Rail­road school teaches steamy lessons from past

The Denver Post - - DENVER & THE WEST - By Jenny Brundin

CHAMA, N.M.» In the thick of swirling plumes of coal­fired smoke and greasy en­gine parts, 11 men, mostly mid­dle-aged and clad in blue over­alls and steel-toed boots, are get­ting ready for a day of class. Ev­ery­one’s stand­ing in the tiny rail vil­lage of Chama, N.M., gaz­ing at clang­ing, heav­ing lo­co­mo­tives.

“It’s a strange beast,” says Tom Chenal, a sheep farmer who hails from New Jersey. For him, it al­most seems alive, “like it’s got a heart­beat or some­thing.”

Each of the men here are signed up for a rare and re­mote school near the Colorado-new Mex­ico bor­der: the Cum­bres & Toltec en­gi­neer and fire­man school.

Dat­ing back to 1880 with a mis­sion to tap the re­sources of the south­ern Rock­ies, the Cum­bres & Toltec Scenic Rail­road is the high­est and long­est steam-op­er­ated rail­road in the coun­try. A Na­tional His­toric Land­mark, tourist trains lum­ber daily be­tween Chama and An­tonito, Colo., dur­ing the sum­mer and fall sea­sons.

“This whole op­er­a­tion here is very much a time cap­sule,” says Ed Beaudette, the rail­road’s man­ager of en­gi­neer­ing and op­er­a­tions.

“It’s one of those few places where you can get out of your mod­ern Mercedes or Cadil­lac and step onto the gravel pave­ment, and look around and then you are back in 1925.”

It’s day two of the 4-day class and in­struc­tors pre­pare the men for their first day in En­gine 487. They’ll be op­er­at­ing their own train, sep­a­rate from the steam horse that con­ducts the sight­seers.

Be­fore they ar­rived the stu­dents read hun­dreds of pages of man­u­als as home­work.

“If you get ner­vous or if you don’t know the next step, don’t be scared to ask ques­tions, we’re here to help you guys,” con­duc­tor Chris Aira tells the men.

The stu­dents ro­tate turns in the lo­co­mo­tive — in groups of three — as the train trav­els through alpine mead­ows, aspen groves, steep moun­tain canyons, and climbs past a sheer rock face to the 10,022 foot Cum­bres Pass Sum­mit. Later, when they run the full 64miles of the rail­road, they’ll inch along the 800 foot Toltec Gorge and fol­low the rush­ing Rio de los Pi­nos.

“In gen­eral it starts out with a mild amount of ter­ror,” Beaudette says of the stu­dents’ de­meanor.

Not to worry, along­side them in the lo­co­mo­tive are pro­fes­sional rail­road­ers.

“As soon as they ac­tu­ally get some­thing mov­ing, the ter­ror tends to go away and they re­ally get wrapped up in it. they come off all smiles,” he says.

“It’s re­ally quite an adrenalin-pro­duc­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for them.”

For many, the en­gi­neer­ing class is sim­ply the chance to learn about some­thing that’s all but van­ished. Tom Chenal says that it’s partly about trac­ing the roots of how we got to where we are to­day.

“I was cu­ri­ous how our pre­de­ces­sors did it and the more that I learned, the more I am in awe of what they ac­com­plished.”

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