Durango. Durango. What a wonderfully expressive word! For me it immediately conjures up vivid images of rope-twirling cowboys and the Wild West frontier. Founded in the 1880s, the small city of Durango lies in the southwestern corner of the State of Colorado. One of the major attractions that draws travellers into its tourism web is the historic Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
Around 9’oclock one May morning, we headed for the railway station at Rockwood, the first flag stop on the Durango-Silverton line. Here we waited patiently to board the historic 19th century steam locomotive. Before coming into view, we heard it chugging its way along the 36“ narrow gauge railroad.
With a puff of steam and a mighty whistle the train snaked around the corner and pulled alongside the platform.
Before road access, the only connection to Silverton was by rail. It was these tracks that transported gold, lead, zinc and silver mined by the early settlers to Durango. Today adventurous passengers fill the splendid old wooden carriages, some painted a flamboyant yellow, others a more somber rusty brown. We clambered aboard the rearmost car, the Alamosa, which had been retrofitted with a bar, tables and chairs. No sooner were we settled comfortably in our seats than Bob, our 75-year-old steward and master storyteller, served us tasty pastries and strong coffee. Above our heads the narrow, slatted luggage racks were barely wide enough to accommodate even the most modest of today’s carry-on suitcases. The vintage engine exhaled a signature toot, toot, toot and our 47-mile journey had begun.
During the next two hours or so we travelled through the San Juan National Forest where old growth ponderosa pines and groves of quaking aspens were just coming into bud. The scenery was spectacular. At times the route paralleled the roaring Animas River bordered by cottonwood and willow trees. In places its churning waters provided a challenge to the unwary kayaker. Later the train wound its way in and out of steep canyons, around sharp curves, over trestle bridges, through areas of open wilderness, beside sheer sandstone cliffs and beneath the shadow of towering snow-capped mountains. Amazingly, this railroad took only 11 months to build. During its construction, Bob told us, that in places workmen would hang from ropes down the almost vertical cliff face. They would bore holes horizontally into the rock, light a fuse and scamper hurriedly away. For this dangerous work, they were paid an average of $2.25 per day. En route Bob pointed out many other interesting highlights … the oldest operational hydro-electric power plant in the States … Tall Timber’s five star resort featuring the longest and safest zip line canopy tour in the world … the statue of Christ on the hillside erected in memory of miners who lost their lives chasing a dream … several homesteading cabins. Sadly, if not passed down to the family, these rustic homes revert to Government ownership. True raconteur that he was, Bob talked about the more than 20 western movies that had been filmed in this area, including the memorable motion picture “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”.
He also told us that trains have journeyed along this route continuously since 1881 and that in bad weather the track safety car precedes the train to check the tracks for fallen debris, rock slides, avalanches, floods and other natural phenomena. Bob went on to explain a little about the engine’s requirements. On the outward journey as the engine puffs its way up almost 3,000 ft., it burns up seven tons of coal but only 1½ tons is consumed in the reverse direction. The stoker carefully distributes 12 lbs. of coal per scoop in the boiler. On our way to Silverton, the train stopped on several occasions to replenish the engine’s water supply. At this time the rear brakeman disembarked and waited good-naturedly for a quick toot-toot from the engineer signifying that the operation was complete. All being well, the rear brakeman hopped back on the train and off we went again.
Around noon we disembarked at the station in Silverton and the tourists scattered haphazardly seeking an inviting eatery. Essentially, the town consists of two main streets lined with elaborate Victorian-era architecture built during the mining boom of the late 1800s. At that time it was a frontier mining town teeming with brothels, saloons, gamblers and rowdy fortune seekers. As we wandered around, we felt as though we had stepped back in time. The town exuded a vaguely disreputable charm. There was the former red-light district. Several antique cars were parked along the road. Down the street was the county jail. We were told that up to 22 ft. of snow can fall over one winter season. So it was hardly surprising that even in the middle of May, large snow piles still adorned some north-facing front yards.
We enjoyed a two-hour sojourn in Silverton before settling once again into our carriage. But the return journey was not all smooth sailing. After about an hour, the train slowly drew to a halt. A brake bearing had overheated and a little rail-side maintenance was required before we could continue our journey. In such instances and as a warning to other trains, torpedoes are placed on the track. Not to worry, this little hiccup in our schedule, gave us an opportunity to chat with our fellow passengers. They had travelled from all parts of the United States to experience a unique rail excursion through an area of pristine natural beauty.
This historic steam-powered engine, its vintage passenger cars and aging narrow gauge rails are much beloved and caringly maintained by a devoted team. It is these people who keep the line operational. So whether you are a train buff or not, take the time to ride America’s Railroad. We thoroughly enjoyed every minute of this signature adventure. It gave us a fleeting glimpse into a mode of travel and way of life from yesteryear.