Have you ever come upon a place that made you feel like you had just entered another world? That was the sensation I had when I arrived at Chama, New Mexico for the first time in 2001. Seeing the old buildings and storefronts in the town, I immediately sensed that I had passed through some kind of time warp. I approached the old rail yard and caught the scent of coal smoke in the air and heard the hiss of steam coming from the locomotives simmering by the shop building. Ancient wooden railroad cars, the water tank, coal tipple, roundhouse, and accessory structures added layers of detail and texture. Experiencing the train ride and watching the action over the next few days got me hooked.
This One Is Personal
At the time I was on a typical rail fan’s journey in Colorado, visiting  the Durango & Silverton, the Georgetown Loop Railroad, and others, but it was the Cumbres & Toltec that really got to me. When I returned home I sent a check for membership in the Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec. Through this organization I learned more about the good and bad times for this particular 64 miles of narrow gauge railroad, and the unlikely and remarkable story about how it was saved by a coalition of rail fans, historians and local folks who convinced the states of Colorado and New Mexico to purchase the line in 1970. The Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec support the railroad and its historic elements by contributing funds, and more importantly, volunteer labor to restore and maintain rolling stock, trackside signs and structures, and interpret its history with its docent program. Every year since I send a check to renew my membership and occasionally a little more for special projects, but I have not been an active volunteer.

Fast-forward about ten years, I started our little company, Yard Goat Images, and began my dream career of producing DVD programs featuring steam locomotives, early diesels, electric traction, miniature railways, tractors and more. I’ve had the pleasure of traveling around the country and parts of Canada recording these favorite subjects of mine, but kind of avoided the Cumbres & Toltec. Why was that? To be honest, there have been so many DVDs about the C&T, I didn’t think it was wise for me to invest my travel budget and time to produce a program that would likely not earn a profit. 

But I could’t get the Cumbres & Toltec out of my head.

To sell our DVDs we travel to many Model Railroad Shows around the Midwest where we set up our display. It’s a combination of selling DVDs, getting people to be aware of us, and getting to know folks and what types of railroad experiences they enjoy. I don’t know how many times people have told me about their trips to ride the Durango & Silverton, then find out they’ve never been to (or even heard of ) the Cumbres & Toltec. I often find myself explaining that the Durango & Silverton and the Cumbres & Toltec were once directly connected as part of the Denver & Rio Grande Railway’s narrow gauge San Juan Extension. 

Finally I convinced myself that I needed to produce my own Cumbres & Toltec program, if only to encourage our mostly Midwest audience to think about experiencing it for themselves. The challenge was, how can I create a story about the Cumbres & Toltec that is unique and different from other DVDs? It took me a long while (years) before I finally realized, just make it personal. What is it about the Cumbres & Toltec that moves me? Here are the three main things I like and wanted to show in our program.

  • The spectacular beauty of steam locomotives operating on the 64 miles between Chama, NM and Antonito, CO. The tracks pass through a natural landscape that includes mountains, a lava mesa, cattle and sheep pastures, rivers, and forests. The right-of-way from beginning to end is filled with lovingly restored and maintained historic line-side structures of all kinds, thanks to the hard work of the Friends. Our program illustrates this natural and human-built beauty from trackside and onboard regular trains, plus special trains, double headers, and a long photo charter freight train. 
  • The rich history includes the original building of this 64-mile section of the railroad in just 9 months in 1880 using only manual labor and dangerous explosives. The next 90 or so years saw the line through times of boom and bust, wars, and the Great Depression. It was eventually  approved for abandonment and due to be torn up when rail fans, historians and local interests convinced the states of New Mexico and Colorado to buy the line intact and operate it as a tourist railroad. Our program includes interviews with Bob Ross, Chairman of the Board of the Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec, and Railroad President, John Bush. Each offers easily followed historical perspectives about the railroad from its beginnings to today.
  • The Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec was eventually formed to preserve, restore, and interpret the historic rolling stock and structures. About 2500 Friends members from around the world contribute funds and materials. The best part is, a subset of over 400 Friends also freely contribute their labor and skills during a number of scheduled week-long work sessions each year, and other Friends work as docents onboard the trains to help passengers discover wildlife, geology, and history during their journey. We interviewed many of these wonderful and likable volunteers during our visits and let them help tell the story.
Earlier I said that I had not been an active volunteer, and I’ve felt guilty about that. To create this program I’ve traveled to the Cumbres & Toltec twice, spending about 20 days on site. I’ve enlisted the help of family and friends with camera and interviewing skills to assist, and we’ve all spent a lot of money on travel and lodging, making this the most expensive and complex project we’ve ever done. 

We’ve created a 140-minute program on two discs, and we’re selling it for the same price as a single-disc DVD. We may never see a profit on this project, but I look at it as a labor of love. The Friends website banner reads “A Place For Those Born Too Late”, and I believe that includes me. I want people to discover this railroad. Travel here. Experience it. Perhaps find the same love for this place that I have. The Cumbres & Toltec is an important part of our country’s history and deserves love and preservation. This is my small contribution.

Thanks, Steve Mitchell