What sight in railroading could be more exciting than a rotary special? One or more steam locomotives heading out with a rotary plow, all under steam, to defend against Mother Nature's latest work to thwart the ongoing struggle in maintaining the flow of interstate commerce? Cold damp air always emphasizes the drama of steam in action. Clouds of steam and coal smoke, the arch of the snow discharge and frequent whistle blasts echoing in mountain canyons add to this effect. Exciting, to be sure, but frequently seen, no. Even photographs of such occasions are rare, because those who don’t have to brave a major blizzard or its after effects were usually still snug in their beds.
But what if a railroad advertised such an event in advance and sold tickets? That is exactly what the relatively new Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad did for a February 1976 occasion. Of course, Chama and Cumbres Pass winters are well known to be unpredictable. The Denver & Rio Grande Western narrow gauge railroaders knew this well. For many years, ever since the railroad was built over 10,015 foot Cumbres Pass, there was relatively little snow, but some years the blizzards were unrelenting. Scheduling the trip in advance was a risk -- a risk not only for actually having snow to plow, but also a risk for travelers trying to reach the remote area in northern New Mexico under possibly extreme conditions.
Still, it was an opportunity I couldn’t ignore. At the time, I was living and working in Dallas where snows seldom blow, but I longed for the excitement of a real, steamy, winter experience. It was destined to be a rare treat.
Perhaps it should be no surprise, the rotary snow-plow was invented by Canadians. Dr. J. W. Elliott, a dentist, patented the first rotary snow plow in 1869, but little came of this design. Orange Jull patented an improvement on the original in 1884. The Leslie Brothers, Edward and Sam, bought the rights, further developed the design and tested the first operational plow in the winter of 1883-84. Soon after, rotaries went into production.
The C&TS is fortunate to have two of the D&RGW’s four narrow gauge rotaries. OM is the older; it was built in 1889 by the Cooke Locomotive and Machine Works of Paterson, New Jersey (licensee to the Leslie's), and still has its original saturated steam boiler. In later years, the Rio Grande kept OM in Chama, New Mexico and OY in Alamosa, Colorado. Since the OY was newer, built by Alco (Cooke was one of several companies merged into Alco) in 1923, and superheated, it was the first choice when winters got rough over Cumbres Pass. Some years, both plows were needed, however. Still, despite its age, OM has logged relatively few service hours.
Saturday, February 14, 1976 was a day for steaming up, getting ready for the next day’s trip, and, of course, photography. When I arrived in the yard, cameras in tow, Engine 483 and Rotary OM were side-by-side in front of the roundhouse raising steam with the assistance of stack blowers.
Dawn broke on Sunday, February 15, 1976 with thoroughly appropriate weather: it was cold and snowing. Our train was made up consisting of OM, Engine 487, Engine 483, a gondola, two outfit cars and a caboose. I rode in the gondola, and was soon thoroughly convinced that I would end up with severe frostbite of the feet despite the new boots I bought especially for this trip. Actually though, most of the time I was on the ground, traipsing through the snow. Our train only went as far as the Rio Chama Bridge before we climbed down to forge ahead for our first photo opportunity.
Afterward, we climbed back aboard for a short journey to “The Narrows”. Here we unloaded again, and beat a fresh path through the deepening snow. By this point the snow was knee deep, sometimes deeper, and with a delicate crust that usually, but not always, gave way under foot. In one place the snow completely hid a barbed wire fence.
I found my fellow passengers to be a remarkably polite group. Everywhere I went, I always seemed to hear the always gracious words, “after you.” A few people had wisely brought along snowshoes or cross country skis. We took some pictures as the train plowed ahead, and then it stopped while we huffed and puffed up the line to set up again.
Above The Narrows we could see chasers and their parked vehicles on the road to Cumbres Pass. These people had, for the most part, paid for a pass, and may have had some good photographic opportunities at this location, but not on ahead where the railroad diverged toward Lobato Trestle.
Several of us had set up well away from the track which was on our right. A man to my left had a big camera bag full of equipment open at his feet and had his camera mounted on a tripod. Another fellow had climbed up a telegraph or utility pole for a unique vantage. All was going well as the plow train advanced until the rotary engineer unexpectedly widened on his throttle. Snow in both small and sometimes quite large chunks bombarded us and in fact knocked several of us over. The man on the pole was no longer up there and the man with the camera bag had to dig for it and then try to empty it of snow.
We advanced to the Lobato Trestle where we crossed and waited. Engine 487 and OM detached from the train and crossed, but that was as far as our train went. We backed slowly to Chama. By the time we reached town, the sun broke through the clouds making for some startlingly different pictures.
Words and pictures simply can’t describe the actual experience. The cold chill air, the gloom of the storm and the snow in the face were all important contributions. The sounds of three hard working engines with the associated eruptions of steam and smoke, the smell of coal smoke and valve oil, and the constant whistle communication by three distinctly different whistles, the high arch of the rotary’s snow discharge, and the sight of OM shaking and rattling its wooden body with the effort made for a truly raucous delight -- really a sensory overload. Even the sound of the wheels clicking across the joints in the muffling snow on our return to Chama was memorable. All these things were very much a part of the overall experience. I had such a good time that, two years later, I returned to see Rotary OY in action.
Part two of my rotary adventures
A rotary under the sun
Chicago Tribune, January 31, 1957
Chicago Tribune, February 1, 1957