Galloping Goose provides a colorful tour in N.M.

Sunday, Oct. 12, 2014 2:49 PM
The Galloping Goose makes its way toward Cumbres Pass on Sunday.
The Galloping Goose takes a photo run-by during a trip on the Cumbres Toltec Scenic Railroad.
The Motor No. 1, a remake of a rail truck designed to deliver mail, allows passengers to ride in the open-air platform.
Louie Vallejos, a Goose motorman from Dolores, gets ready for his shift during the Chama, N.M., tour.
Karl Schaeffer, of Ridgway, built the mail truck that ran on the Rio Grande Southern Railroad.
A steam train leaves Cumbres Pass back to the depot in Chama, N.M.

Chama, N.M. — Railroad fans were delighted as they boarded the Galloping Goose No. 5 in this quaint tourist town for a colorful fall excursion on the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad.

The classic rail bus that calls Dolores home was packed with tourists from as far away as Australia, and as near as Albuquerque.

Riders were blessed with a bluebird day and peak fall colors as the Goose waddled up a four-percent grade to Cumbres Pass at an elevation of 10,020 feet.

“We’re here with smiles on our faces that our wives say stay with us for weeks afterward,” said motorman-in-training Joe Becker, of Dolores. “It’s a real honor to be at the controls.”

Since 1998, the Cumbres and Toltec has invited the Goose to run on its narrow gage railroad for multiple days, said John Randall, also a motorman from Dolores.

“They see it as a way to bring in extra riders and revenue for their season, and it works as you can see,” he said, gesturing to the mostly middle-age passengers. “Special thanks to Skanska for delivering it here from Dolores for free.”

The past two years, the Goose has been joined by a mail-rail unit out of Ridgway, adding a nice dimension for ticket holders. The Motor No. 1 is a remake of a rail-truck that used to deliver mail on the Rio Grande Southern RR in 1931. It is a likeness of the original Galloping Goose prototype and now carries grinning passengers in its open-air compartment on the Cumbres-Toltec line.

“It is a re-creation of the original, invented to save costs on the Rio Grande Southern,” said Karl Schaeffer, its motorman and proud owner. “Later on they modified it with a coach for passengers.” He built the mail-rail truck from scratch, using old photos and parts from a Buick Master Six Touring Car he bought on eBay.

“I wanted to tell the story. It’s 90 percent original,” he said. “I probably invested $12,000 for all the parts.”

On an earlier run, the Motor No. 1 sustained an axle malfunction and had to be towed by the Goose for two miles up to Cumbres Pass. Workers loaded it onto a flatbed and repaired in time for the next day’s trip.

“The Goose pulled it with no problem,” said Lew Matis, a veteran motorman and president of the Galloping Goose Society. “It was exciting, but we handled it well, followed procedures.”

Classic railroading in the mountains can be an adventurous, at times quixotic experience, from breakdowns, snowstorms, and grass fires to period uniforms, strange railroad lingo, and, wait for it . . . caterpillars.

The latter climb up onto the rails en mass for some reason making it awfully slick, explained Louis Vallejos, a motorman from Dolores.

“We modified a sandpaper device deployed on the wheels to scrape them off,” he said. “The grass fire is a well-worn story. A few years back, the passengers all got off and helped put it out.”

The rail-car operators make frequent “photo-run-bys” at scenic points where the passengers deboard, the Goose and Motor No. 1 back up, then roll forward into the whirring camera lenses.

David and Ginny Starick, of Australia, could barely contain their excitement during the trip.

David is a die-hard Goose fan, and built a model train set of the Rio Grande Southern and Galloping Geese fleet in the basement of his South Australia home.

“I love the inventiveness of it, that it helped save the railroad by reducing costs from operating the large steam trains,” he says. “We planned our trip around taking trains in the Western U.S. This one, we could not pass up. It’s a real thrill.”

Ann Smith, of Albuquerque, was enjoying the view of rolling hills covered in orange-yellow aspen groves.

“Sitting up front is my favorite, seeing the tracks ahead and watching the operator. It’s a great perspective you don’t get on any other train ride,” she said.

Back at the Chama Depot, the atmosphere was laid-back New Mexico.

Visitors could wander the train yard, view the idling steam trains up close, and climb up on some of the long-abandoned train equipment.

Friendly saloons and locally owned hotels were steps away, and there was no hurry to go home. It’s “Chama Time” as one local described it.

“The trains are the only thing that run on schedule here,” he said.