By Jessica Pollard, The Santa Fe New Mexican
ANTONITO — On a recent Saturday morning, it looked like the town of Antonito, Colorado, was on fire.
But it was just steam from the Cumbres & Toltec train depot — lots of it.
Four steam engines from the 19th century were running simultaneously in honor of the railroad’s 50th anniversary of joint ownership between Colorado and New Mexico. The celebration was to take place last year but was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Tickets have been sold out since 2020.
The four “Iron Horses” will be in Chama, New Mexico, for demonstrations and more rides from Aug. 27-29.
“There’s nothing quite like this that’s ever been done before in rails historic preservation,” said Stathi Pappas, chief operations manager and head of restoration at Cumbres and Toltec.
The 64-mile railroad runs on narrow tracks through the Rocky Mountains on ancestral Tewa land.
On Aug. 21, train enthusiasts rode the coal-powered 1883 Rio Grande engine No. 168 and the 1893 Rio Grande engine No. 425 as part of the Victorian Iron Horse Roundup.
The 168 is in Antonito; the 425 in Durango. It took two years to restore each passenger car using state funds, Pappas said.
According to federal transportation regulations, passengers on moving train cars with open windows don’t have to wear masks. Windows were open and masks were mostly off last Saturday.
“Instead of going to the zoo and seeing something in captivity, it’s like going on a safari and seeing everything in its natural habitat,” Pappas said of the locomotives. “They really belong here.”
The trains had to be above their original standards of safety to be in compliance with today’s laws, he said. Because parts for the old trains are no longer manufactured, restorationists often make them from scratch.
The Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad bridged Salt Lake City and Denver in 1870, and the San Juan extension served the mining industry through the mountains of southern Colorado.
In the late 1960s, the narrow gauge of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad tracks were set for abandonment.
Colorado and New Mexico bought the portion between Chama and Antonito, forming the Cumbres & Toltec railroad.
“This is your railroad, too,” Pappas said. “It is something that all of us, as residents and people that are part of these states, should have pride in.”
Two other trains were brought in from Nevada for the celebration: the Eureka and Glenbrook locomotives, built in 1875.
The Glenbrook once carried lumber through the Lake Tahoe Basin, and the Eureka rumbled through Nevada’s gold-mining district.
“All these locomotives were built to work,” Pappas said. “They were built in an era when there was a lot of thought invested in how they look. They’re intended to be works of art in their own way.”
With wood-powered engines and kerosene-powered headlights, the Glenbrook and Eureka are considerably smaller than those of the later 19th and early 20th centuries.
They took their first test runs on the tracks Saturday morning. The trains will require 80 cords of pine wood and a lot of water to keep them running during the anniversary week, railroad commissioner Scott Gibbs said.
Russ Murphy and his wife Caroline traveled from Tennessee to attend the event.
Russ, 60, has been a fan of railroads since he was 3 years old. Raised in Kansas, he often took rides with his father on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. He’s ridden trains from Antonito since the 1970s.
When the couple ride a vintage train, they dress in clothes from the time period — Russ in a full vintage suit, silky red vest and cowboy boots modeled after a pair worn by outlaw Curly Bill with spurs to match.
“It’s all authentic and old,” he said.
Yasmine Sealy and Carol O’Saben drove from Flagstaff, Arizona, to Antonito for the event. Sealy grew up riding the subway in New York. It sparked a lifetime love of locomotives.
“Trains are amazing feats of engineering,” she said. “Trains helped build this country. Just to see something that was built in the 1800s, it’s still going. It’s still a workhorse to behold.”
Sealy said trains can take people to places a car could never go such as densely vegetated areas and narrow natural corridors.
“You’re seeing America,” she said. “Enjoy it. Take it in. Know this is where you live. This is the beautiful country that you have.”
Jim Wrinn, editor of Wisconsin-based Trains magazine, planned to attend the event in Chama.
“It’s business, it’s geography, it’s history, it’s politics, it’s technology,” he said of his love of trains.
“And there’s a lot of romance to railroading,” he added.