The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad

The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad (C&TS) is another famous narrow-gauge tourist operation based in southwestern Colorado/northwestern New Mexico which utilizes a former component of the Denver & Rio Grande Western's fabled San Juan mining district.  The trackage, in its entirety, was built west from Walsenburg, Colorado to Durango and Silverton.  Along the way it crossed the scenic La Veta Pass and Cumbress Pass running via Alamosa and Antonito.  These lines were constructed during the early 1880's, during a time when what was then the Denver & Rio Grande was carrying out major expansion throughout Colorado.  By the early 1900's silver and gold mining was quickly fading and the San Juan trackage became increasingly less important.  Much of it was abandoned during the late 1960's although increased interest in some components as a tourist attraction spared the entire corridor from being pulled up.  The C&TS, along with its sister operation, the Durango & Silverton Narrow-Gauge (D&SNG), was formed in 1970 to convert a component into an excursion operation.  Thanks to the Rio Grande's generosity many pieces of original equipment and several historic buildings were included with the property which adds to the charm of present-day operations.  As a result, and along the region's incredible scenery, the C&TS and D&SNG are two of the most popular tourist railroads in the country today.

The Denver & Rio Grande Western was one of America's most fascinating railroads.  It was chartered as the Denver & Rio Grande Railway on October 27, 1870 by William Palmer and a few associates, according to Dr. George Hilton book, "American Narrow Gauge Railroads."  They sought a narrower, 3-foot gauge right-of-way (in an effort to reduce costs and avoid clearance issues due to the rugged nature of the Rocky Mountains), which would accomplish three tasks; link Denver with Salt Lake City via Denver, another main corridor running south of Denver to El Paso, Texas via Colorado Springs and Pueblo, and finally a third line to the San Juan mining district via La Veta and Alamosa.  The D&RG would never reach the Lone Star State following a protracted battle with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe for access over New Mexico's Raton Pass.  However, the railroad surprisingly was largely completed as Palmer originally envisioned, despite his involvement ending in 1883, long before the modern Denver & Rio Grande Western was in place.  What began as a multifaceted effort to penetrate the Rockies and serve the booming gold/silver trade was later transformed into a successful bridge route between Denver and Salt Lake City.  To read a complete history of the Rio Grande please click here.  

The trackage which now comprises the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic began with the construction of a branch off the Pueblo-Trinidad main line at point known as Cucharas (roughly the halfway point between the two previously-mentioned towns) in 1876.  Officials believed the lucrative mineral traffic within the San Juan Mountains would not only provide substantial profits but also enable further construction across other parts of the D&RG system.  As work continued, La Veta was reached in June, 1876 and then crossed Veta Pass (in 1899 a better alignment over nearby La Veta Pass was built) to arrive at Fort Garland in April, 1877 according to James Griffin's book, "Rio Grande Railroad."  Once this mountain chain was hurdled, work focused on what was a relatively straight western alignment into Alamosa; rails arrived in that town during June, 1878.  Instead of continuing due west, a southern alignment within the Rio Grande Valley was chosen.  Tracks arrived in Antonito in early 1880 and actually continued south from that point as Palmer sought to extend his railroad as far as legally possible following the "Treaty Of Boston."  This document was a peace accord signed by the D&RG and Santa Fe on March 27, 1880 to end the two railroads' hostilities regarding access to Raton Pass and the San Juan mining region.

As part of the arrangement, the D&RG agreed not to expand south of Trinidad or continue south of Española, New Mexico Territory (via Alamosa), the latter of which was already under construction and later completed on December 30, 1880.  However, Palmer was determined to push his railroad into New Mexico and sought a connection as as Albuquerque, which open a connection with the Santa Fe's transcontinental main line.  To circumvent the issue of extending south from Española a group of independent businessman, hoping to see the Rio Grande reach the city, formed the Texas, Santa Fe & Northern Railroad.  During 1881 grading for the 34-mile line was predominantly completed but funding was exhausted.  In 1886 it came under the control of General L.M. Meily which finished the project on January 8, 1887.  It was renamed as the Santa Fe Southern on January 4, 1889 but financial difficulties led to bankruptcy at which point it was acquired by D&RG and renamed again as the Rio Grande & Santa Fe Railroad.  The RG&SF was then merged into its parent on August 1, 1908.  Under Rio Grande operation the line became known officially as the Santa Fe Branch although it quickly earned a nickname as the "Chili Line" due to the propensity by local farmers to ship their red chile crop by train. 

Unfortunately, Palmer never reached Albuquerque and the Santa Fe connection proved only marginal since the AT&SF reached the city via a branch of its own.  The so-called "Chili Line" was abandoned back to Antonito in 1941.  Extending the line west from the latter city, directly into the mining region began shortly after rails arrived there.  It required summitting 10,015-foot Cumbres Pass, located about 36 miles to the west.  Despite a westbound grade of 1.4% and an torturous eastbound ascent of over 4% (covering some 14 miles) the twisting, but beautiful, route reached Durango (a new railroad town formed on September 13, 1880), 172 miles away, in 1881.  The first train arrived there on July 27th that year.  A year later the 42-mile Silverton Branch, the location of the targeted mining camp, was also opened.  Interestingly, when the so-called Ouray Branch, which reached another mining location at Ouray within the Uncompahgre River Valley, was completed in 1887 the D&RG needed only 23 miles to link its original main line (running via Montrose and Gunnison) with its San Juan Line.  Unfortunately, the rugged topography made grading a manageable right-of-way impossible.

The last noteworthy extension in the San Juan region was the so-called Farmington Branch, which ran south of Durango to the community of Farmington, New Mexico.  The standard-gauge line opened in 1905, due to the railroad's intentions of eventually converting all the San Juan lines to such.  However, when the Rio Grande gave up its intentions of converting everything west of Antonito to standard-gauge, the Farmington Branch was changed to narrow-gauge in 1923.  This move coincided with repeal of Sherman Silver Purchase Act by President Grover Cleveland in 1893, a move made in response to an oversupply of silver.  As a result, mining operations were greatly reduced throughout Colorado and the D&RG realized its best opportunity for a successful future was as a bridge route.  This led to many lines, particularly its through corridors from Denver to Salt Lake City being converted to standard-gauge.  The D&RG's narrow-gauge network peaked at 1,673 mile in 1887 but, ironically, was being converted even prior to the Silver Act's repeal.  In 1893, this number had been reduced to just 961, and continued through the early 20th century.  In 1899 the entire Walsenburg - Alamosa line was converted and the railroad made the latter town its standard-gauge/narrow-guage junction point; the route south to Antonito was given a third-rail in 1901 while Alamosa became the narrow-gauge network's, including the San Juan Line's, primary shops/maintenance facility.

While traffic generally declined throughout the 20th century troute did see an uptick in traffic after World War II due to natural gas reserves found in the region but by the late 1960s the railroad was looking to scrap all of its narrow-gauge operations.  Passenger service ceased when the San Juan made its final run in February, 1951 and as early as 1962 the-then Denver & Rio Grande Western petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission for total abandonment of its San Juan Line.  Realizing the tourism potential which had been building on the route,   Colorado looked to save the Durango to Silverton section of the line in 1970, which became the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge, it teamed up with New Mexico to also help purchase the route between  Antonio and Chama, a distance of over 45 miles. Thanks to their efforts the C&TS is one of the most popular excursion trains in the country. Today, Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad’s passenger trains are pulled by vintage and authentic (to the railroad line itself) narrow gauge steam locomotives, all of which are original to the region (when the states purchased the route it included nine original D&RGW steam locomotives and more than 100 freight cars). Obviously, the railroad is quite similar to the Durango & Silverton given that both operate the same line, in the region, and use much of the same equipment. After 40 years of service, the C&TS now provides passengers with a wide range of options when taking the train via their fleet of historic, restored passenger cars. These include the ability to ride in coach class, tourist class, or parlor class (the most expensive) depending on your budget and how you like to experience your trip.

Locomotive Roster

Steam Locomotives (All Ex-Rio Grande)

Number

168

315

463

483

484

487

488

489

492

494

495

497

Class

T-12

 C-18

K-27

K-36

K-36

K-36

K-36

K-36

K-37

K-37

K-37

K-37

Wheel Arrangement

4-6-0

2-8-0

2-8-2

2-8-2

2-8-2

2-8-2

2-8-2

2-8-2

2-8-2

2-8-2

2-8-2

2-8-2

Builder

Baldwin

Baldwin

Baldwin

Baldwin

Baldwin

Baldwin

Baldwin

Baldwin

Baldwin

Baldwin

Baldwin

Baldwin

Date Built

1883

1895

1903

1925

1925

1925

1925

1929

1908

1908

1908

1908

Notes

Restoration

Display

Operational

Display

Operational

Operational

Operational

Operational

Display

Display

Display

Out-Of-Service

Diesels

Number

19

Builder

General Electric

Model

50-Ton Switcher

Date Built

10/1943

Notes

Ex-Oahu Railway & Land Co.


A trip to see the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad and its historic steam locomotives is well worth the time, the beautiful mountain scenery of southwestern Colorado and northwestern New Mexico is something to behold. And, if you have more time, you might also want to stop on over to the Durango & Silverton and see their historic operations as well. All in all, you shouldn’t be disappointed in your trip, if for nothing else than the scenery!   Typically, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic's operating schedule runs between late May and through mid-October on a daily basis. Today, they offer six different excursions between Chama and Ant/Osier either via train or bus. They also operate several specials including photo shoots (mostly reserved for photographers and train buffs the railroad operates a dated freight train featuring antique freight cars), wine/dinner trains, the Moonlight Train, holiday specials, and much more.   For more information about the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad please click here to visit their official website. Superbly well done there you can learn more about the history of the line/railroad, all of their special trains, standard excursions, pricing, operating schedules, the latest happenings, and plenty more. The railroad also operates a Facebook fan page so if you have an account be sure and sign up to keep with everything ongoing out in Chama.  

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