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‘The best train ride in North America’ delivers

There are hundreds of railroad museums and scenic train rides all across the United States. Many of them offer the opportunity to “step back in time” or “relive yesteryear.”

But few deliver on that promise quite like the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad – a 64-mile, narrow-gauge route across the rugged San Juan Mountains of New Mexico and Colorado that has gone nearly unchanged since the last freight train rumbled over Cumbres Pass 50 years ago. Unlike other museums that are a hodgepodge of old trains from different places, nearly all the locomotives and cars of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic are original to the railroad they run on today.

Stathi Pappas, assistant general manager of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, talks about restoring locomotive No. 168, built in 1883.

“This place is the real deal,” says Stathi Pappas, assistant general manager of the railroad, who spends most of his days restoring locomotives and passenger cars built more than a century ago. “There really is no place like this on Earth.”

The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic was voted the “best train ride in North America” by USA Today readers in 2016, thanks to the spectacular mountain scenery it traverses between Chama and Antonito, Colo. But for history buffs and railroad enthusiasts, it’s the dozens of vintage railcars, smoke-spewing steam locomotives and original buildings that make the journey to the Southwest worthwhile.

What makes the spectacular railroad even more amazing is that it was almost lost for good a half-century ago.

An employee of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad lowers a water spout to fill a steam-locomotive boiler in Chama.

The Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad first put down rails in 1870, under the command of Brig. Gen. William Palmer, a Union officer brevetted during the Civil War. Looking to save money, Palmer decided to build a narrow-gauge railroad with rails just 3 feet apart, as opposed to a standard-gauge railroad with rails built 4 feet, 8½ inches apart. The railroad reached Chama in 1880. Soon afterward, it was busy moving people, livestock and minerals to Eastern markets.

Although narrow-gauge railroads were cheaper to build, there was a major downside to a 3-foot-gauge railroad: It was incompatible with most other railroads. Whenever a Denver & Rio Grande Western train reached the junction with another railroad, the freight had to be unloaded from the narrow-gauge cars and reloaded onto standard-gauge cars for the rest of its journey. By 1890, Palmer began widening parts of his railroad. However, the route through the San Juan Mountains kept its narrow track because the railroad’s executives did not see much potential for the line, says John Bush, president and general manager of the Cumbres & Toltec.

“It made just enough money that it was worth keeping around, but it didn’t make enough money to justify upgrading it to standard gauge,” he says.

By the 1950s, the old Denver & Rio Grande Western’s narrow-gauge lines had become a historical oddity and the railroad began to consider abandoning it. However, the line got a brief reprieve. Thanks to a boom in natural gas production near Farmington, the Denver & Rio Grande Western was called upon to move pipes and other materials to the region. Realizing the need for pipeline materials would be only temporary, railroad officials decided to invest just enough money to keep the narrow-gauge route operating – and not a penny more. The decision to squeeze every bit of usefulness out of the old railroad helped it survive into the 1960s, when the idea of preserving old rail lines for scenic excursions started to gain traction.

The end finally came in the summer of 1968. The last freight train ran over Cumbres Pass in August, and the railroad was finally able to move forward with its plan to rid itself of its unusual narrow-gauge operation. The Denver & Rio Grande Western asked the government to let it abandon almost all of the track – except for the 45-mile stretch between Durango and Silverton, Colo., which had become a popular destination for tourists.

The tracks between Chama and Antonito were about to be ripped up when historians and railroad enthusiasts began looking at ways to save the line. Their efforts to convince the states that they were worthy of saving paid off: Officials saw the potential for turning the railroad, which traversed some of the region’s most spectacular scenery, into a tourist attraction.

In 1970, Colorado and New Mexico came together to purchase the 64-mile section between Chama and Antonito for $541,120. The states formed a joint board to oversee the railroad; the next year, the Cumbres & Toltec began running passenger excursions. Nearly half a century later, that investment has paid off for the states: A 2014 report found that the excursion trains support 147 jobs in the area and bring more than $14.8 million to the remote region each year.

The Cumbres & Toltec runs every day from May until October 21. Although passengers can start from either Chama or Antonito, the ride up the western slope of Cumbres Pass is a must for die-hard railroad enthusiasts. Trains departing Chama often require a second locomotive – what railroaders call a “helper” – to climb the 4 percent grade. Over the course of the 14-mile trip to Cumbres, the locomotive uses 2 to 3 tons of coal and 3,500 gallons of water. The backbreaking work of shoveling that coal falls to people such as Evan Martinez, a 20-year-old whose job is to maintain the locomotive’s fire. Martinez, a fifth-generation railroader, started working at the Cumbres & Toltec in high school.

“It’s a lot of cardio,” Martinez says of shoveling three tons of coal in one hour. “It’s probably one of the dirtiest jobs in the world. But once you get over all the soot, dust and grease, it’s a pretty cool job.”

Cumbres Pass sits at 10,015 feet above sea level and is the highest mountain pass reached by a railroad in the United States. The location gets its name from the Spanish word for “summit.”