Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge

In 1859, the Pike’s Peak gold rush began. Soon, prospectors were swarming all over southern Colorado. Mining camps sprung up all over the area. By 1881, Silverton was the only major mining area without railroad service.

General William Jackson Palmer, founder and president of the Denver & Rio Grande, started planning how to get to Silverton as early as 1876. The initial plans were for a route over the Continental Divide near Cunningham Pass, through Del Norte and into Silverton. Eventually the southern route from Alamosa through Chama, NM, to Durango and into Silverton won out. It proved easier to build a smelter in the Durango area than anywhere along the northern route plan.

The railroad was initially planned for Animas City, but when local leaders and businesses refused to assist in funding the railroad, Gen. Palmer bypassed Animas City and founded Durango. Palmer often used this tactic to fund his railroad, creating several new towns along the way. He also was instrumental in creating business for his railroad to service, such as the smelter built near Durango.

The Denver & Rio Grande was primarily a narrow gauge operation. Track was cheaper and lighter, and more ground could be covered quicker. Crews could lay as much as 15 miles of narrow gauge track in a day, with the ties loosely placed on the ground, to be firmed up and ballasted at a later date. It worked better on tight mountain curves and, reduced the blasting, filling and trestles needed. Equipment was lighter and cheaper. Luxury, however, was not sacrificed. Parlor and dining cars were common, and several trains ran full Pullman sleepers.

In 1881, the railroad reached Antonito and headed west to Chama, NM. Track reached Durango on July 27th. A two day celebration was held as the first train rolled into town with Gen. Palmer and, the current and three former Governors on board.

Construction crews barely paused and then pressed on to Silverton, 45 miles away. Rockwood was reached by late fall and then the harsh winter weather set in. Construction continued unabated. Silverton was reached in July 1882, only 11 months after leaving Durango.

In the 1870s, miners paid $60 per ton to haul ore out of Silverton on freight wagons, Otto Mears later built a toll road and the rate fell to $30 per ton. When the Denver & Rio Grande reached Silverton, they hauled the ore out for $12 per ton.

The boom lasted in Silverton for another thirty years, with a couple of mines operating into the 1980s. The end of WW 1 and monetary policy changes in Washington, led to the end of the mining era. There is still a lot of ore in the ground around Silverton; it is just no longer profitable to mine.

In 1947, the railroad started promoting tourism on the Silverton Branch. 3,444 tourists rode the train the first year. In the 50s, Hollywood discovered the line and several movies have since featured the Silverton Branch. The distinctive yellow color was requested by Hollywood for the first movie, Ticket to Tomahawk, and it was soon the standard color on all Silverton passenger cars, replacing the old Pullman green.

In 1951, the US Postal Service transferred mail from the railroad to trucks. Freight was down and the railroad really had no interest in tourism. The line fell into disrepair.

In the ‘50s, the Denver & Rio Grande started abandoning narrow gauge branches. In 1962, they applied to abandon the Silverton Branch. The ICC denied the application due to poor transportation to Silverton, except for the railroad. Much to their chagrin, tourism continued to grow and the line carried over 50,000 passengers in 1963! Repeated attempts at abandonment continued to be denied.

The Silverton Branch was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1967.

The railroad put the branch up for sale in the late ‘70s. By now, it was an orphan line, with no connection to the rest of the railroad. The entire San Juan Extension, from Antonito to Durango was abandoned in 1969. The Antonito to Chama section was sold to the states of Colorado and New Mexico (now operating as the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic RR), the remaining track was pulled.

Charles Bradshaw Jr, a Florida citrus grower, purchased the Silverton in 1981. He changed the name to the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge. Wanting to make money on his investment, he initiated much needed repairs to track and equipment. More trains were added to the schedule and by the ‘90s, passengers had grown to over 200,000 per year.

February 1989, the roundhouse caught fire. All six operable locomotives were inside. The fire department soon gave up on extinguishing the blaze and concentrated their efforts on keeping the engines cooled. All six engines survived the blaze. They were soon all in service, not a single scheduled train was missed. A new roundhouse was dedicated in February 1990. An improved design makes heavy maintenance easier. Replacement machinery was found in warehouses and salvage yards around the world. What started as a disaster, turned into the largest, best equipped steam locomotive shop in the world.

First American Railways, Inc. purchased the line in 1997. It was soon resold, in 1998, to the current owners, Carol and Al Harper, of American Heritage Railways, who also own the Great Smoky Mountain Railway.

Today, the railroad is probably in the best shape of its life. The equipment is very clean and in excellent condition. Crews and employees are outstanding. You are encouraged to walk around the yard and check out the equipment - few restricted areas are to be found, unlike so many tourist railroads today.

Three trains a day run from Durango to Silverton and back during the summer, one or two trains per day in the shoulder seasons. Winter operations run to Cascade Wye and back daily. Seasonal photo runs are also scheduled. The railroad still operates with a few flag stops along the way. Hikers, campers, hunters, etc., tell the conductor where they want off, and the train stops for them. Flag it down to get back on. A baggage car is always available for your bike, gear or game.

Railfest is held in late August. Equipment from around the country comes to Durango to strut its stuff. You might see the wood burning Eureka, or ride a Galloping Goose.

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