The Chili Line

The Prototype

Perhaps the most mysterious and seldom modeled of all the Denver & Rio Grande’s extensive network of 3-foot gauge lines was the line from Antonito Co., to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  What it lacked in revenue-producing traffic for the railroad, this stretch of railroad more than made up for in unique architecture, sparsely beautiful scenery, and a fascinating blend of native American, Anglo, and Spanish culture.  Although officially the “Santa Fe branch,” the railroad was most commonly known by the nickname “Chili Line,” a reference to the chili ristras that were commonly found hanging to dry in the hot desert sun at homes and businesses all along the route.  The railroad was built in the 1880s as a planned section of General William Palmer’s grandiose plan to reach Mexico City with narrow gauge rails.  That never came to pass.  The line lasted for a number of years until it was finally abandoned on the eve of the Second World War. Ironically, in 1943 a secret government project established its headquarters along the route once used by the Chili Line trains.  Who knows how much longer the Santa Fe branch would have lasted if it had just hung on a few more years . . .

The Inspiration

The “Chili Line – A Railroad You Can Model” was one of my first editing assignments when I joined the staff of Model Railroader Magazine.  One area not featured in that article was Santa Fe itself.  I did some further research and found the contrast of a narrow gauge locomotive running on street track through the heart of a state capital to be an inherently interesting scene to capture in miniature.  At the time my main modeling focus was on New England railroads in the 1950s.  A move to Colorado meant it seemed it was time to try, as Monty Python would say, “something completely different.”  My latent interest in the Chili Line came to the forefront, and for a couple of years I rounded up research material, cars, and eventually locomotives – all with the idea of building the street scene as a diorama.  One thing led to another, and the street scene became part of a larger Sn3 railroad plan.  Ironically, I haven’t had a chance to start construction of the street scene itself, although that opportunity will present itself this winter.

The Model Railroad

Although I’ve built many model railroads in the past this is my first narrow gauge layout.  No attempt has been made to accurately model any portion of the line to exact scale – what you see is my impression of “what might have been” in the mid-to late 1930s along the Chili Line.  Built in Sn3 scale (where 3/16” on the model equals 1 actual foot on the real thing) the layout was started in late March of 2003.  “Phase 1” features Santa Fe yard, the street trackage in Santa Fe, and the town of Espanola.  “Phase 2” will continue the line around the other half of the basement through Comanche Canyon and the small village of Embudo.  Finally, “Phase 3” will consist of some additional main line running as well as the town of Taos Junction and a north-end staging yard beneath Espanola.  I anticipate construction will resume in the late Fall, and I hope to complete the messy part of layout construction – benchwork, track, wiring, and rough scenery – by the late Spring of 2004.  After that I look forward to many years of adding those details that bring any layout to life.

Check back regularly for progress updates, as well as any tips and techniques that have proved useful as construction and operation continue along the Chili Line!

Layout At A Glance

Scale: Sn3 (1:64) Roadbed: AMI rubber roadbed
Size: 11'-6" x 22'-7" (Visible) Track: Flextrack (code 70 with some code 55 in yard/sidings)
Prototype: Denver and Rio Grande Western Maximum Grade: 2.5%
Period: Late 1930's - early 1940's Turnout Minimum: no: 6
Layout Style: Walk around with point-to-point and continuous running Minimum Radius: 36"
Length of Mainline: 60 feet (approx.) Scenery Construction: Combination of foam board and hardshell (plaster cloth on screen wire)
Layout Height: 53" - 64" Backdrop: Painted on wall
Benchwork: Open grid on wall brackets Control: DC (P-B-L Foreground Sound System II)


Many thanks to Matt Gaudynski for his help in all aspects of building the layout. He’s been a tremendous help in all areas from design to track laying, wiring, and even helping play show host!

I’d also like to thank Mike Danneman for painting the backdrops – his artistic talent really added some wide vistas and helped greatly in creating “feel” of the northern New Mexico countryside.

Thanks also to Steve Amitrano for his constant stream of helpful advice and great tips and techniques.

And finally, I have to extend the biggest “thanks” of all to Christine, who puts up with all this nonsense and appreciates how important it is to me.


For more information contact Marty McGuirk