August 14 – Coal Smoke & Steam Whistles
How do I describe a day of bliss in a blog post?
There are facts: The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad (C&TS) runs at least two trains daily (one eastbound, one westbound) between Antonito, CO, and Chama, NM, during the tourist season. (In addition to the daily trains, it also has many specials.) The ride is 64 miles long and rises to the highest elevation (10,015 feet, at Cumbres Pass) of any currently-operating narrow-gauge railroad. At about 12 mph (average speed), and including lunch, the ride takes around 6 1/2 hours. The line is a remnant of the San Juan Extension of the narrow-gauge part of the Denver & Rio Grande Railway, of which the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is another remnant. The C&TS engines eat more than 3.5 tons of coal on a run, although I don’t remember whether this was just from one terminus to the Cumbres Pass or if it was end-to-end. This portion of the San Juan Extension was built in 9 months, using just manpower, draft animals, and (presumably lots of) blasting powder. [These days it would take many more than nine months just to get all the necessary permits and approvals!]
There are sensations: The smell of the coal smoke; the screech of the steam whistle; the whoosh of the blowdown (and the subsequent dampening of any passengers in its path); the look and feel of coal cinders on your skin; the sights, sounds, and “feels” of the Colorado and New Mexico mountains, trees, sky and clouds; the incessant clickety-clack of the cars’ wheels over the rails’ expansion joints; the different screech of the train’s brakes (and the smell as they heat up) as it descends the 4% grade from Cumbres Pass to Chama; and too many more to list.
There are thoughts: The wonder that this kind of experience is even still available; the things learned from the docents and train crew; the imaginings of what it must have been like when the train was an active line (1880-ish to 1960-ish); the fantasies of becoming a C&TS fireman or engineer.
There are results: I ran the batteries in my camera *and* my iPhone all the way down taking pictures and videos. I was “shot” (by a photographer, not a train robber) and have the wounds – er, pictures – to prove it. I have the souvenir t-shirt. And I have the memories.
It all boils down to this, at least for me: For one day, despite the Honda generator powering the coolers in the refreshment car and the amplified voice of the docent on the gondola car and the constant intrusions of the present day (CO / NM 17 runs very close to the tracks, and some of the cars followed us; we passed some obviously-current houses and other buildings), I felt transported 100 years into the past.
These are just a few of the hundreds of photos I took; a link to the videos is here.
The C&TS has a lot more rolling stock than I thought when I first saw the Antonito station last year. Most of it is kept in Chama, where there’s an extensive yard. While much of it is in, or has been brought back to, good condition, there are also many pieces for which “rolling” is but a memory. Some of it, in fact, still has the D&RG name, like this rotary snowplow:
I’m officially hooked on historic, scenic railroads – the older, the better. If I could have recorded the entire trip on video, I would have.
Reblogged this on Concierge Librarian.