Once upon a time there was a sound that echoed across our country. It would cause people to stop what they were doing and listen. It could often be heard for miles and once you’ve heard that mournful cry, you never forget it. I remember waking up in the quiet of the county night, and hearing it. It was miles away but still audible.

And as a boy, the shriek of the steam whistle let me know there were machines of incredible power that could whisk me to places with magical names like Denver, Pueblo, and New York City. All I had to do was buy the ticket and step aboard.

And then I remember school. The railroad tracks ran right through the middle of La Jara and most everyday the mighty steam trains would come thundering through. The power of their wheels caused the lights in our school to sway back and forth almost as if a small earthquake was happening. Metal rang in time to the pounding of the drivers and the scream of the whistle interrupted the droning of our teachers. We’d all look away from the chalkboard to catch a glimpse of these magnificent creations of steel and steam pulling cars full of God knew what to and from the perlite plant in Antonito and back.

The old depot in La Jara, now the Town hall.

Or driving along the road between Alamosa and La Jara with my folks or grandparents and seeing the engines thundering along. It was fun if we were headed the same direction since the highway paralleled the rails. Then it was like we were racing it across the landscape with it and it was a magical moment.

The steam engine were a thing of wonder. As a child, I couldn’t think of anything greater than growing up and running one of these like a thoroughbred across the country. It was a dream machine brought to life before my young eyes and I wanted to ride it.

But, as they say, all good things come to an end. Childhood ends and some of the magic falls away. In the case of the steam engine, it was replaced by diesel engines. They were big black square monsters that rode the same railbed. They preformed the same task, but something was different there. The magic was gone.

And I recall going to Alamosa where the railyards were and seeing the old roundhouse and seeing the now obsolete steam engines sitting outside, their paint peeling away and streaked with rust. It was like seeing a childhood hero old and forgotten. For a long time they just sat there.

I thought they were dead and one day someone would come in with a cutting torch. They’d be dismantled and the scrap hauled to the steel mills. The trains would be melted down and turned into the cars, trucks, and airplanes that replaced them.

I was in the eighth grade when someone had the bright idea of opening up a tourist railroad. It would run from Antonito, Colorado to Chama, New Mexico. We figured it had about as much chance of happening as a pig would going to the Moon.

Then one day, it began. All the old rolling stock and engines in Alamosa were moved to Antonito. Powerful diesel engines pulled the old steam engines and rail cars south in a procession that must have been miles along. We streamed to the windows to watch. The years hadn’t been kind to the old machines and it seemed we were watching a funeral procession. There’s no way I could imagine an operational railroad coming from those metallic cadavers.

But it happened.

People swarmed over those rust buckets. They cleaned this, replaced that, oiled something else. Some of the machines became donors for parts. Still, other parts had to be hand made.

And one day, someone lit a fire in a boiler. Steam came up, and a valve was turned.

A picture of my son Gerald (age 3) standing in front of the Cumbre’s Engines in Osier, Colorado

Like a 20th century Lazarus of steel, one of the engines came out of the workshop and the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad became something real.

Since the days of childhood, I’ve ridden the rails a number of times. I’ve ridden Amtrak across our country, and sped across Europe in streamlined marvels of glass and steel.

But my fondest memories of the trains include ridding with my son on the Cumbre’s train and taking a dinner train from Canon City and up into the Arkansas gorge with my wife. And singing Gordon Lightfoot railroad songs before a live audience that included my wife. My buddy JR Madrid played the guitar and we preformed at Steamfest in Antonito, a yearly celebration of the first run of the spring by the steam engines.

But when I look at these resurrected machines, I can’t help but also see the railroad that no longer exist. Things like the the San Luis Southern, or the old Chili Line that ran from Antonito and deep into New Mexico. And here and there, I still occasionally spot the old engines. Some are now exhibits in a park. Others are chocked with weeds, homes to mice and birds.

I wonder what stories the old derelicts might tell.

And here and there I see the old railbeds. They’re little more now than a raised patch of earth with maybe the remains of rail ties that haven’t rotted away yet. Others have been plowed under and are forgotten. Maybe someone finds a rusty spike in the middle of a field and wonders what it’s doing out there.

Our nation was built by the railroad.

And over the next several months, I hope to tell part of that story.