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Take a Ride on the Chile Line

Travel is wonderful. Time travel would be off the scale spectacular! Imagine the ability to be transported back, or forward, to an event, or even a nonevent except for an everyday ride on a train from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Alamosa, Colorado a hundred years ago! It's sort of possible now. However, this trip requires reading about the history of train travel in this part of the country, visiting and seeing where the rail lines were, and stopping in the small places where the trains loaded water, acquired mail, passengers and freight to continue on to the next stop. In researching this blog, I have been able to piece together a short story about the railroad days of what is known as the 'Chile Line.' First a bit of background on the fascinations many of us, including me, have with railroads...

My dad used to tell a story from his childhood in the Depression. A railroad ran through his parents' farm. Long freight trains were more common then as a way to move people and products around. But, also, it was possible to be a hobo and hop a train for a free ride. Trains moved slowly in the 1930s and it was possible to hop on and off a rail car mostly without injury. Well, one day my grandfather was 'polling' cattle, not about their political beliefs, but cutting off their horns for safety reasons. A hobo had hopped off the train as the railroad track right-of-way split the farm. Polling cattle was a bloody proposition and one way to stop the bleeding of the cow's head was to put coal or wood ashes on the wound to help the blood to clot. The hobo had come to the back door of the house and asked my grandmother for something to eat and she began to make him a sandwich so he could hop back on the train and carry onward.

Meanwhile, my grandfather ran out of ashes and was returning to the house to get more, (heating their farmhouse in those days was either burning coal or wood in their indoor stove.). The hobo saw my grandfather returning to the house from the barn and my grandfather's overalls happened to be covered in blood. The hobo in a panic told my grandmother, "Don't bother wrapping it lady! I'll just take it and be on my way!"

Ahh, the old train tracks... To this day, I can hear the haunting lonely whistles from long slow freight trains moving through the night in my Illinois hometown, as the sounds carried through the darkness, and I distinctly remember the steady clunking of the steel wheels of each rail car as it passed over one or two loose joints where the rails came together. Freight trains were longer then and they could take 45 minutes to over an hour to pass through a town.

Back to the Chile Line! Similar stories can be found on internet sites about the railroad days of northern New Mexico, especially the segment from Santa Fe to Antonito, Colorado. The old rail lines are gone but a few relics exist from when the Chile Line was running from 1881 to 1941. Part of the old rail line parallels Highway 285 as it runs south from Alamosa to Tres Piedras New Mexico. Parts of the raised railroad bed, or grade, are still visible at points on the east side of Highway 285 as it runs south. Stop across from San Antonio Mountain, a few miles into the state of New Mexico, and the mounds of dirt can be seen. Let your imagination begin for a wild train ride!

For railroad buffs, a must stop is the Chile Line Depot restaurant and B&B in Tres Piedras. I popped in recently and met Deb Graves. She and her husband keep the story of the Chile Line alive. She is a wealth of information about the history of the Chile Line as the old railroad runs through their ranch behind the restaurant. She took me out back and showed me where the railroad line ran, and pointed out the obvious water tower that was used to fill up the water reservoir on the train to generate the steam for those monstrous locomotives from yesteryear, one of which sits by the Rio Grande Bridge in Alamosa on Highway 160.

Stop into the Depot for a meal and a history lesson. Deb and Gil have accumulated numerous magazine and newspaper articles on the history of the Chile Line to keep it alive. Enjoy a meal and read one of the collections they make available to customers. One excerpt is here: - The train crew seemed to enjoy helping residents along the way. The engineers would blow the steam whistles and ladies would bring out their washtubs and get hot water for laundry. The brakeman gathered newspapers in Alamosa and threw them to women and children, since most did not have money to buy them and never traveled more than a few miles from home in their lifetimes. Each morning, the engineer would pick up a bone at the butcher shop in Alamosa, to a reward a particularly loyal newspaper delivery dog named Minnie at the Taos Junction stop further south of Tres Piedras, before the track veered southeast toward the most difficult part of the Chile Line where the tracks had to be laid in a steep section of canyon that drops into (or climbs up) the Rio Grande canyon.

The rail line was a narrow gauge because of these steep sections (three feet wide tracks versus the regular four feet wide tracks). I am deliberately leaving out how the Chile Line got its name because 'chile line railroad' can be found on internet sites and the stories are a great read, but better yet, stop into the Chile Line Depot in Tres Piedras, the visitors center in Alamosa at the train station, or another hidden gem directly on the old rail line in Santa Fe. Pizzeria de Lino/Chile Line Brewing is an Italian restaurant and brewery directly on Guadalupe Street in Santa Fe about a mile north from where the Chile Line began. There is a fabulous book that is well displayed on the bar about the Chile Line. If you are traveling up the Chile Line to Colorado this is an excellent beginning. Traveling south, the Alamosa Visitors Center is the place to begin. All aboard!!

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