Matt Wallace opened Local in Chama last summer to pair good wine and live music with a sense of community. Like most of the village of around 1,000 by the Colorado border, his restaurant's clock is set to the train.
"They get fed lunch on the train, but we know they'll be looking for a place to go after," Wallace said. "So we wanted to set ourselves up to capitalize on that train business afterwards when they get off."
With a coal-fired steam engine, the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad has run out of Chama in some fashion since 1880. Last year from Memorial Day into October, around 43,000 passengers rode the 64-mile trip back in time that runs between the village and Antonito, Colorado.
At the end of a pandemic summer that has strained businesses like Wallace's fledgling restaurant, the train, whose newest steam engine is 95 years old, will start its first trips out of Chama in 2020 on Monday and run for a month.
"The fact that we haven't been operating out of New Mexico has been devastating financially. The Chama community is dependent on the railroad to provide tourist dollars," said railroad president and general manager John Bush, who was formerly its chief mechanic. "This railroad is un-self-conscious living history. Places like Williamsburg, Virginia, they pretend it's the 1600s. This is not that. They're pretending it's the old days. We just are the old days."
Bush added that the railroad, a joint venture between the states of Colorado and New Mexico, has reduced its mostly seasonal staff this summer from 100 to 40, with most working reduced hours.
Mayor Billy Elbrock said the village's gross receipts tax revenues are down 15 percent to 18 percent this summer, which is on par with losses seen in Santa Fe. Beyond the railroad, the village boasts outdoor attractions such as fishing, hunting and snowmobiling.
While business owners say an increase in vehicle traffic this summer helped keep them afloat, they need the train.
"I've been lucky enough that there has been heavy traffic. Probably more than usual," said Jim Mertens, who said sales at his two gift shops are down 30 percent to 40 percent. "We're down about what the train would give me."
While restaurants and boutiques have been able to catch travelers from Santa Fe or Texas on their way to Colorado, Mertens also owns an inn, and other hotel owners say that industry has been hit hardest.
"Weekdays have actually been all right as contractors and the court have kept people coming by," said Anna Pobar, who owns the 19-room Vista Del Rio Lodge. "But weekends have been empty. People canceled their vacation plans and flights and reservations, and we are three hours away from anything."
Since June, Bush said 8,000 passengers have taken the train from Antonito to Osier, a ghost town near the midway point where the tour stops for lunch, and back. Starting Monday, passengers will also be able to ride from Chama to Osier and back.
In 2010, a fire damaged the Lobato Trestle, a bridge outside Chama, and trains didn't run out of the village for a year, but passengers usually ride from one end to the other and take a bus back. Bush said normally two-thirds of passengers start in Chama.
Through Oct. 18, Bush said he hopes to bring 1,000 passengers to Chama and another 1,000 to Antonito.
"The aspens are beginning to change, and this is clearly the best way to see the aspens," Bush said.
Wallace said after 6 inches of snow fell in Chama earlier this month, he didn't make a sale the next day. After a slow summer, the next month when the weather is warm and the train is running is his best chance to turn a profit that comes with a risk.
In 1,124 incidents in which health officials in New Mexico dealt with workplace COVID-19 infections from May 11 through Aug. 2, 15 percent were at restaurants, according to state data, which is more than any other occupational field outside of health care.
A few weeks ago, Wallace said a Texan punched through his screen after refusing to wear a mask.
"It is bittersweet with the train opening. Because we are going to have a bunch of foreigners coming into town," Wallace said. "And hey, that will probably bring good business, and I'll probably sell more pizzas. I just hope we can do that safely because you can't put a price on anybody's health. That is not something you can do."