The streets of Chihuahua appeared black, movement-devoid slabs as the van unimpededly slipped over then at 0530 to the train station, not a single automobile encountered during the brief journey from the Hotel San Francisco. Founded in 1709 by the Spaniards and taking the Indian word for “dry and sandy place” as its name, Chihuahua City, located on a 4,667-foot desert plain, is the capital of Chihuahua, Mexico’s largest state, with a 150,000-square-mile area. A cowboy city, it is characterized by the Franciscan Cathedral in its main square, Pancho Villa house, cowboy hat-clad citizens, and stores displaying endless rows of cowboy boots. The state itself, topographically distinguishable by brown, vegetationless formations, is the leading producer of apples, walnuts, cotton, and jalapeno peppers, and is prevalent in lumber production and cattle ranching. An agrarian Mennonite community produces its own indigenous type of cheese.
Ahead, and beyond the fence, appeared the two locomotives and the four lighted passenger cars comprising the daily westbound Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad, operating as Train 74, cradled by one of three tracks as it was prepared for its still-nocturnal departure to the Copper Canyon and, ultimately, to its Pacific coast terminus, Los Mochis. I would only travel halfway today, to Posada Barrancas.
The tiny, twin wooden-bench terminal, sporting little more than two ticket windows—‘tequillas” in Spanish—was almost equally devoid of life, save for the attendant behind the barred window and three other luggage-toting, still-sleeping travelers.
Fifteen minutes before its 0600 departure, the door to the platform was opened and the handful of passengers exited through it, reimpacted by the cold, dark morning and met by the conductor, who indicated the passengers’ seat numbers. The first of the two passenger cars, configured with 68 thick, reclining seats in a four-abreast, two-two, arrangement and alternatively upholstered in red-gray or dull green, featured car-length overhead luggage racks, window pane-encased adjustable blinds, and aft, men’s and women’s lavatories. The dully-lit car, soothing to the early-morning, incompletely-opened eyes, greeted me with welcome, heater-generated warmth, as evidenced by the steady hum audible before boarding.
Protracted reaction, as the couplings snagged the trailing car, produced an initial jolt as the chain initiated movement. Creeping past the still-dark and empty streets, the train lurched over the silver rails, which passed through the suburbs of Chihuahua, seemingly slipping away from day before day itself had even arrived.
Operating over the long-envisioned rail link between the fertile Chihuahua plains and the Mexican west coast in order to transport goods to the port of Topolobambo for transfer to the shipping routes, the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad traces its origins to Albert Kinsey Owens, an American railway engineer, who moved to Mexico in 1861 and conceived a Chihuahua-Topolobambo connection. Forming a Mexican-American company two years later to design it, he was awarded a contract by the Mexican government to build a rail line between Piedras Negras and Topolobambo which would eventually offer spur lines to Mazatlan, Alamos, and Ojinaga. However, ultimately unable to secure sufficient funding to complete the project, Owens ceded it to Foster Higgins, whose Rio Grande, Sierra Madre, and Pacific Railway Company operated over the 1898-completed, 259-kilometer section between Ciudad Juarez and Casas Grandes. Insurmountable obstacles equally precluded its further extension.
The project was next adopted by Enrique Creel, who operated the Kansas City, Mexico, and Orient Railroad and who was able to further connect Casas Grandes with La Junta after four years of additional construction, from 1910 to 1914. But revolutionary attacks thwarted further completion of the next sector, that from Ojinaga to Creel.
By 1900, Topolobambo was connected to El Fuerte by several Mexican and US rail companies, but the fully envisioned route, from Chihuahua to Ojinaga, remained elusive until 1927, when the Mexican government itself completed the sector which Creel had started. Remaining was the 260-kilometer stretch within the canyon whose topographical obstacles and 7,000-foot elevation change would require extreme engineering feats to overcome. Nationalizing the independent rail companies which operated over either end of the still-unconnected line in 1940, the Mexican government announced 13 years later, in 1953, that the program would be completed.
The originally estimated five-year construction project, commencing with Owens’ work in 1863, ultimately took some 90 years and $90 million to complete, the final track not laid until 1961. The project, having experienced multiply-failed attempts by several companies, cost overruns of hitherto unimaginable proportions, engineering failures, the Mexican revolution, and World War I, ultimately triumphed with a rail connection between the sea-level city of Los Mochis and the high-elevation capital of Chihuahua via the rugged, inhospitable topography of a series of Sierra Madre Occidental-located canyons traversed by tracks which threaded their way through 86 tunnels and over 37 bridges, thrice crossed the Continental Divide, and were subjected to an 8,000-foot elevation change in the process.
Dawn encroached itself on night’s blackness as a colorless metamorphosis, progressively revealing the opaque hue of the cloud cover.
The Chihuahua suburbs yielded to rich, chocolate-brown foothills and the gold, straw-like hay growing right up to the rails.
Decreasing speed, the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad ceased its momentum at Cuauhtemoc, now 132 kilometers from its origin. Originally known as San Antonio de Arenales, the village, later adopting the current name after the Aztec emperor, traces its origins to the railroad’s arrival in 1900, but experienced significant growth some 21 years later when the Mennonite community settled there.
Reinitiating motion, the train moved amid wheat-gold fields, which stretched on either side to the foothills of the Sierra Madre Mountains. The first hint of the topography to come had been glimpsed. The sky, now an illustrious blue, retained a few scattered white cotton formations.
I walked into the Dining Car for breakfast, my first meal on the rails. Located directly behind the locomotive, it featured a forward galley; four, four-place booths; a glass divider; two two-place booths on the left and a c-shaped, inward-facing divan with tables on the right; a second glass divider; and another four, four-place booths. Brass lamps attached to the car sides hung above each table. Seats alternated between dark red or green upholstery.
A standard, two-page menu featured purchasable breakfast, lunch, and dinner items. My own breakfast included an omelet of ham and cheese, fried potatoes with peppers and onions, refried beans with grated cheese, and tortillas and salsa.
Leaving the valley and its ubiquitous apple orchards, the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad passed over the Continental Divide for the first of what would become three occasions and briefly stopped at La Junta, site of the railroad roundhouse, now at a 6,775-foot elevation. Upon departure, it commenced its gradual climb, leaving behind the plains of Chihuahua.
By 1030, having covered some 200 kilometers, Train 74 wound its way through the Sierra-Madrean oak-pine woodland as it ascended through 7,000 feet. San Juanito, at 265 kilometers from Chihuahua and at an 8,000-foot elevation, was Mexico’s coldest community, although the sun currently shined unobstructedly. Established in 1906, it, like many villages along the route, took root as a result of the railroad’s expansion.
At kilometer-marker 551, the peaks of the Sierra Madre Occidental loomed ahead.
Plunging through Tunnel 4, at 4,134.8 feet the line’s longest and the location of the third crossing of the Continental Divide, the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad emerged onto dual-branching track, ceasing motion while an eastbound freight train passed to the left before partially backing into the tunnel and reemerging on the spur line for its approach into 7,735-foot Creel. Founded in 1907, during the first stage of railroad construction, it is the gateway to the Tarahumara Indian culture and, as the principle community within the canyon proper, is inhabited by some 5,000 people. Its current economic activity includes trade, the railroad itself, the lumber industry, and tourism. A brief stop permitted a large, name tag-bearing tour group to board the otherwise empty passenger cars before the train almost instantly regained momentum and moved past the town’s main square and line of wooden shops and guest houses. Redirecting itself off of the spur line, it rejoined the main track for its canyon-penetrating journey.
As the four-car chain thread its way though rock wall and pine, the Ferromex diesel engines appeared ahead and either to the left or the right of the windows as they negotiated the turns. Climbing toward the line’s highest point at kilometer marker 583, 8,071-foot Los Ojitos, Train 74 followed the winding, ever-ascending, single track, wafts of crisp pine air and smoldering wood fires entering both ends of the cars at the conductor’s stations.
At 1235, the train threaded its way through tall, dense pine and the carpeted expanses of the canyon became visible through the left windows; moving through kilometer marker 592, it commenced a steep descent over “el lazo” as the track’s geometry looped into a complete circle and recrossed over itself.
Approaching Divisadero at 1320, now 354 kilometers from its origin, the two-locomotive and four-car Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad transitioned from mountain to canyon topography and decreased speed, moving past a chain of flatbed freight cars supporting vehicles, and ceased movement at the two-track station. Unleashed for a 15-minute scenic stop, its patrons were instantly engulfed in a Mecca of activity as they negotiated the stalls which served as the temporary displays of the Tarahumara Indian’s basketry and wood carvings enroute to the Divisadero Overlook, where they were met with the thin, crisp air and the panoramic view of the Copper, Urique, and Tararecua Canyons whose size, depth, and grandeur were awe-inspiring and silence-promoting. A thin line, representing a tributary to the Urique River, snaked 4,135 feet below. The geological formations themselves were the result of plate tectonic shifting some 90 million years ago, a planetary phenomenon which later produced the mountains of North and South America. Earthquakes of hitherto unimaginable magnitude ultimately produced the Sea of Cortez between Baja California and the Mexican mainland. Today’s canyons were deeper, greener, and four times larger than Arizona’s Grand Canyon.
A blow of the locomotive’s whistle indicated that it was time to return to the train for the journey’s continuation. The quick, four-kilometer trek to the Posada Barrancas Station, which served three canyon lodges, took me to my overnight destination, the small pick-up truck awaiting only feet from the rail car’s steps. After only a 30-second stop, the train reinitiated power and its trailing passenger car disappeared as it moved between the track-sandwiching rock faces and rounded the bend, the location’s daily lifeline now severed for another 24 hours. The truck, making its way up the dirt hill with the luggage on its flatbed, stopped in front of the Hotel Posada Barrancas Mirador.
A three-story orange adobe lodge built on the rim of the 5,770-foot-deep Copper Canyon, it featured wood-framed balconies in rustic Tarahumara Indian style and included three daily meals. The lobby, adorned with a brown tiled floor and yellow adobe walls with an Indian-patterned border, featured a cathedral ceiling of wood slats and thick, tree trunk beams with three wagon wheel-like chandeliers, a huge adobe fireplace with a pottery-adorned mantel and a crackling fire during evenings, and leather sofas and arm chairs. A small, separate bar featured small, round wooden tables, colorful Indian-motif chairs, an orange adobe fireplace, and a painted, wall-length mural of the Copper Canyon and the railroad tracks which ran through it. A large, outdoor, canyon-overlooking balcony framed by a natural branch- and trunk-border was accessed by a door from the lobby.
A tiled, outdoor walkway led past crevices of pottery, rocks, and cactus on the right and the room doors on the left. The rooms, in quintessential Mexican-Indian style, retained the hotel’s tile floors and featured rough, white adobe walls; wood-beamed ceilings; small, white adobe fireplaces with orange bases; separate, outside sinks and closets whose wooden doors were made of diagonally-patterned tree branches; inside tiled showers; and rustic tree trunk and branch balconies overlooking the canyon.
Lunch was served in the dining room, which contained long, wooden tables, and featured a downward-slanting ceiling made of thin wood branches, four wooden chandeliers, a green slate fireplace, and floor-to-ceiling windows which looked out over the canyon, and included cream of mushroom soup; filet of grilled beef, baked potato, refried beans and cheese, nachos with melted cheese and tomato sauce, and tortillas and salsa; peach cream pie with a graham cracker crust and chocolate sauce drizzle; and coffee.
The few wisps of cloud brush-stroked on the western horizon above the rock-sculpted walls of the canyon temporarily transformed themselves into pink and purple hues. The air, thin, pure, and brisk, exuded tranquillity. Far removed from a settlement or town of any appreciable size, the orange adobe hotel overlooking the rim became an isolated world unto itself.
Dinner, the second meal in the canyon, included lentil soup; barbecued chicken breast, lime rice with green olives, and mixed vegetables; and pineapple cake.
The canyon, now devoid of light, was reduced to a black, referenceless hole. The grid of stars, unobstructed by a single cloud vapor, pollution-caused haze, or ground light, penetrated the night sky like high-intensity beams melting into black wax. The cold, rarefied air was heavy with the aromas of the burning logs in the lodge’s adobe fireplaces. Surrendering to sleep, I lapsed into the void of oblivion…
Pierced only by the sounds of the periodically-howling coyotes, night had remained invisibly black. At 0630, between the Copper Canyon and a band of black cloud, dawn poured itself into day as molten orange lava through a sliver on the eastern horizon, progressively encroaching itself until the once-black cloud band became infused with tinges of orange, like a sponge gradually absorbing day’s liquid. The crevices and corrugations of the canyon’s cliffs, although still indistinguishable, became visible in silhouette form beneath the dark-blue sky whose nocturnal light, the profusion of interstellar stars, had faded until only a planet-representative pinpoint of light remained diagonal to the lodge’s balcony. Absorbing the full fury of day, the cloud band hovering over the horizon became engulfed in fiery red flame.
The daily westbound train, which would take me the remaining half of the distance to its terminus, Los Mochis, had just pulled out of Chihuahua.
The clouds, now totally consumed by fire, were completely engulfed by red. As the flame burned itself out, the red once again progressed to a cooler orange and the sky transformed itself into a morning baby blue. The gray granite of the canyon’s sculpted rocks and the green of its lower-elevation vegetation became distinguishable.
Breakfast, served in the hotel’s dining room, had included orange juice; a fresh fruit plate of watermelon, papaya, cantaloupe, banana, cherries, and limes; pancakes, maple syrup, and bacon; and coffee.
By late-morning, the lodge seemed suspended by its silence as its guests, temporarily away, became involved with hiking and horseback riding excursions, almost in anticipation of the daily train from Chihuahua, lifeline to the isolated canyon community. A very small, colorfully-clad Tarahumara woman, carrying a baby cradled in a fabric sling behind her back, peeked into the lodge’s window, in curiosity of the “other” life experienced here.
The suspension of silence, time, and society was abruptly shattered at 1330 as the dark green and red Ferromex diesel locomotive, sprouting gray smoke and pulling its chain of five cars, appeared between the bushes on the single track, following the right curve and stopping at the “Old West’-resembling wooden platform on which some 20 people, having emerged from Posada Barrancas’ three lodges, congregated. Unlike yesterday’s train, today’s was comprised of a single locomotive, the standard dining and bar cars, and three passenger cars. Clamoring on board with the rest of the luggage-carrying passengers, I reached my left-hand seat just as the engine had released its brakes and the westbound train had slipped between the two rock faces on the other side of the dirt road.
Only moments after leaving the station, the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad followed the multiplying tracks into San Rafael and stopped parallel to the eastbound train. A gradual descent, from 7,500 feet to sea level, would characterize most of the remaining journey.
Lunch, served in the dining car, included a California baguette of ham, cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, mayonnaise, and Dijon mustard on French bread with crispy French fried potatoes.
Rounding a left bend, the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad plunged through a tunnel and over the 695.4-foot Laja Bridge, the tracks now nestled in a pine tree-rich canyon. At 1515, it pulled into the 5,300-foot station of Bahuichivo, which serves the town of Cerocahui, located 16 kilometers amidst apple and peach orchards, and the village of Urique, which is located at the bottom of the canyon. Between kilometers 688 and 708, the train bored through a series of 16 tunnels carved into the canyon’s edge. The track, paralleling the slender, rocky, almost-dry Septentrion River below, was itself “miniaturized” by the green-carpeted peaks of Chihuahua pine, Douglas fir, and Quaking aspen towering above it. The sky, abundant with majestic, floating silver cloud islands, was otherwise an illustrious blue.
Reduced to but a model railroad, the six-chained linkage moved amid the towering, granite and green alpine-topographical peaks of oak and pine, periodically swallowed by a series of tunnels, which instantaneously reduced day-blue to night-black. Mimicking the locomotive’s turns, curves, and jolts at slightly delayed rates, its trailing cars followed suit with uncanny precision. As soon as the train exited a tunnel, the seemingly tiny round hole representing the entrance into the next always appeared ahead.
Entering tunnel 49, the train, now descending into the Santa Barbara Canyon, executed a 180-degree turn before emerging and again was subjected to a second 180-degree bend on the bridge spanning the Septentrion River. The village of Temoris, founded in 1677 by Jesuits and located on a 3,365-foot plateau above the station, had been reached by 1610 in the afternoon.
Passing through the Rio Septentrion Canyon, Train 74 traveled through notably tropical topography, characterized by banana, palm, and mango trees
At 1708 and kilometer-marker 748, the train crossed the 1,018.5-foot Chinipas Bridge which, at 335 feet above the green surface-appearing Chinipas River, was the highest of the line, and, six kilometers later, bored through the last and longest of its tunnels, number 86, which was 5,966 feet in length. Like the last sounds of a symphony, the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad exited canyon country.
As evening approached, the passengers, many of whom belonged to one of two travel groups, made way to the bar car for wine and cocktails. The car itself, located between the dining and the passenger cars, had been configured with an inward-facing bar with several round bar stools, mirrored shelves for wine and liquor bottles, and upside-down hanging glasses. Primarily upholstered in red, its lounge chairs were sandwiched by small, round drink tables, while a stand-up bar and a concessions counter for salable snacks and souvenirs was installed at the front of the car.
At kilometer marker 781, the train passed over the Agua Caliente Bridge, which spanned the Fuerte River and, at 1,637 feet, was the line’s longest. Traversing low, scrubby cactus and thornforest terrain at 1730, it moved at considerable speed beneath paling blue skies and dark, periodic nimbus cloud collections characteristic of dusk. Horizontal lines of cloud, brush-stroked on the western horizon, were eaten by burning orange coals. Hovering only feet above the curved silhouettes of the mountains, the sun, in pure cylindrical geometry, burned with orange fury before slipping behind them. Settling into nocturnal rest, it projected a volcanic eruption of purple and orange liquid lava skyward in its aftermath. The snaking river below the bridge cradling the track seemed lit with a violet match. The cloud formations, temporarily torched by orange, metamorphosed into purple as night snuffed out the few remnants of day’s embers burning just above the horizon. A quilt of ruby and gray stratonimbus draped itself over day, covering it with suffocating darkness, and leaving the warm, lighted interior of the passenger cars as the only remaining light.
Train 74, now traveling parallel to flat, almost-desert scrub in the state of Sinaloa, had left the Copper Canyon and the foothills of the Sierra Madre behind, and would close the remaining gap to its final destination in blackness, leaving only the “clock” of its wheels against the track as audible evidence of its advancement.
Walking to the dining car for the last meal on the rails, I ordered a bottle of French white wine and an entrée of chicken cordon bleu with a mushroom cream sauce, Mexican rice, and mixed vegetables.
The town of El Fuerte, reached at 1910, was of Spanish colonial architecture and had been founded in 1564 by the Spanish conqueror Francisco de Ibarra for the purpose of erecting a fort to protect its citizens against Indian attack. Serving as a trading post on the Camino Real for three centuries, whose Spanish mule trail had connected Guadalahara, the Alamos mines, and the Sierra Madre Occidental, it had become the capital of Sinaloa in 1824.
Lurching on the single track beneath dark velvet, star-diamond skies and moving over the flat expanse of land, Train 74 covered the remaining 82 kilometers between El Fuerte and Los Mochis, the rectangles seeming to skim along the sides reflections of its lighted passenger car windows on the track-side vegetation.
The rectangular reflections of the car windows were like the reflections of the journey: unlike other rail lines, which offered alternative transportation means to certain destinations, the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad offered the only land line to and through the Sierra Madre Occidental and its related canyons. The life line to the communities along its track, from Chihuahua to Los Mochis, it offered singular-method, vital transportation; traveled over 653 kilometers of track whose route could only be equated with an extreme feat of railway engineering; offered unparalleled mountain and canyon scenery; and connected the Mexican and Tarahumara Indian cultures.
The single track burgeoned into many and the train passed a considerably-sized railway yard. The lights of Los Mochis, the modern city located only 19 kilometers from the port town of Topolobambo, loomed ahead. Creeping through the suburbs, the houses of which were only yards from the actual track, the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad moved past the modern Estacion de Los Mochis at a snail’s pace and snagged its brakes for the last time at 2205, completing its 16 hour, 20-minute journey from the plains to the Pacific.
Taking my suitcase from the overhead rack and climbing down the few stairs to the platform, I watched the uniformed crew turn off the train’s lights and file into the terminal, having completed another westbound run, and could only marvel at the vital role they played in the railroad’s purpose to link the Copper Canyon with the rest of Mexico.