by Madeleine Ahlborn | email@example.com
photos by Madeleine Ahlborn and Owen Woods
JULY 1 marked the first ride of the season on the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad that runs between Antonito, CO, and Chama, NM. Though this was a delayed opening due to fire restrictions in the area, locals and visitors alike were thrilled for their ride through open prairies, steep grades and rock tunnels.
Owen Woods and I received tickets for a trip to the mid-way point of the small historic town of Osier, where lunch was served and we even had a chance to speak with railroad President Scott Gibbs. In this article you will see photographs of the ride, and hear from employees and docents of the railroad.
We arrived in Antonito just after 9 a.m. and checked in to receive our will-call tickets in the main visitors center and gift shop. Boarding between 9:30 a.m and 9:45 a.m with a departure time of 10 a.m., the train would weave its way around and over the Southern range of the San Juan Mountains. Outside the depot visitors took pictures of a historic locomotive that has been running since 1903, snapped family selfies, and dropped coins into a jar for “Song Guy” who posted up on a bench singing train songs for all to enjoy.
Our C&T liaison, Abi Martinez, from Chama met us outside the Depot where we formed a game plan of who we would like to speak with. The first person we met was engine crewman and engineer Carlos Yama.
Alamosa Citizen: Can you tell us who you are and what you do here?
Carlos Llamas: My name is Carlos Llamas, I’m from here locally and I’m one of the engine crewmen and engineers.
AC: How long have you been working on this railroad?
CY: Oh my goodness! 34 years!
AC: How long has this train (locomotive 455) been in service?
CY: This one was built in 1903, right around the time of the Wright brothers when you think about it. So this engine went through all of World War II, all that history, the first aircraft ever flown, moon landings, and it’s been in service the whole time.
AC: What does a typical day for you look like?
CY: We have night watchmen, who take care of the engines at night, so we come in and restart the fire basically. We clean the firebox, get it all started, then we bring the engine up to steam, start all the main appliances we need to run the locomotive. Then we do a series of testing to make sure it is safe, then we coal it, fuel it, oil it and then we are basically ready to go. It is a lot of prior preparation, there are a lot of guys who were here yesterday and last night that helped us get ready for today.
A fan favorite is seeing Marty and Cano, of Cano’s Castle, ride into the depot on horseback to greet visitors.
Alamosa Citizen: Can you tell us about yourself and what you do?
Marty: I’ve been in The San Luis Valley about eight years now, training colts, and I ride everywhere I can. I’m Apache Tucson. We come out of the San Jose missions and now I’m here training horses. This is Colorado (the young horse he is riding bareback with a bitless bridle) and I’ll just ride alongside the train.
AC: How old is Colorado?
Marty: He is 1 and three-quarters; he will be 2 soon. He will get bigger and fill out a little more.
Marty and Colorado will be back with the train on July 29 for a reenactment show.
THE train begins to roll right on schedule and passengers wave from their windows to the cars stopped at the road crossing before setting out to the desert prairie with Marty and Colorado on the parallel dirt road. As the train builds steam we sit with Abi Martinez who talks about her role with the train.
Alamosa Citizen: What do you do with the Cumbres and Toltec Railroad?
Abi Martinez: My name is Abigail (Abi) Martinez and I am the marketing coordinator for the Cumbres and Toltec.
AC: What does your day today look like?
AM: Help my coworkers, especially ticket agents since I have worked this before. This is my eighth season, and the every-day is just having a lot of media visits, running advertisements and things like that.
AC: Can you talk about the delay in the season and how did we get to July 1?
AM: We had to take a proactive approach, and take a step back and think about all the surrounding communities and it was really dry. Thankfully we have started to get more rain, so we decided to delay our season not only for us but for the communities to be good stewards of the land. Especially because New Mexico at the time had the biggest wildfire in state history burning right when we were about to open.
AC: What does a delay mean for the railroad?
AM: We won’t have as many reservations just because we are starting 3 weeks later, but surprisingly a lot of the people who had advanced reservations rebooked to ride in July and some moved to August. So that was really nice, especially some of the locals who are coming from Denver and Colorado Springs have rebooked and adjusted their travel plans.
AC: Have you seen local loyalty to riding the train?
AM: We do have some season pass holders. They are our regulars and they ride 10-plus times a season so that is really nice to see. A lot of families have made this a tradition to ride with us every year.
AC: What draws you to work for the railroad?
AM: The history of the railroad and also all of my coworkers. We are a big family here, day in and day out we can depend on each other and to make this railroad GO it does take a team.
OUR ETA to Osier from Antonito was about two and a half hours, so we had plenty of time to take some pictures and talk with more people who work and volunteer for the train. Next we spoke with volunteer and docent Greg.
Alamosa Citizen: OK Greg, tell us what you do here.
Greg: I’m a volunteer and a member of the Friends of the Cubres and Toltec Railroad. I come down here usually six or seven weeks a year and ride on the train three to four times a week to talk to people and describe what they are going to be seeing as we are going along the railroad.
AC: How long have you been doing this?
G: This is my 10th year.
AC: What got you into doing this?
G: I’ve been riding the train since 2008 but I just love railroads – have since I was a little boy. My dad used to take me out in my bassinet, my mom said, put me in the back seat and he’d watch trains, so I guess it’s in my blood.
AC: Where are you from and what stories do you cover on the ride?
G: I’m from Windsor, and I talk about the history, like you just heard there have been about 15 movies shot here, and I try and tell people where they’re going to be along the road if I know where that is. I talk about the history of the railroad, the fact that it was built in 1880 and they built it in about nine months 64 miles from Antonito to Chama between May 9 in 1880 and they got into Chama just before New Year’s.
AC: What is your favorite piece of history?
G: I just love the whole railroad, I don’t know that I have a favorite. We will come up here to the Santa Rita Valley and be up high on the ledge and I’ll talk about the 12 families that first homesteaded it. There is still one original family left and the rest of the land has been sold.
GREG told stories and answered questions all throughout the ride, at one point his story was interrupted due to a hot bearing that needed replacing and the train came to a stop. Carlos and the conductor met by the side of the train to look at the issue. Very carefully the hot broken bearing was removed and replaced right there on the rail, only a 15-minute delay, then we were on our way again.
NEXT we had a chance to speak with another crewman, Chase, the brakeman for the day
Chase: I am the brakeman for the day and I also work in the mechanical department also, sometimes fire locomotives also, so I hold a few jobs here.
Alamosa Citizen: How long have you been wearing these hats?
Chase: This time around I’ve worked here for about a year and a half. I’ve worked one other season before, total railroad career though I’ve worked about nine years on different railroads.
AC: What railroad did you start on?
Chase: Durango and Silverton
AC: What made you want to get into the railroad business?
Chase: It’s just what I wanted to do since I was a kid. My parents brought me up to these railroads in Colorado when I was little and it just kind of became what I wanted to do.
AC: What do you like most about the Cumbres and Toltec?
Chase: I like the historical authenticity, things that are along the line, historic buildings that are still in place, historic train cars we have, historic locomotives we have. It’s just something most traditional railroads don’t have that are original to that location. You can experience this place basically in any kind of time period that you would like to see, depending on certain buildings are painted for certain eras, freight cars are painted for certain eras, so you could be looking at something like it looked in 1890 or you could be looking at something the way it looked in 1968. It’s like going back in time.
AC: What does a brakeman do?
Chase: Essentially watches over the train when you’re on the road, keeps an eye out for anything that could go wrong with the train, works with the passengers. If we had an issue like we had just earlier, where a journal bearing got hot and we had to replace it, the brakeman will assist the conductor in replacing that bearing. If we stop for any reason the brakeman will go out and do a job called flagging to stop any equipment that is coming behind us.It is an old practice that has been around for well over 100 years. 140-year practice in this area.
THIS is a time honored tradition in the world of railroads to say the least. We let Chase get back to his duties and continued to view the beautiful scenery. A light rain began to fall as we climbed in elevation. When we arrived in Osier, the locomotives uncoupled from the passenger cars to change rails. The locomotive that leaves from Chama returns to Chama and the same with the locomotive from Antonito. The reason for this is because a stronger engine is needed to make the climb out of Chama up the mountain range.
Owen and I enjoyed a wonderful turkey and mashed potato meal included with our ticket, and when those four whistles blew it was time to find our train car for the return trip.
Before our departure we spoke with railroad President Scott Gibbs, who is also one of the two Colorado commissioners on the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad Commission.
Alamosa Citizen: How long have you been president of this railroad?
SG: 1 year (smiles)
AC: What made you take this route?
SG: It’s a bit of a long route. Gov. Polis appointed me as one of the two Colorado commissioners and a year ago the interim president stepped away and the other commissioners asked me if I would take this on. So I ended up being the president as well as commissioner.
AC: So what did you do beforehand?
SG: I was retired! (laughs) I retired from Los Alamos National Lab. While I was in retirement I became president of Durango Railroad Historical Society, who had restored the steam locomotive that is currently here on the railroad (an 1895 steam engine) so I got involved with the railroad and the tourist railroad industry through that avenue.
AC: Given the last few years, what does the future of this railroad look like?
SG: Well it’s been here 52 years and I think it looks good. We are recovering from the COVID-19 shutdown. In 2020 we only had about 11,000 riders in contrast to 2019 we had 42,000. Last year was sort of a strange year, because we couldn’t get to full ridership early due to COVID restrictions but we still did 37,750. With our delayed start this year we won’t be as robust as I was hoping, but our advanced ticket sales are doing quite well. We’ve got about 10,000 advanced ticket sales through the end of the season.
THE future looks good!
Owen and I thanked Abi for all the introductions and assistance along our ride as she was continuing on back to Chama and we were taking the ride back to Antonito. Waving to the other passengers we descended down the mountain as light rain fell in the afternoon hours. This unique Colorado experience is a must-have, where locals and visitors alike can learn all kinds of things about the history of Southern Colorado and this historic masterpiece that is the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad.
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