The Early Years
The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is comprised of a 64-mile section of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad’s original narrow-gauge San Juan Extension, built to serve the silver mining district in southwestern Colorado’s San Juan mountains. The line was built as narrow gauge (3 feet between rails vs. the more common 4 feet, 8-1/2 inches) because it accommodated a tighter radius on turns, could be laid in places where wider rails wouldn’t fit and cost less than standard gauge.
Laid in 1880, the tracks extend from Antonito, Colorado to Chama, New Mexico, passing through two tunnels and running over the 10,000-foot Cumbres Pass and along the edge of a 600-foot gorge. The heavy annual snowfall at the pass proved to be a challenge for the steam-powered engines, resulting in the purchase of rotary snowplows – huge rail machines that ran in front of the engines to clear the snow, making it possible to operate year round.
Beginning in 1890, a portion of the San Juan Extension was converted to standard gauge to accommodate interchanging cars with other rail lines. The repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893 had a devastating effect on the silver mining industry, causing activity on the tracks to stall for the most part. The line did, however, continue to operate, serving the lumber industry and dwindling mining operations. The 1920’s saw the last of any major equipment and infrastructure upgrades. The last boom for the line was the result of the post-World War II demand for oil. Finally, in 1969 the Interstate Commerce Commission granted the Rio Grande’s request to abandon its remaining narrow-gauge line, thereby ending the last use of steam locomotives for general freight service in the United States.
A RAILROAD SAVED
Much of the remaining line was dismantled, but 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, the states of Colorado and New Mexico jointly purchased the track and line-side structures from Antonito to Chama, paving the way to launch the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad in 1971.
THE RAILROAD TODAY
Now, between Memorial Day and Mid-October, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad welcomes guests from around the world for the 64-mile picture-perfect, breathtaking ride. Whether during the green of summer or colors of fall, the trip transports guests back in time as they enjoy the dramatic San Juan Mountain views.
Become a Friends Member
Your tax-deductible membership will put you in good company with so many others who, like you, want to see the C&TSRR survive and thrive for future generations. We thank you for your support!