Historic 1883 Steam Locomotive No. 168 that sat in Antlers Park in Colorado Springs for 75 years, has been completely restored and will once again pull authentic 19th Century Denver & Rio Grande cars on the same tracks ran from 1883 to 1938. (John McEvoy Special to The Colorado Sun)

ANTONITO – When Engine 168 chugs away from the station here in late June with about 60 passengers ensconced in four refurbished 19th century train cars, it will be the culmination of years of dreams, historic preservation work and an investment of nearly $4 million.

And perhaps less visible but surely onboard will be the hearts and souls of those immersed in this project.

“It took four years to restore her,” said Engineer Max Casias, gazing at 168, the hulking black coal-fired steam locomotive that spent 75 years on display in Antlers Park in Colorado Springs and now rests silently in the railway workshop. “We refer to her as a princess.

“We found dates from 1938 stamped on the boiler. We figure that’s the last time she had any inspection. Now she’s waiting for the next call of duty.”

An Antonito native, Casias and his brother are the fourth generation in his family to work for the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.

Engineer Max Casias uses a metal cutting tool during the conversion of Engine No. 489 from coal- to oil-fired steam for the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. Oil fired engines will not produce sparks that start wildfires and will be safer. (John McEvoy Special to The Colorado Sun)

Carlos Llamas, too, is from Antonito and a long line of railroad workers: four generations with the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad and three generations with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway. Llamas, an engineer, spent a few of his 40 years in railroading working on mainline and freight trains. He rattles off details of brakes and car safety systems and the wonders of modern engines. He has written operations manuals and taught classes, but now he’s back home, working on the railroad he loves the most.

“You get this railroading in your blood and it’s hard to get out,” he said.

They’ve been joined by people such railroad preservationist Zell Olson, a woodworker from Minnesota who had a friend who sought his help fixing a wood door on a train car. That led him to train restoration work in Grand Island, Nebraska, and eventually to the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, where a roof collapse in 2003 had damaged many engines and cars and smaller artifacts. 

“I didn’t start playing with trains until I was 40,” said Olson, who arrived in Antonito about five years ago to work on the old wooden coach cars.

And then there’s Chief Mechanical Officer Stathi Pappas, an archaeologist turned train preservationist who left his job as curator of collections at the Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie, Washington, and moved to Antonito to oversee the project.

As he walks through a tented workshop constructed in 2015 for the project, he talks about the history of trains and routes and cars with the rapid-fire precision of an audio encyclopedia.

“We document everything we find,” he said, including dates of parts, changes made to cars over time and the history of where they ran and how they were used. “This is actually sort of an archaeological endeavor.”

Backed by donations from history and railroad buffs, preservation grants and the work of the nonprofit Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, this crew is doing exactly what was envisioned when the narrow-gauge tracks and stations were rescued in 1970 by Colorado and New Mexico in a unique partnership.

Gen. Palmer’s railroad

The 64 miles of tracks preserved between Antonito and Chama, New Mexico, were once part of the narrow-gauge Denver & Rio Grande Railroad built in the 1880s by Gen. William Palmer and his business partner, Dr. William Bell. The San Juan Extension ran from Alamosa to Durango, serving mining towns with both passenger and freight service. It included the tracks preserved by the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.

The Rio Grande began converting its tracks to standard gauge in 1890 so its cars were interchangeable with other rail lines, but decided against converting the San Juan Extension because of the decline in silver mining.

The tracks were seldom used during the 20th century, and the last upgrades to facilities were in the 1920s. There was a brief period of use during the natural gas boom after World War II, but by the 1960s the track was rarely used and in 1969 the railroad’s request to abandon the line was granted. Miles of track were torn out.

Railroad preservationists and civic organizations, though, quickly came to the rescue with efforts to save the most scenic portion of the track, from Antonito to Chama.

The states of Colorado and New Mexico in 1970 jointly purchased the track and structures along the line for $547,120 and created a nonprofit commission with representatives from both states to operate the heritage railroad. 

The price included nine locomotives, more than 130 freight and work cars and the maintenance facility in Chama.

It began hauling tourists the following year and today averages about 43,000 passengers each June-through-October season; it pumps about $20 million into the local economies. (Those figures are pre-pandemic; the train ran in 2020 but at limited capacity.)

The trains also have appeared in more than 20 documentaries and films, including “A Million Ways to Die in the West.” 

This year the train is offering more shorter rides.

“We hope offering more ways to experience the thrill and history of riding the Cumbres & Toltec will translate to more riders,” the railroad’s interim CEO Eric Mason said. “If you’re pressed for time, on a road trip, or have children, the shorter trips are a perfect way to enjoy the railroad without making a full day of it.”

Train preservation work has been ongoing and includes using various car bottoms and bodies to build replicas of late-19th and early-20th century cars as well as converting one coal-burning engine to oil to ensure the train can run during times when fire danger is high.

Llamas stood inside the hollow interior of one such car where work is underway.

“It’s an old boxcar that became a flatcar that was ready for scrap,” he said. It has modern-day braking systems and a reinforced body to ensure safety and will become a coach.

The latest project, though, is a little different.

A historic train

Engine 168 ran along the San Juan Extension and other Rio Grande narrow gauge lines from 1883 to 1938, when it was retired and moved into Antlers Park, near the railroad tracks in downtown Colorado Springs.

It seemed fitting that an engine from Gen. Palmer’s railroad would find a resting spot in a city he founded in 1871. The park was a favorite stop for families because kids could climb on the old locomotive and learn a little local history.

The city’s relationship with the Cumbres & Toltec was reignited when it hired the railroad experts in the 1980s to restore the engine, work that put Rio Grande Engine No. 168 on the National Register of Historic Places.

The scenic railroad was placed on the National Register in 1973 and became a National Historic Landmark in 2012.

It was about that time that the idea of a historic consist, or grouping of rail cars, pulled by a restored Engine 168 began to gather steam, Pappas said. In 2015, the locomotive was trucked to Antonito and restoration work on it and two coach cars began the next year.

“We wanted to do something that bespoke the late 19th century,” Pappas said.

The city of Colorado Springs leased the engine at no cost to the railroad for 45 years, and city residents get a discount on train rides.

“We view it as a partnership,” Pappas said. “We all think it’s wonderful that the engine is running on these tracks.”

Interior of a restored sleeper car that was a luxury in its day. The benches facing each other slide out to meet each other, making a bed in which to lie down. (John McEvoy Special to The Colorado Sun)

The engine and coach cars will be joined by an 1887 tourist sleeper car and an austere head-end car that in its day was a post office and baggage car. It has been refurbished to include a service/snack counter, but showcases the high, secure windows that were a hallmark of the postal cars.

Interestingly, the polished red oak of the seats in the tourist sleeper might today be thought of as more attractive than the smaller red velvet covered seats in the coach cars. But the tourist sleepers were actually called “immigrant cars” and were made of the cheapest materials of the time, Pappas said.

And while the seats folded down for nighttime travel, they came with no cushions, so unless travelers brought their own padded bedrolls there wasn’t much comfort to be found.  

Pappas explained that cars were routinely altered for different uses, so during refurbishment they don’t always go back to the original use, but rather to a specific time period. 

And things such as the pot-bellied stoves that would have heated the passenger cars will not be functional. And the $10,000 “gas” chandeliers are lit by LEDs.

Tourists riding the five departures on the historic consist — called the San Juan & New Mexico Express on the schedule for this summer and fall — also will have to rely on docents to learn about some of the train secrets uncovered by those working on the project.

Like the strip of leather and handmade nails Olson discovered when he removed the siding on one of the coach cars. Train cars, he explained, were routinely stripped and re-sided because of wear and tear. But this particular car was re-sided in 1886 and then not used enough to warrant new wood, so he was able to restore it and put it back on the car.

When refurbishing the rail cars, Stathi Pappas and Railroad Restorationist Zell Olson save as much of the original wood and fixtures as possible. These pieces and the walls and ceiling will be sanded, stained and restored to near their original condition. (John McEvoy Special to The Colorado Sun)

Olson and Pappas weren’t sure why the wide strip of leather was beneath the siding, but guess that it might have been for soundproofing. It was deteriorated, so they got a new piece of vegetable-tanned leather to make it as authentic as possible and put it on before nailing the siding back on.

As a heritage railway, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad has always given its passengers a good dose of history as they ride back and forth over the Colorado-New Mexico state line multiple times. The tracks cross the border 11 times between the two towns, but most trains now go only to Osier Station, about halfway between Antonito and Chama, and then return to the station of departure. Some rides include lunch at Osier Station.

This historic train, which will depart from Antonito, just takes the lessons of the past a step further and has special appeal for railway and history buffs.

Pappas said the project is getting a lot of attention in the train world, and he expects future projects, which include an overnight train and a tank-car consist, to do the same.

“Everybody wants to see what we’re doing,” he said. “Everyone comes here now because this is one of the coolest places in the (heritage railroad) industry.”

Regardless of which train passengers ride, he said, it’s an authentic experience.

“History is ambivalent,” he said. “All of these artifacts lived through wonderful things and horrible things in the expansion of the West. You can learn about it all.”

How to ride: The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is offering new excursions for the 2021 season, including full-day and half-day rides as well as the new historic train rides. They depart from Antonito in the San Luis Valley of Colorado or from Chama in New Mexico. For schedules, fares and information about the region: cumbrestoltec.com

Cumbres & Toltec Railroad Station in Antonito, Colorado, on March 17, 2021. (John McEvoy Special to The Colorado Sun)

Sue McMillin is a longtime Colorado editor and reporter currently based in Cañon City.