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Places: Catching the SW Chief to Las Vegas, NM

By Forrest Whitman

Winter is the perfect time to catch the train called the Chief. The trip begins early with a drive along U.S. Hwy. 50 to Cotopaxi. Snow highlights those fantastic rock formations, and the upper Arkansas River sparkles in the pink dawn. You’re in a good mood – off to catch a train!

The Cotopaxi store is a good place to stop. It’s a throwback to an old country store, where you can buy a shoelace, some nails or maybe a breakfast burrito. Gas is cheap there, too. Probably you’ll continue on uphill to Westcliffe, where you’ll find the Sugar and Spice Mountain Bakery on Main Street. Carry out tea or coffee goes sweetly with their fried cherry pies. The Mennonite ladies have smiles as big as their slices of pie.

Soon enough you’ll be on the platform in Trinidad waiting for the Chief. You are boarding the AMTRAK Southwest Chief that will take you to The Casteñeda Hotel in Las Vegas, New Mexico. The Chief is successor to one of Santa Fe Railroad’s legendary trains. Started in 1926, the Super Chief settled into a schedule of 36 hours traveling Los Angeles to Chicago.

You’ll see original tourist signs along the way, like “the Continental Divide” and “Dick Wooton’s bar.” If Wooton had sided with the Rio Grande Railroad instead of the Santa Fe, the history of the West would have been different. Both railroads wanted to get over the pass, but he set up the famous midnight rail-laying allowing the Santa Fe to win by six hours.

The Casteñeda Hotel in Las Vegas, New Mexico. Photo courtesy of the Casteñega Hotel.

Relax in the sight-seeing lounge with a beverage and swap stories about movie stars who rode the train. Gloria Swanson in “Three for Bedroom C” (1954) isn’t memorable as films go, but it was filmed on the Chief.

Before long you’re in Las Vegas, New Mexico. As you detrain, you can’t miss the nicely kept station, where the original Santa Fe brick has been cleaned, and the waiting room is spotless. Look to your right and behold the three-story Casteñeda Hotel with its central tower. It is the latest in a series of historic hotels being re-built by the legendary Allan Affeldt and his artist wife Tina Mion, who share the dream to save all the old Harvey House hotels along the route of the Chief.

Allan and Tina have set up housekeeping in one wing of the old hotel, where they supervise the rebuilding of the structure to strict standards. They work to keep investors happy and fulfill the tax rules for restoring historic structures, which is not easy.

Consider bricks: Each brick was placed on or about 1898. The location of the brick kiln was usually stamped on the brick. Many came from Las Vegas, but others were from Trinidad, Colorado, or locations farther away. The hotel is U-shaped and much of the central courtyard is brick.

Soon all of the rooms will be redecorated and furnished with period furniture. The restaurant is open and thriving. You can see the second floor window where Teddy Roosevelt stood to address the rough riders. Today’s visitors are as impressed as they were at the turn of the last century.

Another food experience is only two blocks away. Charlie’s Spic and Span is a converted laundry with huge portions and a mammoth tortilla machine. You’ll want to have lunch there before boarding the Chief for home. The Casteñeda is one place you’ll want to visit.