“Look a-yonder comin’
Comin’ down that railroad track
Hey, look a-yonder comin’
Comin’ down that railroad track”
The excitement implied by the lyrics in that classic railroad fiddle tune “Orange Blossom Special” could be aptly applied today to Old 168, an 1883 steam engine that’s returning to the tracks for the first time in more than 80 years as part of Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad’s 2021 season.
The venerable engine will lead the San Juan & New Mexico Express, a train of four authentic 19th century railroad cars, on a run from Antonito, Colorado, to the Osier, Colorado, station and back on five Sundays – June 27, July 25, Aug. 15, Sept. 19 and Oct. 24.
“We are absolutely jazzed,” Efstathios “Stathi” Pappas, Cumbres & Toltec chief mechanical officer, said during a phone interview. “No. 168 is a locomotive that is iconic. It hearkens back to another era. The engine and the 1870s and 1880s (train) cars will be the most authentic experience you can possibly buy a ticket on.”
This season marks the 51st anniversary of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, which has been owned jointly by the states of New Mexico and Colorado since 1970. The 2021 season started with opening-day ceremonies May 29 in Antonito. Opening day festivities in Chama will start at 9 a.m. Saturday, June 5, and will include free refreshments, music and train whistles. The season continues through Oct. 24.
Traditionally, the Cumbres & Toltec steam engines have pulled trains 64 miles through spectacular scenery from Chama to Antonito, or vice versa. Motor coaches would carry passengers one way or the other to make sure they ended up where they left their cars.
But the coronavirus pandemic derailed tradition last year, forcing the railroad to adopt abbreviated runs during its 50th anniversary season. Social distancing made it impractical to put passengers on motor coaches.
The shadow of the pandemic still hovers over the railroad, meaning there will be no Chama to Antonito or Antonito to Chama runs again this year. And, as dictated by the Transportation Security Administration, masks must be worn by train passengers.
“Because of the pandemic, we simplified our offerings so riders will return to the same station they originated from,” Eric Mason, Cumbres & Toltec interim president/CEO, said in a press release. “The new schedule makes it easier for passengers on our full-day trains who will now park at either Antonito or Chama, ride the train to Osier, have a delicious lunch stop with panoramic views, and return to the station where their car is parked.”
Also this year, the railroad is offering shorter rides and special Friday noon trains, in addition to the San Juan & New Mexico Express starring Old 168.
This season’s full-day trips are the Chama All-Aboard! and Antonito All-Aboard! excursions.
The former leaves Chama, climbs to Cumbres Pass at 10,015 feet, passes over Cascade Trestle, stops at Osier Station for lunch and then returns to Chama. The latter departs Antonito, goes through two tunnels and Phantom Canyon, continues along the lip of Toltec Gorge, stops for lunch at Osier Station and goes back to Antonito.
Shorter ride options include:
• Cumbres Express, which starts at the Cumbres Pass Depot, the highest point attained by any steam train in North America, runs to Osier Station for a lunch stop and steams back to the Cumbres Depot.
• Antonito Express, which departs Antonito, rattles along the high mountain desert and past a view of a volcano to Big Horn, Colorado, and then returns to Antonito. Lunch is not served on this trip but snacks, beverages and a full bar are available onboard.
• Chama High Noon leaves the Chama Station at noon on Fridays, journeys across meadows and forests and over rivers to Cumbres Pass and then returns to Chama. No lunch provided, but a concession car is available.
And then there is No. 168 and the San Juan & New Mexico Express.
“No other (heritage) railroad has something like this,” Pappas said of the vintage engine and train car trip. “Some other railroads have special runs, but this will be running regularly.”
Ready to fly
During its original years of service, from 1883 to the 1930s, No. 168 toiled mostly as a passenger train locomotive for the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, running on the same tracks back then that it will retrace in its new life as a Cumbres & Toltec engine.
After its retirement, the engine was put on display in Antlers Park in Colorado Springs for more than 75 years, taking a beating from the elements all that time. In 2015, the City Council of Colorado Springs leased No. 168 to C&TSRR, which moved the 45-ton engine to its railroad shop in Antonito for renovation.
“We did one small patch on the boiler,” Pappas said. “The pressure vessel was one of the best I’ve seen for a rescue case.”
The biggest challenge, he said, was getting the running gear, which was badly out of alignment, back in working order. Other work included reconditioning the brake system, reconstructing the cab and building a new deck with Southern yellow pine.
Pappas said the four rehabilitated wooden train cars No. 168 will be pulling date back to 1876, 1878, 1881 and 1887.
Originally from Stockton, California, Pappas, 43, has worked over the years with five steam railroads in Washington, California, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. He has been with the Cumbres & Toltec for more than four years.
“I have always been interested in steam engines, since I was a little kid, been fascinated with the simplicity of a tea kettle making something happen,” he said.
Pappas sees the return of No. 168 to its old chugging grounds as a beautiful moment in railroad history.
“It’s a rare bird in its native habitat.”
And during test runs, that bird has shown it’s ready to fly.
“That locomotive wants to exceed our speed limits (12 mph),” he said. “You have to hold her back when you are out on the flats and running hard.”
“Hey talk about a-ramblin’
She’s the fastest train on the line
Talk about a-travelin’
She’s the fastest train on the line.”