After many years absence I am going to start up a new layout this
winter. I have digitrax empire builder, a wide variation of locos and
rolling stock. I have a love for several different lines for I have
lived in many different places..My first love was Union Pacific
because my father took me to the roundhouse in Cheyenne when I was 8
years old.He had a friend that made wheel rims for the Challengers and
the Bigboys. They let me climb up into the cab, without the yardmaster
knowing I was there, and let me ride while the Big engine was turned
on the turntable.---Gawd I was hooked!!
My second love is Denver RioGrande. Then there was the Southern
Pacific and the Pennsys. Where do I start? Probably UP.?In 2004 I went
to Chama and spent a couple of days taking pics of the Med Hens. How
the hell am I going to tie HOn3 in with HO--UP? I am now retired and
ready to start.Probably will use a dogbone track plan.
If you don't want to bend history, consider that the UP has a line from
Cheyenne down to Denver, and that the Colorado & Southern had narrow gauge
lines into Denver that were not removed until the fall of 1942. The last
C&S narrow gauge passenger train operated out of Denver on 4/9/37. On the
UP, the first Challengers arrived in 1936, the first FEF's in '37, and the
first Big Boy arrived on the property on 9/4/42. So it could be accurate to
have HOn3 operating beside UP big steam. With a slight bend of history, the
C&S was known to have borrowed D&RGW narrow gauge locos. With a little more
bending of the past, one could postulate that the Rio Grande acquired the
Colorado & Northwestern line west out of Boulder when it was abandoned in
1919, and that it continued to operate into WWII because of war-critical
mineral deposits. Or perhaps one could have the UP acquire the Colorado
Midland standard gauge when it was abandoned in 1918 and .... Have fun!!
John, this is a long post, but you may enjoy the story. I think it
originally came from the americanheritage.com web site.
THE LOST LANGUAGE of TRAINS
In New Mexico a century-old railroad town operates just as it did when
steam powered the railroads and the railroads defined America
BY PETER TUTTLE
APPROACHED FROM THE EAST, CHAMA, New Mexico, has changed very little
from a century ago. The highway over Cumbres Pass parallels the Cumbres
and Toltec narrow-gauge railroad’s swirling descent through the high
mountain parks of the Rio Chama, with the river valley widening and
flattening for only the last few miles.
Then, to the left, a stand of tall, ancient cottonwood trees in the
river flat nearly conceals an RV park, while on the right old commercial
structures line the road along the bench of land above the river flats
where the railroad emerges from cottonwoods and enters the town.
Foster’s Hotel, on the right, is a relic of Chama’s early days, in
the 1880s, when the Denver & Rio Grande pushed through the territory. At
Chama the railroad built a mountain helper terminal, with a roundhouse
and servicing facilities for the extra locomotives needed to pull trains
over the steady 4 percent grade up the west side of Cumbres Pass.
Those thirteen miles of 4 percent grade—the track rising four feet in
elevation for every one hundred linear feet—are the steepest long
stretch of steam railroad in North America. In the early days, when
locomotives were smaller, it could require three of them for every five
The engines now in use, built in the 1920s, are much bigger, each
capable of pulling nine cars over the grade. In fact, they are among the
largest three-foot-gauge steam locomotives ever made, so large that they
were constructed with their frames outside their driving wheels, to
allow wider axle bearings on the slender track.
The wooden freight cars, most of them made around the turn of the
century and rebuilt in the 1920s, differ only in minor details from
their hundred-year-old counterparts. Their size and technology remain
pretty much what they have always been.
And the railroad structures, the old ones, appear changed almost not at
all. A photograph taken around 1907 by Fred Jukes, one of the best
early-day railroad photographers, shows the Chama roundhouse with a
half-dozen little Grant and Baldwin Locomotive Works 2-8-0s, known as
Consolidation types, filling the tracks in front of it. Now, almost
ninety years later, those larger, outside-frame 2-8-2 Mikado types from
the 1920s wait there for duty. But otherwise almost everything seems the
There are many places in this country where the past has in some way
been preserved. There are very few places where the actual economic and
industrial activity remains the same. Chama is not a replica. Chama is a
century-old working railroad town, and the narrow gauge remains, as it
has always been, the heartbeat of the community.
The railroad’s customers have changed. Originally the road hauled
passengers and freight. Now it carries passengers almost exclusively,
and the passengers are tourists. They take the train in the morning, for
the wild and gloriously scenic ride up Cumbres Pass to Osier, where they
can either continue on a second train that has climbed to Osier from the
high desert town of Antonito, Colorado, in the San Luis Valley, or
return to Chama on the train they took up.
The Cumbres & Toltec’s sixty-four miles between Chama and Antonito
make it the longest and highest steam railroad still operating in the
United States. But the work of the railroading remains precisely the
same as always: hauling short trains up very steep grades to a mountain
pass 10,015 feet above sea level, using steam locomotives.
A steam locomotive’s crew commonly consists of two men: a fireman, who
shovels coal from the tender into the firebox and tends the boiler,
making sure that it is making enough steam, and an engineer, who
actually runs the train.
Operating a railroad locomotive is not like driving a car, because the
weight of the train is immense in comparison with that of the engine.
The train is an enormous drag going upgrade, it creates momentum when in
motion on level track, and on downgrades it is always trying to become a
runaway. An engineer, like the captain of an ocean liner, must
understand how to use the very small forces at his disposal to control
the train’s very large inertia and momentum.
A steam engine is a marvelous creature of smoke, fire, whistle, and
panting exhaust. It is also a maintenance nightmare full of plumbing,
with pipes carrying steam and air to regulate and power its ancillary
devices: a steam turbogenerator for the headlight, air lines for the
train and engine brakes, superheater coils to increase its efficiency.
All those pipe joints, constantly expanding and contracting under high
pressure, are always subject to leakage, sometimes to failure.
And all the mechanical joints, between the side rods and the main rods
and the drivers, huge castings and forgings, strain against one another
while anchored to the frame, so that the locomotive is in effect engaged
in an isometric exercise, finally transmitting power to the drivers only
because it is bolted together so tightly that it cannot push itself
Every bearing surface in that mechanism wears, daily, rapidly. Every
bolt vibrates and needs to be tightened or adjusted. The engineer and
the fireman are only part of the support crew. You need an army of other
people to keep steam engines running. And that terrific labor cost is
what, in competition with the economy of diesel locomotive maintenance,
did steam in.
Did steam in almost everywhere, but not on the Colorado narrow-gauge
lines of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, because the economy
of southwestern Colorado, where they ran, had declined precipitously
after the turn of the century and then never prospered enough later to
support the construction of the all-weather auto roads through the
mountains that might have supplanted the railroad as the essential
provider of freight transportation.
The regional economy did improve enough during the boom of the 1920s for
the D&RGW to replace much of the original 1880s equipment with what is
there now. The narrow gauge declined again with the Depression, only to
be sustained by the demands of World War II and then by a natural-gas
and oil boom in Farmington, New Mexico, that began in the early 1950s.
The narrow gauge functioned daily, if with diminishing maintenance and
traffic, right through the 1960s. Long trains of pipe for the gas and
oil fields of Farmington were transferred from standard- to narrow-gauge
cars at Alamosa, Colorado, then hauled over Cumbres Pass behind 480- and
490-class outside-frame Mikado-type engines, on thirty-footlong
turn-of-the-century freight cars rebuilt in the 1920s. The individual
pieces of pipe were each forty feet long, so that the railroad had to
space an empty flatcar between each loaded one to accommodate the pipes’
All those trains went through Chama, hauled over Cumbres Pass by helper
engines stationed at Chama.
The Denver & Rio Grande Western’s narrow-gauge line, stretching from
Alamosa to Durango, Colorado, with a branch line up to Silverton, was a
marvelous anachronism, its life extended only because still few auto
roads, even in the middle of the twentieth century, penetrated
Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountain ranges. You would
not have wanted to use trucks to haul that pipe over those mountain
roads, especially not in winter. And so the railroad endured, and Chama
endured, being what it had always been, a narrow-gauge steam railroad
By 1968, when freight traffic had finally disappeared, and the D&RGW
petitioned to abandon the Alamosa-to-Durango route over Cumbres, the
remaining branch line from Durango up the spectacular Animas River
canyon to Silverton had become the most successful passenger railroad in
North America, hauling 85,000 tourists a year. It didn’t take a genius
to figure out that something similar might be done with the most scenic
part of the Cumbres Pass line. And in 1971, in what must be considered a
miracle of political and bureaucratic cooperation, the states of
Colorado and New Mexico agreed to purchase and operate the most scenic
sixty-four miles of the railroad—from Antonito over Cumbres Pass and
down to Chama—hauling tourists. They renamed the line the Cumbres and
Toltec Scenic Railroad, or CATS.
This was not a case of pure historical preservation. There were, and
remain, very few jobs in that remote region. The railroad represented
jobs; the tourists it might attract represented more jobs.
In 1993, when my wife, Edie, and I drifted into Chama on a sunny
September afternoon, CATS had been a going concern for more than two
decades, and it now carried 58,000 passengers per year.
But the place—the railroad yards and Chama’s main street—looked
pretty much the same as always. When Edie and I parked the car in the
gritty cinder-and-dirt lot alongside the yard, the brick roundhouse wall
that stretched in front of us, across the tracks, was the same wall,
with the same grime and dirt and dust of countless steam locomotives,
that Fred Jukes had photographed more than eighty years earlier.
The board-and-batten passenger station was the same. The section men’s
bunkhouse—one story, low roof—still hunkered off to the left, its
walls made of squared logs that had been cut from local timber about
1880. The bunkhouse was actually a log cabin. Its construction preceded
the availability of sawn lumber.
And best of all, just as in Rio Grande days, there were no fences.
THIS WAS A WORKING RAILROAD YARD, YET YOU were welcome to enter it, just
as folks had always done in Chama, because their uncles and aunts and
fathers and mothers worked on the railroad, it was part of the
community, and you were way up in the mountains, a long way from the top
brass. The railroad, as much as any business not family-owned can be,
was family. So was its property.
You were, of course, expected to watch your step, to conduct yourself
sensibly, to not harm that property, and to stay out of places and off
equipment that could be especially dangerous. You didn’t climb onto a
locomotive uninvited. You didn’t walk into the roundhouse and shops
Edie and I crossed the yard to the lead track outside the roundhouse,
where 497 simmered in the sun. In the cab, leaning out of the
fireman’s window, a middle-aged man with a pleasant face looked down
on us, his expression at once serious and yet amused.
He seemed a little older than the last time Edie and I had visited with
him, four years earlier. But I recognized him. He was Donald Martinez,
an engine hostler and fireman, and Mr. Martinez had in 1989 invited Edie
and me up into the engine cab with him. We had looked in at the firebox
glare, gotten our hands thoroughly blackened and our clothes inevitably
smeared. At the time, Donald had worked for the railroad for four years,
and he liked it. Now, in 1993, his hair was just starting to go gray, as
was ours, and he invited us into the cab again. We hoisted ourselves up
into the warm, green-painted interior, looked around, and renewed our
acquaintance with Donald.
“I’ve been working for the railroad for eight years now,” he said.
“I like it. Sometimes I fire an engine, up the hill to Cumbres.”
AN AMUSEMENT, A SIMPLE PLEASURE IN LIFE CAME through in his expression.
His job, as a hostler, was to move steam engines around the yard at
Chama: into the roundhouse for servicing, out again for duty; to the
water tank for water; to the sand house for sand (which, dropped through
pipes to the rail, helps the engines gain traction); to the coal dock,
where a front-end loader lifts coal into the tenders; reshuffling
passenger cars to make up the trains each morning; reshuffling them
again at night for the next day. The number of passengers determined the
number of cars.
On this particular warm fall afternoon, he had to move some drop-bottom
gondola cars up the track that led to the pit that fed the coaling
tower, perhaps the last working wooden coaling tower in North America, a
huge timber structure, weathered dark brown.
Donald’s job was to move the cars over the pit, into which they would
dump the coal, which would then be cable-hoisted by big steel buckets to
the top of the tower and dropped into a huge, elevated wooden bin. The
bin has a gate and chute at its bottom, from which coal is fed into the
The drop-bottom gons (gondola cars) had been built, like much of the Rio
Grande freight-car fleet, around 1900. They were very distinctive. While
most narrow-gauge cars are very low-slung and squat, the gons, to allow
the doors that make up their floors to drop open, ride high on their
trucks, like ladies crossing a muddy street with their long skirts held
Edie and I thanked Donald for his hospitality, climbed off the engine,
and followed, walking alongside, as Donald coupled the gons to the end
of a half-dozen other cars, then pulled the entire train forward to the
main line. Someone threw the switch for the track to the coaling-tower
loading pit, and Donald began, very slowly, backing up. The gons, each
loaded with twenty-five tons of coal, were farthest from the engine but
now at the head of the train as it traveled in reverse.
The track curved gently to the west near the main line, so that Donald,
at the throttle on the east side of the engine, could not see the end of
his train until his locomotive met the curve. I was on the ground, on
the west side, standing below the engine as it backed slowly toward the
tower. Because I was on the inside of the curve, I could see the entire
And what I saw was the last car, and then the second gon, rising and
falling and pitching side to side—not violently, but not subtly
either. I wanted to say something but hesitated. I was just a visitor,
and I didn’t know for sure what was going on.
Then the CATS trainmaster, Gerald Blea, ran toward engine 497, telling
Donald to stop the train, that the two gondolas were derailed, their
wheels resting on the crossties.
While Donald stayed with his engine, Edie and I walked with several
other visitors back to the derailed cars. A problem. But not a major
accident. Both cars remained upright. No one was injured. No passengers
were involved. No equipment even appeared damaged. The freight-car
wheels were still parallel with the rails, which would facilitate
Gerald Blea called the shop with his radio. Soon we heard the diesel
bark of the CATS front-end loader as it fired up at the far end of the
yard, and it headed our way, trundling over the cindercovered ground. As
the loader approached, I saw that it carried in its bucket a selection
of rerailing frogs. The frogs, shaped like small, merging ramps (or like
a frog’s splayed legs and torso), are heavy steel castings that lead
the car wheels back onto the rail when the car is pulled up on them.
The trainmen set the frogs in position slowly, with great care, and
under the trainmaster’s direction, Donald advanced 497. The gondolas
did not at first rerail. Then, after the frogs were repositioned, the
first drop-bottom gon returned to the rails, just as it was supposed to.
But the second gon, when pulled forward, got hung up and refused to
budge. To pull it harder, with the steam locomotive, threatened to rip
out the car’s coupler, and then you had a second problem.
WE BYSTANDERS FROM ELSEWHERE THAN CHAMA ALL remarked upon the attitude
and demeanor of the railroad crew as they worked. There had been no
recriminations after the accident. The crewmen did not joke around, but
their conversation as they worked had a casual,
this-is-not-the-end-of-the-world quality to it.
They had a problem. They were taking care of it. They did not seem to
mind our watching the entire process, from where we stood, some ten
yards back so we were out of their way. After each set of freight-car
wheels had regained the rails, we visitors politely clapped, and the
crew acknowledged our applause with smiles.
Now, with the recalcitrant last car, they tried something different.
Donald pulled his train ahead, clear of the derailment site, and a
mechanic drove the front-end loader onto the track, straddling it, and
hooked a chain from the loader to the remaining derailed car. The idea,
I think, was that they could control the movement of the loader much
more precisely than the forward motion of the steam engine. Rather than
the two big cylinders of the locomotive supplying massive power strokes,
they could rev up the front-end loader for power, but advance ever so
gradually, in super-low gear.
First the chain snapped. They doubled it, and they freed the car wheels.
Donald pulled the gon onto the track with 497, then ran his train onto
one of the more reliable yard tracks.
The front-end loader took the retailing frogs back to the roundhouse.
The track crew dispersed; it was almost quitting time. They could fix
the damaged track tomorrow.
I thought: Yes, this is what life was like, in good small places.
Everyone knows they are all going to be there the next year, and the
year after that. No heads roll, because these people are also neighbors
Edie and I had once lived in a small town, and we had worked for small
companies. Those places had their drawbacks. But they had their virtues
too, and watching the rerailing of that drop-bottom gon, I was reminded
of that time.
I had not spoken with Donald Martinez all the time the crew was at work.
Now, as 497 drifted by me, with Donald at the throttle, I heard an
amused Spanish-accented voice from the cab saying quietly, “I got it
in, I got it out.”
THE NEXT MORNING, DONALD MARTINEZ WAS BUSY, PREparing a K-36 for its
trip up Cumbres Pass that day. In the first hour and a quarter of its
thirteen-mile climb, the Mikado would use three tons of coal. The
fireman would hand-shovel every last chunk of that coal from the tender
into the firebox door at the end of the boiler, which projected into the
Edie and I wandered over to the shop building, adjacent to the old
roundhouse. The shop, built of brick and concrete, had been constructed
by CATS in 1978. The intervening fifteen years of coal smoke and
lubricants had rendered it, in general grime and weathering, almost
indistinguishable from the original brick roundhouse of 1899.
The pilot plow of engine 489 projected from the shop door, adjacent to
K-27 463, which was torn apart and undergoing restoration. Two
men—Anglo, middle-aged—worked intensely in the inspection pit,
between the rails, at the engine’s pilot.
“Do you mind if we watch?” I asked.
“No, no, come right in,” the man with the mustache said, in a voice
of authority. “We’re glad to have visitors. We don’t see people
We introduced ourselves. They were John Bush, the chief mechanical
officer, and his right-hand man, Jack Campbell, CATS’s chief machinist.
I asked what they were doing.
John replied, “We have to open the smokebox front, and to do that,
we’ve got to remove the plow.” He emerged from beneath the pilot.
“I can’t get it, Jack,” he said. “See if you can.”
Jack took John’s place, and with a two-foot-long heavy wrench, he
loosened a nut located in an awkward spot behind the pilot beam.
John Bush explained, “Some years ago I fell off a ladder and broke
both wrists and my hip. The doctors told me I’d never walk again.
Wrong. But there are some things my wrists won’t do.”
I asked John how the K-37 compared with the line’s somewhat newer K-36s.
“The K-37’s older boiler makes a difference. A K-36 has about two
hundred and fifty flexible stay bolts, perhaps one-third the total
number of stay bolts. A K-37 has just twelve in the entire boiler.
Flexible stay bolts were an innovation that compensated for the
expansion and contraction in the boiler. A bolt could flex instead of
breaking. That reduces boiler maintenance.
“And there are also minor things, like smokebox hinges. The K-36s have
hinged smokebox fronts, so that to get in the boiler, we can simply
unbolt the smokebox front and swing it out of the way. With K-37 you
have to lift the entire smokebox front from the engine.
“But we got a good deal with 497. The engine was in operating
condition, and we obtained it in trade from the Durango and Silverton
for our 482, which needed a complete rebuild. The D&S had just rebuilt
the K-37, only to discover that its wheelbase is a little too long for
its curves. The Rio Grande never ran K-37s in on the Silverton line
anyway, while they ran here all the time. So we were happy to bring a
K-37 home, in effect. It’s a powerful locomotive—the largest
still-existing three-foot-gauge steam engine in the world. And it’s a
representative of one of the engine classes that historically ran here.”
I ASKED JOHN HOW LONG HE’D BEEN AT CATS. “I CAME down here in 1989.
Since then we’ve reflued 489 and 484; we’ve rebuilt the running gear
on 484, 487, and 489. We have bored the valves and cylinders on 487 and
put in new piston rings and valve rings. I brought 497 to Chama. We’re
restoring 463 and building a third series of passenger cars. And I’ve
got the sand house and coaling tower working again.”
He stopped, then added, “I said I because this has been my
responsibility. But let me make clear that this is a group effort. I am
very, very proud of the people working here.”
“What did you do before?”
“I had my own railroad restoration company. Three weeks before coming
here I was finishing the Marcia, a 1906 private car in Craig. I spent
three years working on the Marcia. Before that I worked on Santa Fe #132
in Topeka. Before that I worked on #433 in Palmer Lake. Before that I
restored D&RGW #168 in Colorado Springs. Before that I was at the Valley
Railroad in Connecticut, where I worked on #97. Before that I was at the
Georgetown Loop Railway. Before that I was teaching at the University of
Colorado in Denver, finishing my Ph.D. in anthropology.”
I said to John, “I don’t mean to pry, but what brought about the
transition from academia to steam locomotives?”
John answered, “My accident put everything in perspective. It was a
wake-up call. I asked myself what I really wanted to do, and it wasn’t
teaching undergraduates. I was born in Telluride, back when it was a
working mining town. That’s where I spent my formative years. My first
cab ride was in a Rio Grande Southern engine.
“Then my family moved to Washington, D.C. They didn’t have a word
for it back then, but what I experienced was culture shock. Lucius
Beebe’s book Narrow Gauge in the Rockies kept me sane.
“Then when I went back east to Connecticut, working at the Valley
Railroad, I realized I could not tolerate living among millions of
people who all keep their distance. They are good people, but they are
distant. I grew up in a small Western town where the outlook is
different. Chama is like Telluride was when I was a boy. These guys
working on the railroad aren’t railroad fans. To them it’s a job, a
job their uncle or grandfather may have done before them.
“You’re talking historical depth here. It’s a complete property.
You’ve got engines here that always ran here. If you go into the coal
tower, the sand house, you can almost hear the voices of the ghosts.
Only now you see Tommy Garcia getting green sand and throwing it up into
the hopper, the same as it’s always been done.”
“Let me show you something,” John said, and he led Edie and me past
the machine shop to the boiler room, where two tiny, ancient steam
locomotive boilers rested on brick foundations. They were just the
boiler barrels now; the only appurtenances remaining were their steam
domes and stacks extending through the ceiling. For years they had
provided the steam power that ran the machinery at the roundhouse.
John Bush said, “One of these is the boiler from a Class 56 Baldwin
Consolidation, shopped in 1880. This other boiler is from a Mogul. This
is number 150. Obsolete in 1889. They had stopped using these small
locomotives by then, so they put them to use in the shop. They’ve been
here ever since.”
John led us into the oil house, a small brick building adjacent to the
roundhouse. He pointed to one of a row of ceiling-height riveted-iron
tanks against the far wall. “See that tank? See how it’s lettered
Headlight Oil? It hasn’t been repainted since 1915, when they
converted to electric headlamps.”
WE WENT INTO HIS OFFICE, A CLUTTERED PLACE full of drawings and records
and pieces of railroad equipment, including new cab doors for 463,
leaning against the wall, looking like fine furniture, still unpainted
“Every month I have to file a report on every locomotive. It’s
federal paperwork. Just the same as they had to when the Rio Grande
operated the railroad. In the old days they used this cabinet for
reports on the engines.”
John opened the door to a tall, shallow wooden cabinet fastened at
shoulder height to the wall, the interior full of pigeonholes like those
in a post office. Each one had a number attached to it.
He pointed to the little typewritten numbers pasted under the
pigeonholes. “Over here are the first five 490s; here are the 480s,
460s. Over here is 223, the last Grant. Over here is 206, 205. Nobody
ever went back and peeled off the numbers for locomotives that were no
longer in use after the 1920s. It has all survived here by benign
Jack Campbell poked his head in the door and waited for a moment to get
a word in edgewise. “I talked to Earl, and he thinks it’s a return
split. With the firebox door open it would blow back smoke right out the
John said, “Go back and loosen the plugs. Then finger-tighten them. If
we don’t take ’em out now, while the shell’s hot—”
Jack: “The other thing is this. I don’t think this antiseize is any
good. This is the first season we’ve leaned on it.”
John: “Let me see if I can get some of that coppery stuff.”
Jack: “I’d like to use flake graphite.”
John: “You know, what works better is molybdenum.”
Jack: “That silver stuff’s nasty. You have to take a wire wheel to
get it off.”
John: “I still think that the biggest problem with the plugs is that
they’ve been so hammered.”
Jack returned to his work. John said, “The 168 was space-shuttle
technology when it was new. That engine could run a mile a minute.
Before that you walked or rode a horse. Over a hundred years later
we’re running this railroad with the same technology. That’s the
point. This is a railroad. We’re running the railroad because we have
a railroad. We have sixty-four miles of some of the toughest tracks in
The sun had climbed higher, filling most of the Chama yard, but not the
west side of the roundhouse, where the western wall—the Fred Jukes
wall, as I thought of it—remained in shadow. There, at 9:30 A.M., the
shop crew gathered for a coffee break. The men sat on the projecting
foundation, their backs against the brick. I sat there with them, while
Edie kept our seats in one of the Pullman-green-painted narrow-gauge
One shopman said to another, “I guess you’ll have to get the
doughnuts, Fred. You’re the cleanest.” Not Fred Jukes. Fred Delgado.
The yellow dog showed up. Or rather, he’d never left. The yellow dog.
Not mangy, but very, very dirty, his light yellow fur matted with
grease, powdered with cinders. But he had a friendly face and an
obliging manner, at once companionable and yet independent. He never
wheedled or whined or demanded attention. He just hung around and kept
folks in the yard company.
He’d followed me as I’d walked alongside 497, with Donald Martinez
in the cab, until the drop-bottom gons derailed. He’d taken a keen
interest in the goings and comings of the shop crew, as rerailment
procedures started. But then, when the more tedious work of carefully
placing and relocating the rerailing frogs continued, his interest had
flagged. He’d wandered off, attending to other business, accompanying
other tourists, until Donald Martinez, who had got ’em in, eventually
got ’em out, and Edie and I were once again strolling through the
yard. Then the yellow dog suddenly reappeared, trotting along ahead of
That evening we’d eaten supper in town and then returned, near
sundown, to find the night mechanic, twenty-year-old Chris King, trailed
by the yellow dog as he walked from one to another of his slumbering
charges, the big 497 and a couple of 480s, under steam, their fires
banked for the night.
On 497 Chris worked the injector, forcing more water into the boiler. He
threw in a few more scoops of coal, then, “Here, give it a try,” he
offered, and I tossed a shovelful of coal into 497’s firebox, just to
say I’d done it.
The yellow dog rejoined us when we returned to the ground. And when
Christopher’s mother and sister, visiting from Salt Lake City, had
posed with him for a late photograph at the pilot of 489—Chris’s
favorite engine, the one for which he’d rebuilt the running gear—the
yellow dog paused respectfully nearby.
In the turn-of-the-century photographs, railroaders posed with their
locomotives and their wives and girlfriends, the engines polished shiny
and bright, the women wearing their Sunday finery, happily perched on
the pilot decks holding bouquets of flowers. In other photos only the
crew appears, the engineer bearing a long-spouted oil can, his free hand
resting on the running board. Either way, there also often appears in
such pictures a yard dog, of indeterminate breed and friendly
disposition, sitting still and attentive for the picture.
Our yellow dog was therefore the latest generation in a rich and varied
lineage. That he was yellow seemed somehow appropriate. His particular
shade of light yellow, complete with grime and grease, perfectly matched
the light yellow to which Grande gold, also coated with grime and
grease, faded with the passage of years.
And that evening, like the yellow dog accompanying us, Edie and I
followed Chris King into the shop, where he worked on a K-36. A
turbogenerator valve had stuck open. Chris would have to fix it that
night for the locomotive to be ready for work in the morning.
Chris told us that he’d first visited Chama as a child on a family
vacation, and after that it had been just a matter of time and growing
up until he got himself back there. During high school years he’d
learned heavy-equipment repair by working for an amusement park.
THE ESSENCE OF STEAM-LOCOMOTIVE MAINTENANCE and repair cannot be found
in books. As with many physical tasks, it is more easily done than said,
and it is most easily and effectively taught when the skills, the
specific practices, are passed down from the experienced to the learning
hand in the shop. John Bush and Jack Campbell, at middle age, were the
generation now carrying the responsibility. Chris King, if he stuck
around, would be the next one. He thought he would: “You know, I get
off work and go back to my apartment and then I talk railroading for
another couple hours with my roommate.”
But this evening, when Chris had done his rounds of the locomotives, it
was time for him to concentrate on that turbogenerator. Edie and I
thanked him for his hospitality, and then, seeing the yellow dog
approach as we emerged from the shop, we asked Chris about him.
“No one knows who he belongs to. He just shows up every day.”
The dog accompanied Edie and me to the yard limit; then he turned back
toward the shop. The sky had grown dark, and we admired the bright stars
as we walked back to the RV park, where we slept in our car, under the
higharching cottonwoods, with the sound of the Rio Chama purling over
its stony bed in the distance.
The next day was too beautiful to stay inside. Edie and I made our way
back through the rocking passenger cars to the observation gondola at
the end of the slow-moving train.
The gondola, wooden, was built in 1903. We stood up in it, holding on to
the chest-high sideboards, and watched the scenery, while the sun shone
down and we breathed in the bracing high-altitude mountain air as the
K-36 pulled us upgrade toward Cumbres Pass.
The observation gon was full, every linear foot of its sides occupied by
someone for whom the rough ride and absence of seating was compensated
by the superb view. Eagles and hawks rode the thermals above and
sometimes below us. The vast valley was parklike in its beauty, with its
lush green grass reaching up the mountainsides to the stands of aspen
and above them dark evergreens.
I had grown up looking at pictures of the Cumbres line: Fred Jukes’s
early photos and then the railroad-enthusiast pictures taken during the
1940s and 1950s. Many of those photographs had real aesthetic value. But
nothing, absolutely nothing, prepares Eastern eyes for the scenery of
the West. You must actually be there to feel its expanse and glory. And
that is what Edie and I now felt as the CATS train labored toward the
sky at fifteen miles an hour.
Peter Tuttle is writing a book about railroads in the West. When he was
fourteen, he built a board-for-board scale model of a narrow-gauge
WOW Great History !! I too went to Chama many years ago and have been
there many times since riding the rails to Colorado, taking pictures
of the trip and my wife said endless pictures of rolling stock. Once I
waited until the end of the work day and all of the other tourists had
left and I bought the fireman and the engineer a case of beer in trade
for letting me drive the 484 about a mile north and then in reverse
back to the yard. I have stayed in every motel and the old hotel in
town. Great memories
Having thoroughly enjoyed myself the two times I've been in Scotland, the
first time including a dinner of dark bread, smoked salmon and good ale in
a pub on Seil island south of Oban and a tour of the Dalwhinnie distillery,
and the second including a beautiful bright and calm day on Loch Ness and
four days at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh last year, let me hope that
you get a chance to ride the C&T, and to visit Northern New Mexico and the
Four Corners area.
Thank you :-)
My one and only visit to the US was to York PA, centred around the TCA
meet, although I did find time to visit the National Toy Train Museum,
Strasburg Railroad, Choo Choo Barn and other attractions. So much to
see; so little time.
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