Like all great projects they claimed it couldn’t be done. Yet in the end all it took was a man, a vision, some industrial ingenuity and the fortitude to make it happen. It was the early 1870’s and prospectors in hunt of gold and precious metals had flooded out west, most making the perilous journey over the Colorado mountains by wagon. Seeing the opportunity William Jackson Palmer founded a new company the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. His dream was the vision of a connection from Denver to El Paso, Texas and he was a man at the forefront of his time.
What gave Palmer the edge was the idea of using narrow-gauge tracks. In the midst of a massive mining boom Palmer drove 3-foot gauge tracks (compared to the standard 4-foot 8 ½ inches) deeper, higher and over more rugged terrain than any other constructor. He built an extensive network of lines into small mountain mining towns in Southern Colorado and by 1890 boasted the largest narrow-gauge railroad line in North America. With competition rife and the advent of larger locomotives however, Palmer was eventually forced to convert most of his tracks to standard gauge, but because of an interesting twist (the Sherman Act of 1893) a precious few remained.
The Cumbres and Toltec Railroad encompasses the modern living history of one of these remaining line. Built in 1880 as Rio Grande’s San Juan Extension, serving the silver mining district of the San Juan mountains, it is the longest (64 miles long) and highest (peaking at 10,015 feet) coal-fired, steam operated narrow-gauge railroad in North America.
Now, normally I’m not the type to get wound up in a tizzy about railroads, but this thing has been so beautifully preserved by such a passionate group of people that it is positively electrifying. The southern terminal at Chama, NM is gorgeously set at the base of the San Juan Mountains and supports a small museum, original terminus building, 1899 machine shop, tool sheds, coal tipple, stock yards and over 100 historic freight and maintenance-of-way cars including the original Rio Grande steam locomotives.
There are contraptions I’ve never seen or imagined including the genius rotary snow-plow, massive machines that cleared snow drifts over the high passes in winter. Groups of passionate volunteers (Friends of Cumbres and Toltec) are on-hand to answer questions and support the railroad, while cars and the orignal railroad yards are open for self-guided visits. You can then either take a ride on the train or follow the tracks by car on the fabulously scenic Hwy 17 to Antonito, CO.
Whether you’re a rail enthusiast or just an interested tourist, no doubt this is a touch of industrial history worth seeing. It’s the story of a man’s vision preserved and transformed into a fascinating collection of artifacts. And, you can still get on and take the ride….cool, indeed!
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