RG’s narrow-gauge system until it was retired in 1950, doomed for the scrap pile.

But as fate would have it, Gene Autry, America’s singing cowboy star of television and movie fame, was himself a rail fan. He purchased the 463, also known as the “Mudhen,” in 1955, adding to his collection of narrow-gauge locomotives, all stored on his Melody Ranch in California. The ranch opened in 1915 as a motionpicture studio, which it still is today. Westerns such as “Annie Oakley,” “Hopalong Cassidy” and “Gunsmoke,” among many others, were filmed there, along with morerecent films such as “Django Unchained” and “The Magnificent Seven.”

When Autry’s favorite horse, Champion, died in 1990, he sold Melody Ranch and also sold the 463 to the town of Antonito for a dollar. Because of Autry’s affection for trains, the Mudhen is one of only two surviving K-27 locomotives today, and the only one operating in its home territory.

The chief mechanical officer of the Cumbres & Toltec line, John Bush, was responsible for the original rebuild and for restoring the locomotive to service in 1994, when it steamed from Chama to Antonito for the first time since the 1950s.

After landing in Antonito, the Mudhen ran on the Cumbres & Toltec line from 1994 to 2002, when it was retired because it was in need of repair. The inaugural run of the restored 463 in May 2013 was the result of a decade of efforts by dedicated narrow-gauge railroad fans. Bush, who is now president and general manager of the Cumbres & Toltec line, was on board for this first run of the restored locomotive. He said he was up all night worrying, and even drove back and forth from Chama to Antonito at 2 a.m. just to make sure there would be the proper equipment for the run.

The recent renovation took over three years of work and cost upwards of $1.3 million.

The many donors who contributed to the recent restoration include organizations devoted to narrow-gauge trains and historic preservation such as Save America’s Treasures, Narrow Gauge Preservation Foundation, Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad Commission and a host of volunteers who spend weeks working on the locomotive.

After that first run-by, I wasn’t sure what to expect next. Our itinerary included five more run-by’s, lunch at the halfway point of Osier, Colo., and an arrival in Chama at 6 p.m. This meant the 64-mile trip would be a daylong adventure, especially since the train maxes out its speed at a whopping 10 mph. However, somewhere after Gravity Hill, when we were in the pines with spectacular views, the train stopped for at least an hour.

Usually, when you have a train full of passengers stopped for no reason in the middle of nowhere, there is some complaining. On the 463, however, there was not a peep. Nar row-g aug e railroad fans are a special sort, it turns out. One man told me, “If you’re riding this train, you better not be in a hurry!” When asked what he thought the problem could be, he laughed, “The locomotives are fine… apparently it’s everything else that’s falling apart.”

Upon hearing this, a World War II veteran in his 90s said “Old is good,” and chuckled as he walked by.

There were more than 200 people on the inaugural ride. Many of them were Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, which celebrated its 25th year in 2013. The Friends, many of whom donated time and money towards the restoration of the 463, got special seats in the Parlor Car, a luxurious lounge featuring cushioned seats facing picture windows. In the normal season operating from May through October, this is your most expensive option, costing $169 for a one-way trip.

However, on this first run in May, the parlor car seemed to be causing trouble. First the train had a “hot flash,” meaning it needed water. It used to be able to run from Antonito to Chama without a water stop, but this time, besides hauling 200 humans, it was also carrying two train cars full of railroad ties for track repair on the Chama side.

In our first 45-minute stop in the pines there was a lot of conjecture about how much more water was needed, and where we would get it. After another half-hour, a water car arrived, sent up the tracks from Antonito. Yet we still weren’t moving. I was told that they had to figure out what kind of inclines were in store – the more climbs, the more water you need. Also the more cars, the more weight. Some people advocated ditching the railroad ties. Eventually the engine was filled with the right amount of water, and we began to move. Yet we stopped again, not much further down the tracks.

This time, over an hour past our scheduled lunch with at least another 30 miles to go, there were 225 hungry people stuck on a train going nowhere. The rail fans weren’t worried, however. People had come from La Grande, Ore.; San Marcos, Texas; Tallahassee, Fla.; Los Angeles, Calif.; Madison, Wis.; and Tulsa Okla. They were experts on all facets of narrow-gauge trains, and the day was an opportunity to share their knowledge. The fans seemed to relish the problem- solving aspect of the situation, discussing the mechanism of the steam engine, the weight and consistency of the tracks, what features were at which milepost, what might be going on now and why.

“The parlor car is the problem,” mentioned a conductor as he hurried by. In response, another gentlemen said, “Let’s just drop that car,” a statement met with laughter.

Mary Jane Smith of Texas, riding the train with her husband, told me, “We’ve got a group of about 20 in Antonito.” She explained that there are camps where you come and work on the trains for a week, either in Antonito or Chama.

“You get sucked into the vortex,” she said. “The first year you come, it’s for the train, but then after that, it’s for the friends.” She didn’t remember how many times she had ridden this run, but was not tired of the trip.

Meanwhile, John Bush walked by, letting us know that the parlor car had been full of smoke for almost the entire run. “They are taking a hot bearing,” he says, which means they were taking the temperature of the wheels to make sure they aren’t too hot. But they were too hot, and to his dismay, extra wheel bearings were one of the things Bush didn’t think about at 2 a.m. After a little bit more time spent waiting, watching clouds gather over the Continental Divide, and dreaming about lunch, the whistle blew and we were on our way again.

Lunch is included in the cost of the trip, and consisted of cafeteria-style chicken, potatoes and vegetables, or a vegetarian lasagna option. The chocolate brownies and cheesecake were a perfect complement to a hot cup of coffee, and the rebuilt old rooming house now features a gift shop, where the rail fans eagerly perused videos, picture books, postcards, logo hats and jackets. Our second run-by was up high, at Tanglefoot Curve. This time passengers hopped out into mud, marsh marigolds and a skiff of snow as they scrambled across a set of tracks parallel to the ones the train was on. The view of the train as it takes a wide loop to gain elevation makes you feel as if you really are in another century. Once again, cameras snapped, and now, eight hours after our first run-by, there was no apparent dampening of enthusiasm. Instead, the train fans were chatting happily about the next feature of the ride: the 4 percent grade into Chama.

Translate that as slow! What takes 10 minutes on the highway is another hour-plus on the train tracks. When we disembarked after a more-than-eight-hour ride, standing on the ground seemed odd because it was not moving. New friends bade good-bye and headed off happily towards their destinations after trading contact information. Who knew riding a train could be such a bonding experience?

The Cumbres Toltec line is a remnant of the San Juan extension of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. The track goes through the spectacular Toltec Gorge – where the Rio de los Pinos cuts deeply through steep rock. It winds over the Cascade Trestle, 300 feet above Cascade Creek, and goes over the 10,000-foot Cumbres Pass. All told, the line crosses the Colorado and New Mexico border 11 times, winding through and around breathtaking mountain scenery. One of the cars is an open-air observation platform, and even though somewhere after lunch the sky started to spit snow, the car remained packed. One white-haired fellow, wearing overalls and a blue-and-white striped conductor hat, seemed oblivious to the weather as he blinked snowflakes out of his eyes. “I’ve waited a long time for this ride,” he said, with a blissful smile on his weathered face.

Other sections of the Denver & Rio Grande narrowgauge trains running today include a ride from the town of South Fork (the town that narrowly missed burning due to the West Fork Forest fire) to Wagon Wheel Gap, along the Rio Grande River.

Another popular section runs from Alamosa to La Veta, along the Arkansas River and through the spectacular Royal Gorge (recently burned in another wildfire). Yet another Denver & Rio Grande narrow- gauge probably familiar to Free Press readers is the Durango & Silverton Narrow- Gauge, which travels 45 miles along the Animas River, and operates today from May through September. Built in 1881, this train makes daily runs starting at $85 for a standard trip and $189 for presidential class featuring a luxurious Victorian Pullman berth and parlor car.

Train fans from all over the country come to ride these trains, which typically run on 2 to 3 1/2-inch rails and provide passengers a sensational experience of days gone by. Although the mines have petered out and the miners are long gone, the rough-and-ready days of a hundred years ago seem close at hand when chugging along the remote rivers, canyons and mountain passes of the Rocky Mountains in a steam-engine train.

Even though they are not ridden regularly, some other narrow-gauge trains in the region also receive enthusiastic attention from rail fans. The Rio Grande Southern Railroad ran from Ridgway to Durango, passing through Telluride over Lizard Head Pass to Rico, then down through Dolores and Mancos. This 162-mile stretch was built by Otto Mears, beginning in 1890 and completed in 1891, and was intended to transport miners and freight from the mines, as all of the trains in the region originally did.

Like most of the trains in the Denver & Rio Grande system, the Rio Grande Southern transported silver coming out of the mines near Telluride, Ophir and Rico. However, after the Silver Panic in 1893 and the stock-market crash in 1929, the RGS primarily transported mail, livestock and passengers, which was not enough to keep it in operation.

New gasoline-engine railcars were built to save cash. Between 1931 and 1936, seven of these unusual cars were built, using six-cylinder Buick or Pierce Arrow engines on Buick and GMC bodies. Nicknamed the “Galloping Geese” because they appeared to wobble on the tracks and sounded like honking geese when they sounded their horns, these cars carried passengers and mail until 1950, when RGS lost the mail contract. The Rio Grande Southern stopped operations in 1951, and the tracks were pulled up and used for scrap metal in 1952.

Of the seven geese built, one was scrapped, three reside at the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden, and one is parked at Knott’s Berry Farm, all restored. Goose No. 4 returned to Telluride in May, after four years of restoration at the Ridgway Railroad Museum. Karl Schaeffer, president of the Ridgway Railroad Museum board, led the restoration, which took over 3,000 volunteer hours and more than $30,000 contributed by the Telluride Volunteer Fire Department. Goose 4 is now on display next to the San Juan County Courthouse, and TVFD members who own the Goose have plans to take it out for a ride now and then, so stay tuned.

Schaeffer remembers when his parents rode the Goose from Ridgway to Lizard Head in 1951 for $5.25, a trip which inspired them to move to Colorado, and which may have helped him choose a career with the Rio Grande Western for 22 years.

Goose 5 was restored in 1998 by the Galloping Goose Historical Society of Dolores, and is now located in front of the Rio Grande Southern Railroad Museum in Dolores. The museum is situated in a building that is a replica of the original train depot, including a short track that holds the Goose.

Today visitors can enjoy a peek into the past by riding on Galloping Goose 5, which takes occasional runs on the Cumbres- Toltec and the Durango-Silverton lines, but which also gets fired up for a short backand- forth run during Escalante Days in early August. The museum includes original items from the RGS’ operating days, including ticket stubs, suitcases, old train switchers, a diorama and some lovely historic photographs.

After my ride on the 463, I began thinking about a trip on the Galloping Goose. Why not? It will be “flying” on the Cumbres- Toltec tracks from July 3-8 and for fall-color trips from Sept. 25- 30.

Goose 5 will also be featured as a part of the 2013 True West Railfest Aug. 15-19, when you can ride it from Durango to Silverton and back.

The Galloping Goose Historical Society would love to re-install some of the original track east of Dolores, and has rails on hand for 10 miles of track. Near Telluride, Goose and Rio Grande Southern enthusiasts can take the 15-mile route from Lawson Hill to Lizard Head Pass along the original rail bed.

This is a popular hiking, mountain-biking and Nordic ski trail. It is a lovely outing for a summer day, if you like trains but would rather walk than ride.

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From July 2013.