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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IN 1950, MARILYN MONROE, Rory Calhoun, Anne Baxter and Walter Brennan starred in the movie Ticket to Tomahawk, filmed on the train and in the stunning natural scenery that surrounds Durango and Silverton. other movies followed: Across the Wide Missouri, Viva Zapata, Lone Star, Around the World in 80 Days, How the West Was Won and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Tourists flocked to ride the train they’d seen in the movies. When the owners at that time tried to shut the branch down once and for all, the U.S. government denied them permission, so they kept it open and by 1963, 50,000 guests a summer were boarding the train in Durango and following the Rio Animas, the River of Souls, all the way to the rust-colored hills of Silverton.
Today, the D&SNG is privately owned, in pristine condition and around 200,000 people a year ride the train, most disembarking right in downtown Silverton, a remote mountain town created by the mines, but kept alive by the train.
It is a scene when the train arrives: Children run to get their photo taken with the engineer, tourist shops of all sorts throw their doors open wide, ready to make hay while the sun shines. The passengers rush to eat lunch, and the restaurants fly into a frenzy to serve the crowd. Now that all of Silverton’s mines have closed, a good percentage of Silverton’s 500 or so residents depend on the train to make a living.
“Silverton was a mining town until 1991 when the Sunnyside closed. Now we live and die by the train,” explains Bev Rich who was born in Silverton and has lived here all her life. “We have a saying ‘It’s train now’ and nobody makes appointments, sets meetings or goes downtown during the middle of the day when the trains are in town.” The rhythm of Silverton is determined by the train’s whistle, whether arriving or departing.
Most visitors never leave the main street while in Silverton, jumping right back on the train for the return journey after just a couple of hours in town. It’s a shame because Silverton remains one of Colorado’s best-preserved historical mining towns.
In Colorado, there are only 22 National Historic Landmarks identified by the National Park Service. Three of these are in Silverton and they include the D&SNG, the Mayflower Gold Mill and the entire town of Silverton itself.
“The train is a true historical artifact. It’s totally authentic,” Rich said. In fact, almost all of downtown Silverton is authentic – the original bars, hotels and buildings. Unlike many of Colorado’s early towns that frequently caught fire and burned to the ground, Silverton escaped the flames.
It’s well worth staying after the last train leaves for the day, letting Silverton slip into a more relaxed state where the high mountains on every horizon seem to reappear, kids ride their bikes right down the middle of the empty dirt streets, the crowd in the brewery filters down to mostly locals, and they don’t mind if you pull up a stool.
“We have an easy way of life here without a lot of the expectations that other places have,” muses Rose Raab, who has lived in Silverton for the last 38 years. It’s like the locals have truly embraced the situation and as the sun falls lower in the fall sky, slipping behind the peaks to the west and the temperature drops, you realize that sometimes the destination is as rewarding as the journey.
The best thing is that after you’ve taken the time to experience Silverton, dined and slept in a historic hotel like the Grand Imperial, and maybe even woke early to hike a trail on Kendall Mountain or visit the Mayflower Mill, you’ll hear the train whistle sound. That’s your call to get on board again and enjoy the journey back to Durango. You’ll be amazed at the new things you see traveling in a new direction.
Durango and Silverton remain railroad towns, but also two of the most scenic and fun places in all the American West. The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is perhaps the most ideal and memorable way to travel between them.
(This story originally appeared in the September/October 2012 issue of Colorado Life Magazine)