Friends of the C&T: “America’s Premier Historic Railroad”

And you don’t need a ticket to see the history part

The Four Corners region has two steam railroads: the Durango & Silverton based in Durango, Colo., and the Cumbres & Toltec based in Chama, NM. They are the biggest surviving pieces of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad’s 19th Century narrow gauge (3 feet) experiment.

I love ’em both, but for different reasons. The Durango & Silverton is the most popular by far, due to the mountain sports chic of the two towns on the Animas River, and it provides access to the remotest high country wilderness in the West. But the Cumbres & Toltec is the most authentic, due to the lucky survival of the Chama yards at the base of the 4 per cent grade up Cumbres Pass.

In late June I was fascinated by what I saw at Chama. About 100 volunteers from Friends of the Cumbres and Toltec were at work preserving, restoring, reconditioning, rebuilding, cleaning, painting and fixing buildings, locomotives and rolling stock. They were concluding a two-week session, most staying in RV’s at their own expense, and I was told another two weeks is scheduled for August.

It’s like walking through a model railroad, only full size. You can see the depot, shops, roundhouse, bunkhouse, coal tipple, water tank, loading docks, scales, and miles of switching track. The restored rolling stock include an original luxury coach, boxcars, flatcars, livestock cars, hopper cars, gondola cars, tank cars and an original caboose.

And there are a couple of big steam-powered rotary snowplows with crew cars and cook cars. The last time the one that works was put in service was in May 1997 on the south side of Cumbres, and I was lucky enough to be among the fascinated onlookers as it sputtered through the 8-foot drifts, pushed by two locomotives.

At the 104-year-old passenger depot I was greeted by a volunteer with a brochure that features a walking tour of the Chama yards, which date from 1880. Published by the Albuquerque-based Friends, it has a map with inset line drawings of the major attractions. The unpaid volunteers are motivated by their love of what the Friends literature calls “America’s premier historic railroad.”

UpCumbres (CTSRR Photo)

The emphasis is on historic. The Durango & Silverton is the more glamorous, evoking images of young Robert Redford on location with Paul Newman there for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” In Durango, I grabbed a parking space at MacDonald’s, bought a drink and slipped out for a tour of the Durango yards as I recalled them from years ago. Hah!

The downtown railroad property is now prime resort real estate, and every square foot of the former yards and shops has been fenced off and sanitized. The old cars that used to sit on the mainline passing tracks in town are gone, gone. The passenger platform is as secure as an airport: the fence gates are kept locked between trains, as are the depot doors.

Later I stopped at the Silverton depot to buy a roundtrip ticket to Needleton. (Sticker shock warning: the short trip now costs the same as the full roundtrip.) The remnant of the yards at Silverton has little to offer. The same is true of Antonito, where a depot and yard were created in 1970 at the end of the Cumbres and Toltec. If you want to see yards, Chama is the place.

For ordinary families, taking a ride on either railroad is expensive and tiresome. Adult tickets at both Durango and Chama are $60. Either roundtrip takes all day, even going one way by rail and the other by bus. The northern third of the Cumbres & Toltec is especially tiresome — a straight shot through the sage brush. But a walk in the Chama yards is free, and the Friends have made it a lot more interesting.