Ticket to ride
Part 2: Osier to Antonito
Halfway to Antonito, we stopped at Osier for lunch. The big yellow Osier dining hall is one of the few structures along the Cumbres & Toltec line that was built recently.
Inside, it looked like a large school cafeteria, but the food was quite good. I had a choice of full turkey or roast beef dinners or a soup and salad bar downstairs. I figured a big meal would put me to sleep, so I chose the soup and salad. A small bowl of bacon and potato soup and a salad satisfied my stomach, and then I went outside to photograph the train.
If you click on the next photo, you'll get to see a double-sized version of our train at the Osier stop.
Soon, engine number 488 pulled in from Antonito with a train similar to ours. About half of our passengers transferred to this Chama-bound train, while some of their passengers moved to our train to ride back to Antonito. Everybody got a good lunch, though!
Here's the back end of the other train's parlor car.
Notice how close together the wheels are compared to the width of the car! These narrow-gauge rails are only three feet apart, compared to four feet eight and a half inches for standard-gauge trains. Why did they choose such a narrow gauge for this line? Because it allowed them to lay out tighter curves... and when your tracks have to wind around mountains and canyons, you need a lot of switchbacks. The tighter the turns, the less expensive and complicated it is to lay rail.
We soon saw why this railroad line needed to be able to handle tight clearances.
While the rails are only three feet apart, the train is nine feet wide. Those rocky walls are too close for comfort! And they lead to...
... the Rock Tunnel. 360 feet long, bored through solid rock, and followed by...
... the Mud Tunnel. 342 feet long, dug through solid, well, mud... with timbers shoring up the whole length of the tunnel. Here's a video that shows what it was like going through the Mud Tunnel. Notice how the tunnel fills up with smoke as we pass through!
After that, the terrain flattened out a bit—more scrubby cattle-grazing land than mountains and canyons—and the last hour or so of the ride was less scenic. Still pretty countryside, though. I watched it from my armchair, viewing the panorama from the side windows and the open back door.
If you look really closely, you can see the headlight of the "fire car" following us, back where the tracks converge.
By the way, the Cumbres & Toltec's 64-mile run uses three and a half tons of coal. That's what the tender is for: coal and water.
That's a lot of coal. What really brought it home to me was when the conductor told us that the engineer and fireman, between them, shovel all three and a half tons of coal by hand into the engine's firebox in the course of a day's run. They must have muscles like iron. I would not want to arm-wrestle one of those guys!
By the way, if you're wondering what the little black booth on the tender is for, it's a "doghouse" for the brakeman to huddle in in cold weather. We had to stop several times on the downgrade from Osier to let the air pressure build up. "Man, he's really riding the brakes today," said the brakeman. But compared to the early days of railroading, air brakes were a huge step forward. We have George Westinghouse to thank for that.
In the early days, brakes were applied by turning a handwheel on each car. (You can see the brakeman's handwheel in the photo of the rear door, above.) The engineer would signal with one short blast of the whistle, and the brakeman would turn that wheel to slow the car down. But since the railroad couldn't afford to assign a brakeman to every car, a few men had to do the job for the whole train. That meant running from car to car to apply each car's brakes—in the case of freight cars, running on a walkway on the roof of the car.
As you can imagine, this was extremely dangerous work, especially in bad weather. And with one or a few men running from car to car to apply brakes, it took a long time to slow down—not like stepping on your car's brake pedal and instantly losing speed. Railroad accidents were common, especially since signaling systems hadn't yet been worked out.
To remedy the problem, which was costing many lives every year, railroaders first tried brakes that were applied by steam pressure. Locomotives had plenty of steam to spare, so it was a logical idea. All the engineer had to do was open a valve, and steam ran through pipes and hoses the length of the train, pushing brake shoes against the wheels. But there were a couple of problems with this approach. First, with a long train and especially on a cold day, the steam would condense into water before it reached the last cars, so there'd be no braking effect. But worse, if a steam coupling failed or a car broke loose, all braking was lost as the steam escaped. The result was a runaway train... and when that happened, people were going to die.
Westinghouse, though still a young man in 1868, came up with two ideas that solved these problems. First, he used compressed air instead of steam. Compressed air can't condense into liquid, so pressure was maintained in the pipes no matter how long the train or how cold the day. Westinghouse's second idea was even better: instead of using pressure to apply the brakes, he used pressure to hold off the brakes. This made the system fail-safe: if air pressure were lost due to a burst hose or a broken coupling, the brakes would automatically be applied. The Westinghouse Air Brake system was universally adopted, and similar air brakes are still used on trains, trucks, buses and large RVs.
Westinghouse was a man of many talents. In addition to air brakes, his inventions included railway block signals, automotive shock absorbers, and even—how's this for trivia?—a reversible frog! But his biggest success was his electrical power distribution system. Combining his own inventions with ideas licensed from men like Tesla, Westinghouse laid the foundation of a nationwide AC power grid, despite a well-financed smear campaign funded by Thomas Edison, who was pushing an inferior DC system. Even Edison gave in eventually, and AC power became the workhorse of the world.
As my fellow passengers and I chatted about Westinghouse's accomplishments, the train rolled on—around Phantom Curve, through Sublette, past Big Horn Peak, Whiplash Curve, the Lava Loop, and over Hangman's Trestle. Just as I'd expected, the skies had clouded up, and a light rain began to patter against our windows.
We finally pulled into Antonito a little before five in a gloomy drizzle, and boarded a large, deluxe Volvo motorcoach (electrical outlets at every seat—good golly!) for the hour-long trip back to Chama. I was exhausted. I would have dozed off, but the bus driver was a chatty sort who kept up a stream of gab on the PA system, volunteering trivia, and offering to give a calendar to anyone who could guess one of his riddles. He only had three calendars to give away, but that didn't stop him from talking through the whole trip. It was annoying because I was tired and just wanted to rest, but I knew he was just trying to provide entertainment, so I didn't hold it against him.
To provide a fitting climax to the day, after supper I sat down and watched Buster Keaton's
"The General", one of the funniest films ever made. It's an action comedy that revolves around the theft of a Civil-War steam locomotive. Keaton does all his own stunts, and they are amazing! If you've never seen it, you have a treat in store for you. 'Nuff said.
Note: a low-quality version of the film is available at the Internet Archive website, but I urge you to see it in the highest quality version you can get—the film is worth it! I have Kino's restored version on Blu-Ray, and it's a revelation to see how sharp and clear the photography was.