SANTA FE— A generation or two ago, youngsters were enthralled with trains, from assembling toy train layouts in their homes to waving to trains as they passed by.
Nineteen-year-old Spencer Bobb did both and at an early age, deciding working on the railroad was what he wanted to do when he grew up. The son of Kenneth and Cindy Bobb didn’t face any resistance, even as he decided not to head to college after graduating from high school.
“They always supported my dream,” he said, and they were guilty on another count: giving him a toy train set.
This boy was – literally – on a different track for success.
Thanks to his determination, meeting some great mentors and persistence, he made that dream come true. Today, he’s a brakeman for the Sky Railway, based out of Santa Fe, and traveling most days from the Railyard in Santa Fe to near Lamy, and then back.
Bobb grew up in the North Valley, near the balloon museum, and not far from the railroad tracks that get daily traffic from Amtrak, freight and the Rail Runner Express.
“I’d see trains pass by every day. Pretty soon (after that), I joined a model railroad club, and from there it just grew and grew,” he said, adding more train sets – “Maybe a couple hundred” is what the collection has grown to – and noted, “I’m building a garden railroad right now.”
He was raised for a while in Corrales and, now with his full-time job on Sky Railway, has a residence in Eldorado, south of Santa Fe and near the route taken by his “new” railroad.
“I had a love for trains when I was real young. I got my first train set as a Christmas present, maybe in 2008,” he recalled during a recent evening trip on the train. “My career with the railroad – I started with the 2926 locomotive steam restoration (in Albuquerque). I think I held the record for youngest member for a couple years.
“In 2020 or so, I got a job with the Durango & Silverton Railroad as a warehouse associate, and from there I went up to brakeman on the train,” he said, verbally outlining his résumé. “And from brakeman I got a job offer here on Sky Railway as a conductor trainee, so I took that (in March). Our engineer, Anthony, came from the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.
“I’d always ride those trains as a kid. I grew up as a kid watching ‘The Polar Express,’ and, fortunately, I was able to work on the Durango & Silverton in the wintertime when they’d run those trains. … It was a real surreal experience to work on those trains.”
Tim Tennant, a friend and mentor and Rio Rancho “trainiac,” paved the way for Bobb’s job with Sky Railway; Tennant is the railroad’s general manager.
Incidentally, a typical train crew consists of only three: engineer, conductor and brakeman. Of course, on the Sky Railway, there are people on board to sell concessions, serve drinks and even a guitarist singing songs as the train makes its way to and from its destination.
Bobb said his duties when the train is moving, include “throwing a few ‘high balls’ to the engineer, letting him know we are clear of a bridge or any other reason. … also, watch over the train, talk to the passengers, making sure everybody’s all right, and watching all the wheel sets on the cars, making sure they’re not making sparks.”
“(Tennant) reached out to me in December or so and talked to me about this job here, and I told him about Anthony. … He was looking for a job. He started before I did. He started off as a conductor, and now he’s trained up as an engineer,” Bobb explained. “Right now, I’m training up to be a conductor.”
He said he might someday like to be an engineer. “It‘s definitely worth it.”
Tennant wouldn’t be surprised to see that happen. “Spencer is someone who really enjoys his job, a young fella who embraces what he is doing,” said Tennant, who lives in Rio Rancho and sees some of himself in Bobb. “He’s wanted a career in railroading since middle school. He loves railroading.”
And, Bobb said, as a brakeman, “The paycheck’s pretty good.
“Some days are longer than others, but I enjoy it, I really do,” Bobb said. “(The best part) is just meeting the nice people, all of our passengers and just getting to do the job I’ve wanted for years.”
There are drawbacks, he said. “Sometimes we have equipment that is faulty,” he said. “Then we have to fix it.
“Sometimes we have passengers who aren’t happy with the train. We want to make it a good experience for everybody,” he added.
Down the road, or tracks, in this case, he said, “I’ve thought about working for BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe), maybe Union Pacific – I’m not too sure.”
Background of Sky Railway
“Back in the day,” as people like to say, rail travel was the best way to go from coast to coast or, in the case for many, from Chicago to Los Angeles and vice versa.
The Southwest Chief carried passengers in both directions, as Amtrak does today, with one train going each way daily. And, back then as now, people wanted to visit Santa Fe, the oldest state capital in the United States
But the Chief didn’t stop in the City Different, so passengers would need to get off at Lamy and ride a Santa Fe Southern train to Santa Fe, which many of the scientists headed to work on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos did in the early 1940s.
The one-story Lamy depot was built for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway, opening to passengers in 1909, replacing a two-story wood frame structure erected in 1881.
Nearby was the El Ortiz Hotel, part of the legendary Fred Harvey chain.
It’s long gone, but a plaque near its former location shows people how it once appeared.
Built in 1896, about 16 years after the railroad entered New Mexico Territory, it had a unique reputation, as did others designed by Mary Colter (1869–1958) .The El Ortiz was a one-story building with 10 rooms and an enclosed courtyard, once described by a guest as “a little oasis among the desert hills, creating the temptation to give up all plans and stay a week for the pleasure of living and resting in such a place.”
The El Ortiz was demolished in 1945.
Three years ago, Sky Railway was born, thanks to some prominent Santa Feans who didn’t want to see the historic spur line end.
Best known for his creation of “Game of Thrones,” as well as being a co-founder of iconic Meow Wolf, George Martin got involved, as did Bill Banowsky, a filmmaker and owner of Violet Crown Cinemas; author Douglas Preston and artist Gary Oakley joined the crew.
As Sky Railway began to take shape, Martin said, “We need to be bold, wild and exciting, with something different up our sleeve.
“In the long run, we need to try things that other railroads would never dare attempt.”
So, Sky Railway did, and it has trains unlike any others – looking as if they were taken over by a graffiti artist.
Included on the consists is the Acoma, a first-class ATSF car dating back to 1937 – making it easy to imagine Clark Gable enjoying the scenery as he anticipated a trip into Santa Fe.
Sky Railway trains can handle 120-150 passengers and run Thursdays through Tuesdays.
“The ridership has really taken off in what is the second full season of operations,” Tennant said. “Great scenery, wonderful onboard staff and excellent themed trains.
Learn more at skyrailway.com.