Riding the Narrow Gauge from Durango to Silverton
An early morning chill hangs in the Durango fall air, the streets quiet, yet to wake fully. A shrill whistle pierces the stillness, cutting straight to the wandering soul of any traveler, a sound filled with new horizons, teary goodbyes and promises. The train’s steam whistle even seems to foretell the changing seasons, as fall reveals its golden autumn coat.
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(This story originally appeared in the September/October 2012 issue of Colorado Life Magazine)
PEOPLE BUSTLE about the Durango Depot, waiting anxiously to get on board and start moving. With a last call, the whistle blows again and the train lurches forward, black smoke and steam blasting into the air. The train eases slowly through the downtown Durango streets on a journey to Silverton, 45 miles and 2,798 vertical feet away.
The railroad birthed Durango, and although the town looks different today, the scene as the train travels through town is undoubtedly much the same as it was a century ago. The rail skirts backyards where children wave wildly, smiling adults step out onto back porches with steaming coffee cups in hand, all excited to watch the train pass.
It clicks and clacks along the narrow gauge rails, the cars swaying heavily back and forth, along the placid waters of the lower Animas River past green and golden meadows, the grass cut for winter hay. Then it starts to climb, up through shiny, dusty hillsides of scrub oak punctuated by stone. The railbed feels little more than scratched into the slope and the trees grow close enough to touch.
As the train chugs higher into the vertical landscape, the land gets more radical although the rail parallels the river the entire journey, mirroring the water’s curves and gradient. While the water flows effortlessly downhill, the train labors uphill, firebox roaring, smoke billowing into the sky.
When the wind changes, the cinders blow back over the passenger cars, swirl in the windows, land like whispers on cheeks, settle coal taste on tongues. If the experience feels authentic, it’s because it is the real thing, providing nearly the exact same experience as in times past.
The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad was once known as the Silverton Branch of the Denver & Rio Grande Railway, built in 1881 and 1882 along a route mapped out by engineer Thomas Wigglesworth to access the rich mines of Silverton. The railroad company constructed the line in just 11 months, the narrow gauge allowing it to curve around tight mountain corners and lay more rail in less time for less money, vital factors in Colorado’s competitive railroad market in the late 1800s.
By the time they started building this branch, the Silverton mines were the only major mines in the state not accessed by railroad. They weren’t the easiest to reach. It’s easy to imagine the difficulties when the train crosses the High Line, a section blasted into cliff walls and shored in places by stacked rocks anchored with pieces of steel. One rider from the East Coast looks out, jumps back and exclaims, “What’s holding this track on the mountain?”
One fun thing on the narrow gauge is that the sides of the cars hang out far beyond the narrow tracks underneath. Along the High Line, you can lean over the side of the car and look hundreds of feet straight down into the river below. Here in the steep mountains, the Animas is no longer peaceful and placid, but squeezed tight between narrow canyon walls, laced with challenging rapids and tinged glacial blue.
High above, the Needle Mountains and the Grenadier Range fang into the sky, their slopes scarred with avalanche paths, like giant cat claws scratched down the hills. As the many seasons have passed, the D&SNG has faced the challenges of the mountains – avalanches, landslides, fires, floods and snowfall so deep it was easier for workers to tunnel through the snow, rather than dig it all out.
Braving all of nature’s challenges, the train hauled freight and ore between Durango and Silverton for decades. But as Colorado changed and people embraced better roads and automobiles, the importance of the train waned. However, as companies abandoned narrow gauge lines, tourists discovered the D&SNG and in 1947 the railroad offered tourist service for the first time. Some 3,444 guests rode the train that year. But the real boom began when Hollywood discovered the train.