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The railroad less taken

It didn’t take long for John Bush to fall in love with railroads.

In 1951, when he was all of 3 years old, Bush and his friends found a playground: the old Rio Grande Southern railyard in Telluride. “I wouldn’t leave the trainyard,” Bush says. “The train crew would chase me off regularly. Eventually, they just decided, to keep from running over this kid, we’ll just put him up in the engine and keep an eye on him.”

Nearly 70 years later, Bush is president and general manager of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. The Cumbres & Toltec hasn’t changed much since it started chugging along the 64 miles of twisty track between Antonito, Colorado, and Chama, New Mexico, in 1880.

And that suits Bush fine. He first started working for scenic railroads at the Georgetown Loop west of Denver in 1977. “I’ve been railroading ever since,” Bush says.

A knack for all things mechanical got him the job in Georgetown. “Steam locomotives are, relatively speaking, simple machines,” he modestly notes. “They don’t have chips and all that computer-type technology.”

This is exactly why the Cumbres & Toltec hired him as chief mechanical officer in 1989 then – after Bush worked for railroads in Alaska, California and North Carolina – brought him back to run the railroad in 2012.

The railroad was “exceedingly profitable” in the late 1800s, but business declined for 75 years after the 1893 mining bust, Bush says. “It survived because it was necessary, but it was no longer profitable.”

The rise of all-weather highways in the 1960s proved its death knell, and the Cumbres & Toltec line was abandoned in 1969. The states of Colorado and New Mexico split the $550,000 price and bought it in 1970. “It was literally two streaks of rust in the weeds,” Bush says.

Because decades of precarious finances hindered upgrades, the railroad “was really this time capsule of at least 50 years before,” Bush says. That makes the Cumbres & Toltec a one-of-a-kind attraction. “What it is, is unself-conscious living history. Unlike Williamsburg, where they’re reenacting history, we’re just doing it.”

Operation and maintenance of the steam-powered trains involves “old machines to repair the old machines,” Bush says. “We don’t make the tubes that go in the boiler and we don’t make the wheels, but other than that, pretty much we make everything.”

It’s an increasingly rare skill set. “One of the challenges is to maintain that workforce,” Bush says. Some employees are from families that have worked for the railroad for four generations.

Case in point: Ray Martinez, a conductor for the railroad who lives in Chama, and is wife, Roberta, reservations and human resources manager. “That’s what I’ve done my whole life,” he says. “I’m third-generation. My sons are the fourth.”

Martinez says both his and his wife’s grandparents worked for the railroad in its late-1800s heyday. “They helped lay the line,” he says.

Back to the 21st century, the operation was “on track to be fiscally self-sustainable by the end of 2023,” Bush says. Then COVID-19 struck and put the railroad in “survival mode.”

The celebration for the 50th anniversary of the scenic railroad was put on hold, as was the unveiling of Rio Grande 168, a steam locomotive that sat in Antlers Park in Colorado Springs for decades. Bush gave it a cosmetic upgrade earlier in his career, and the Cumbres & Toltec crew got it back in working condition as of 2019. The locomotive fits right in on the Colorado-New Mexico border.

“It really is the authentic West. Other places are the Hollywood West,” Bush says, paraphrasing William Faulkner: “The past is not forgotten. It’s not even the past.”