Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 31, 2016

Railroad Steam Power; Chama, New Mexico

Today’s post continues a series of articles set in New Mexico. I’ll fold in a theme I’ve been exploring recently: old railroad sites in the West. I’ll look at a large railroad yard in north central New Mexico in the village of Chama.

Chama map highlights

The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad connects Chama (red circle) and Antonito, Colorado (blue circle). For reference, these small towns are due north of Taos, New Mexico (green circle). (Taos is 70 miles north of Santa Fe). The railroad follows the Chama River, a tributary of the San Juan.

This is stunningly beautiful country. You don’t have to be a railroad buff to enjoy the drive northwest from Taos along U.S. 64, over the spectacular Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, up into alpine meadows, through Tres Piedres and down to Tierra Amarilla before heading north to Chama. There aren’t any theme parks, shopping malls or … much of anything. You are in the West. Period. I previously wrote about Tierra Amarilla HERE.

Once you reach Chama, you’re in the valley of the Rio Chama, and you’re at one end of the railroad line. (The Rio Chama flows southeast from there toward the Rio Grande, and is the river you see if you traipse through Georgia O’Keeffe’s country around Abiquiu.)

The line is narrow gauge rail, meaning it’s about 3 feet wide, rather than the 4′ 8-1/2″ width of standard rail lines. A number of western American rail lines were built on a variety of narrow gauges, primarily to reduce the scale of engineering the roadbeds through narrow gorges and mountainous terrain.

The route was built by the Denver, Rio Grande & Western Railroad in 1880 to serve the silver mining boom. In a later article, I’ll look at another DRG&W line that still operates not too far away between two Colorado towns: Silverton and Durango.

The silver boom ended precipitously in 1893. Although the Chama-Antonito line clung to existence, DRG&W abandoned it in 1969. A restoration effort gained support from both states, purchased the rail line, a large amount of equipment and the extensive railroad yard in Chama, and began operating the coal-fired steam locomotives to pull passenger excursion trains. They’re going strong, and the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad has been designated a National Historic Landmark.

Here’s a look at a portion of the Chama yard and its coal tipple, shot in 2002.

Chama coal tipple Marcy Vincent

A coal tipple is a structure with mechanical equipment, usually conveyor belts or buckets, that lifts coal into a chute to deliver it into the coal tenders of locomotives. In the distance you can see a water tower with its spout extending to the right. It would have been used to refill the water tanks on locomotives for generating steam.

Oh, yes: coal-fired steam locomotives. There are six in the inventory of the Cumbres & Toltec, 5 in operating condition. Here’s #489 as it looked in 2002, awaiting restoration.

Chama locomotive Brad Nixon

489 was reconditioned and entered service in 2008. Here’s a shot borrowed from the Cumbres & Toltec website, showing it restored to glory, in its element.

Cumbres-Toltec Locomotive 489

You can ride the Cumbres & Toltec on a variety of excursions. For more information, visit their website, HERE.

There’s now a self-guided tour of the large Chama yard. In 2002, we were on our own, but we saw some fascinating pieces of rolling stock. Here’s The Counselor next to a derrick, a crane used for moving rails, ties, ballast and other supplies for maintenance.

Chama derrick Brad Nixon

Chama sits at 7,871 ft. elevation, and Antonito is a bit higher. It snows a good deal at that altitude. That meant that in their day, in order to run throughout the winter, DGR&W had to clear snow from the tracks. How do you clear miles and miles of deep-drifted snow? With this:

Chama snowplow Marcy Vincent

That’s a rotary snowplow. A locomotive pushed this monster along the track, while an engine within the snowplow housing drove the big fan-like blades to throw snow to the side (the operator could change the “throw” to the left or right). According to Wikipedia, a few of these are still in operation, but not many.

This is a brief look at a fascinating part of the immense amount of railroad history still visible in the American west. I’m not a true railroad buff, and I invite any updates from better-informed readers about the equipment pictured here and, especially, about the current status of the Chama yard and the Toltec & Cumbres.

© Brad Nixon 2016. Some photos courtesy of M. Vincent, all rights reserved. Locomotive 489 operation shot © Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad 2016.


  1. Wow! Considering that you two have never resided in New Mexico, you certainly have covered a lot of area and know so much about it. Thanks for the tour!


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