My love of trains goes back to childhood when our family sat on the front porch of our home in North Dakota and listened to the chugs and snorts of the steam engines as they hauled freight and passengers across the prairies. This affection was enhanced when my dad got a job on the railroad, a move that furthered my dream of someday riding in a caboose. And when it happened, I was moving royalty, seated in the cupola of the little red car and waving to the wheat fields and little towns that dotted the flatlands.
Those days are gone, but a few avenues remain where I and others like me can live go back to those thrilling days of yesteryear. They’re called excursion trains now, but they serve the same purpose. Four of them are located in the Southwest, so with a little planning I can ride them all in less than a week.
The most authentic is the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad in Colorado. It started operations in 1882, hauling gold and silver ore and passengers between the two mountainous communities, and it still uses much of its original equipment, carefully restored to near-original condition.
Now passengers are the main cargo when the train leaves Durango early in the morning for the journey through the mountains to Silverton. It’s a nine-hour excursion – three and one-half hours each way and a two-hour layover in Silverton. On the way, the coal-fired steam engines haul their human freight past waterfalls, into wildlife territory and through pine-forested mountain peaks. When winter’s snows block the tracks, the line offers a variety of shorter packages, all leaving from Durango.
The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is unique for a couple of reasons. First, it’s the longest narrow gauge railroad still operating in the nation. Second, it’s jointly owned by Colorado and New Mexico. The line started in 1880 to haul ore, livestock and timber out of the mountains. It also carried passengers until 1951, then went out of business in 1967. By 1970, with the help of railroad enthusiasts, the two states bought the land and agreed to run the railroad as an excursion train, governed by a bi-state commission.
As it makes its regular 64-mile round trip runs between Chama, N.M., and Antonito, Colorado, the train – pulled by old steam engines — crosses the Colorado-New Mexico border 11 times and climbs more than 3,000 feet. From late May through mid-October, the venture offers a variety of packages; some of them include overnight stays and bus rides.
The Verde Canyon Railroad operated primarily as a freight line from 1913 until shutting down in the 1970s. It was resurrected as an excursion train in 1990 and now takes passengers on round trips from Clarkdale to Perkinsville, a ghost town in Arizona’s scenic Verde Valley. On the way, the diesel-powered FP7 locomotives stroll leisurely along (at 12 m.p.h.) as they pull vintage restored cars and outdoor viewing platforms through a 680-foot long man made tunnel and colorful geologic formations, and across narrow trestles and steel bridges.
The four-hour journeys begin in Clarkdale and follow the Verde River to Perkinsville, while musicians stroll through the richly-decorated cars and, occasionally, a bald eagle will stare down at the 18-car caravan on steel rails.
The destination is the high point for those who book passage on Arizona’s Grand Canyon Railway because when they get there, they get to look into the world’s longest and deepest gorge, the Grand Canyon. But the trip itself isn’t bad, either. The train leaves Williams every morning
on a 65-mile, five-hour round trip through open plains, high desert and pine forests.
The railroad hauled ore, timber and freight between Williams and the Grand Canyon from 1901 until 1968, when it ceased operation. Now privately-owned, it began passenger service in 1989 and has hauled more than 2.5 million people to the canyon since then. Sadly, its aged steam locomotive had to be replaced by a newer diesel engine a few years ago. But only those old enough to miss the chugging and puffing will notice the change.
Each railroad offers a variety of packages. For details, look to the Internet because each one has a Web site.