ANTONITO — Ridership on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad jumped 7 percent in 2017 vs. 2016 with a total of 38,016 people riding the historic steam train.
An additional 3,469 people rode the Santa Train in December, donating toys and canned food for those in need throughout northern New Mexico and southern Colorado.
In season, the train travels 64 miles through the Rocky Mountains between Antonito and Chama, N.M.
“We’re always delighted when more people get to experience this historic part of the Old West,” said John Bush, president of the railroad. “The Railroad, owned jointly by the states of Colorado and New Mexico, is preserved as a living history museum capturing what steam railroading was like from the late 1800s to the 1960s,” Bush said.
Steam trains leave daily from both Antonito and Chama from late May to mid-October, meeting half way at Osier Station where passengers enjoy a delicious hot lunch included in the ticket price. “Most of the route goes where no roads go, and is literally ‘off the grid’ with no cell phone or Internet connections, so our passengers really get to go back in time and experience what steam railroading was like,” Bush said. He credits the increase in ridership to the robust economy, as well as new marketing and social media, which helps potential customers find out about the railroad.
The Cumbres & Toltec was originally built in 1880 by William Jackson Palmer as the San Juan Extension of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, which ran from Walsenburg to Alamosa, then on to Chama, N.M. , crossing the borders of Colorado and New Mexico 11 times, before heading west to Durango and finally up to Silverton, Colo.
The rail line was an engineering marvel of its time, climbing over steep passes, through tunnels, over high trestles and along the edge of deep gorges.
The decline of silver mining in the 1890s ended the railroad’s vital role and in 1969 the railroad filed for abandonment. However, the most scenic part of its route and the equipment and buildings were saved by the states of Colorado and New Mexico in 1970 when the two states jointly purchased the track and line-side structures from Antonito to Chama and the Chama yard and maintenance facility, as well as nine steam locomotives and more than 130 freight and work cars for $547,120.
The C&TS began hauling tourists in 1971. Last year, it was selected by the readers of USA Today’s 10 Best as the number one bucket list train ride in America. It is the highest, the longest and most authentic steam railroad in North America.
Today, the railroad is operated for Colorado and New Mexico by the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad Commission, an interstate agency authorized by an act of Congress in 1974. Care of the historic assets, and interpretation of the railroad is entrusted to the Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, a non-profit, member-based organization whose mission is to preserve and interpret the railroad as a living history museum for the benefit of the public, and for the people of Colorado and New Mexico, who own it.
Bush said the railroad will spend the winter getting ready for next season, which will run from May 26 to Oct. 21, 2018. The railroad is also busy restoring Engine No. 168, which was built in 1883 and sat for 75 years in Antlers Park at Colorado Springs. When restored, it will be the oldest locomotive operating on the Cumbres & Toltec line.