COAL/TOAL Chapter 16b: The Cumbres & Toltec Railroad

Cumbres & Toltec Railroad MapThe Cumbres & Toltec Railroad

After the Santa Fe Bicentennial Convoy, several of us travelled to Antonito, Colorado to take a ride on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.

The C&TSRR traverses 64 miles between Chama, New Mexico and Antonito, Colorado.  It crosses the borders of Colorado and New Mexico 11 times as it chugs its way up and over the 10,015-foot-high Cumbres Pass.  It was originally constructed in 1880 as part of the Rio Grande’s narrow-gauge San Juan Extension, which served the silver mining district of the San Juan mountains in southwestern Colorado.  Through 1969, it was owned and operated by the Denver & Rio Grande Railway; that year, the Interstate Commerce Commission granted the Rio Grande’s request to abandon its remaining narrow-gauge main line trackage. 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, Colorado and New Mexico jointly purchased the track and lineside structures from Antonito to Chama.

Today the railroad is operated by the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad Commission, an interstate agency authorized by an act of Congress in 1974. and composed of four members, two from each state, appointed by their respective state Governor.  

Lewis H. EntzLewis H. Entz

We were joined on our excursion by Lewis H. Entz, a Korean War veteran; former Colorado legislator; former member of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad Commission, and member of the Military Vehicle Preservation Association.

We travelled on the Antonito Limited.  This train travels from Antonito to the midpoint at Osier Station; after a hot lunch there, it returns to Antonito.  This ride scratched an item off my bucket list but added a new item: at some point I hope to go back and experience the full line of 64 miles between Chama and Antonito.

Antonito DepotAntonito Depot

Antonito DepotAntonito Depot

We left Antonito at 10 am on July 9th, 2021, behind Engine № 489.

Engine No 489Engine № 489

C&TSRR № 489 is a K-36 class 2-8-2 Mikado-type narrow-gauge steam locomotive built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1925 for the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad (D&RGW).  It is one of five former D&RGW class K-36 locomotives currently owned by the C&TSRR.  № 489 was converted to burn oil instead of coal while it was undergoing a Federal Railroad Administration-mandated 1,472-day boiler inspection, and was returned to service in June 2021, shortly before our excursion.

Leaving Antonito, we headed towards our first crossing of the Colorado-New Mexico border.

Leaving Antonito behind No. 489Leaving Antonito behind № 489

To climb the grade, the tracks curve back and forth across the face of the slope.

Train Climbing out of AntonitoClimbing out of Antonito

We passed Lava Tank and then went through a series of curves called The Whiplash.

Lava TankLava Tank

Map showing curved path

At Sublette, New Mexico, the fireman took on water while the engineer checked the bearing temperatures.  This railroad town was built as a section station in 1880.   Once the line was completed, the camp served as a section crew station town, a base for the crew that maintained the track for the railroad.  Structures included a section house for the foreman and his family; two bunkhouses for the section crew; a coal bunker; a speeder shed, and a water tower.

Refilling the Water Tank Filling the water tank

Checking the Bearing TemperaturesChecking the bearing temperatures

During the operating season C&TSRR work crews still stage out of Sublette.

Work CrewWork crew on passing track

The central portion of the line rides above Toltec Gorge.

Toltec Gorge


Toltec Gorge

It passes thru Mud Tunnel,

Mud TunnelMud Tunnel

past a rock formation called Grandma & Grandpa

Grandma & GrandpaGrandma & Grandpa

thru Rock Tunnel

Rock TunnelRock Tunnel

and past the Garfield Memorial.  This memorial was erected at the spot where the Association of General Passenger and Ticket Agents held an impromptu memorial service for assassinated President James Garfield on September 26, 1881 (the same day that funeral services for him were held in Cleveland, Ohio).

Garfield MemorialGarfield Memorial

From this point the tracks descend to Osier, an old railroad settlement and train stop approximately halfway along the C&TSRR where trains from both ends of the line meet and stop for lunch.

Osier, ColoradoOsier, Colorado

After lunch we rode along the same stretch of track back to Antonito.

The next morning, my daughter and I returned to the NRA Whittington Center in Raton, New Mexico via the Valle Vidal Road, since I’d missed that portion of the convoy.  We loaded the Jeep and headed to Las Vegas, NM for the night.  With the power failure the night the convoy was there we hadn’t really been able to experience the town.

My daughter’s internship in Dixon, NM was starting on July 15th, and we took a few days to decompress at an an AirBnB.  The committee chairman from the Sea Scout unit I volunteer with had been up on the mountain at Philmont Scout Ranch while we were on the convoy.  On July 14th I ran back over to Cimarron to pick him up to accompany me on the drive back to Houston.