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Passengers on scenic railroad in American West "see the world as it existed 140 years ago"

A journey through time in the American West
A journey through time in the American West 05:02

The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad was originally built to bring prospectors for the silver and gold rush of the late 1800s, forever changing the nation. Now passengers can look out on the same landscapes of Colorado and New Mexico that were there almost a century and a half ago, CBS News correspondent Barry Petersen reports.

"We'll see the world as it existed 140 years ago," said John Bush, president and general manager of the railroad. "No paved roads, no power lines and no parking lots. This is essentially a time capsule … of 64 miles of 1880. And once you get out of town, it is the authentic West, not the Hollywood West but the real West, the way it actually was." There's also no cell phone service, he said.

The railroad was taken over in 1970 by people who wanted to preserve it and give more people the opportunity to experience it. Tickets range from $100 to $200 for a six-hour trip. 

"People begin to slow down," Bush said. "We see the West here at 12 miles an hour and for a long time." 

Retired chef Chris Carleton, of Corpus Christi, Texas, saw much more than just scenery.  

"When you look out across this countryside … do you think you would have ever wanted to come across this thing on a horse or a wagon?" Petersen asked.

"It gives you a really thoughtful mind of … how those people made those decisions back 100 years ago. What made them come this way and obviously endure what is just unbelievably splendid, dangerous, fantastic country?" Carleton said.

In its time, the steam engine was the peak of high-tech – the 1800s version of the Boeing 747 or the space shuttle.

"You look at a computer now and, well, some wires go in or some signals go in and some stuff comes out," Bush said. "But you can't tell how it works inside. Here, if you look at a steam locomotive: oh, this rod is hooked to that piston, and when that moves, then this turns, and when that turns, then this does that. And you can walk yourself through it."

Those who drive them say they have the rhythm and soul of a living thing. "Hundreds of people wish they could do this. We do it on a regular basis," said Carlos Llamas, who has been an engineer for 24 years. "It really is the coolest thing on the planet. It really is."

"And when you make this thing move, you must feel like you're king of the world," Peterson said.

"Yes. I do. I believe I'm king of the world," he said.

The railroad is also an economic engine for the area, pouring $15 million a year into the local rural economy with jobs on the train, fixing the rails and refurbishing old cars for a new career back in service.

It was watching trains and steam engines as a child that captured Bush for life and made him jump at the chance of taking over the railroad seven years ago. 

"When I first started doing this I actually wanted to do it enough that I finally got to where I found it boring," he said. "That never happened. It is still fascinating. And for me, it's great. I've literally gotten to get paid to do what I wanted to do."

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