The highest, longest and most authentic steam railroad in North America is also going to be the cheapest this December when the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad (CTSRR) offers free rides to anyone who brings a toy and nonperishable food item. The CTSRR is hoping to make the holiday season a little brighter for those in need, and all donated toys and food items will go to help people in the San Luis Valley of Colorado and Northern New Mexico.
Trains will depart from Antonito, Colorado on Saturday and Sunday, December 5-6, chugging from the station into the foothills of the San Juan Mountains to Ferguson Trestle and back. Santa and his elves will be on board serving hot chocolate during the ride.
On Saturday and Sunday, December 12-13, Santa and the elves will hop over to Chama, New Mexico, where they will serve hot chocolate on trains departing from Chama station from 9 a.m. to 3. p.m., traveling from Chama up into the mountains to the Lobato Trestle and back. To qualify for any of the free train rides, each adult rider most donate a small toy and a nonperishable food item. Children ride free, but each child must be accompanied by an adult.
The Cumbres & Toltec was built in 1880 as part of General William Jackson Palmer’s dream to construct a railroad from Denver to Mexico City. Palmer had been a hero in the Civil War, winning a Medal of Honor for his exploits as a cavalryman. After the war he headed west and in 1870 he took his new wife on a “honeymoon” to the coal mines of Wales. It’s hard to know what his bride thought of this, but the General wanted to see a new-fangled narrow gauge steam train the Welsh were using to transport coal.
At the time, nearly every railroad had different gauge tracks, but most rails were four feet or more apart. Narrow gauge trains with rails just three feet apart were popular in Wales because they were cheaper and could make tighter turns. This also made them perfect for the Rocky Mountains and Palmer ordered steel rails from Wales and set out to build his railroad.
Though it never reached Mexico, the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad did change history, hauling millions of dollars of gold and silver from the mining towns of Leadville, Durango and Silverton. The decline of mining in the 1890s ended the railroad’s vital role and by 1969 the track between Cumbres, NM, and Durango, CO, had been torn up and the railroad filed for abandonment. However, the states of Colorado and New Mexico came to the rescue, stepping in and jointly purchasing nine steam locomotives, more than 130 freight and work cars, and the Chama yard and maintenance facility for $547,120.
The CTSRR began hauling tourists in 1971. Today, the railroad is operated for the states by the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad Commission and 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.
HOW TO BOOK: To make your reservation on the special Cumbres & Toltec Christmas Trains, go to www.cumbrestoltec.com/christmas and click on the Christmas Train link. Or call the train depot at 888-286-2737. You must bring a toy donation and a food item for each adult rider. All children must be accompanied by an adult or parent. Train rides start at 9 a.m., with the last train departing at 3 p.m. The Antonito trains will be joining Colorado Springs Toys for Tots to collect and distribute the toys to children of the San Luis Valley. The Antonito trains are also joining the fight against hunger in the San Luis Valley with the Antonito Food Pantry, a branch of the Southern Colorado Care and Share Food Bank. The Chama trains are again joining Albuquerque’s KOB Channel 4 and Echo, Inc., Food Bank in Farmington, New Mexico in their fight against hunger. In addition, the railroad is partnering with the United States Marines Toys for Tots for kids at Christmas program. All toys and food from the Chama trains will be distributed in Northern New Mexico.