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Durango and Silverton Railroad Trip 5/25/2021

by Chris Guenzler

Our two intrepid travellers awoke at the Quality Inn in Farmington, New Mexico. After we checked out, we had an excellent breakfast at Village Inn. I drove Elizabeth and I up toward Durango.

Welcome back to Colorado, Chris and Elizabeth. We drove the rest of the way into Durango and parked in the railroad's parking lot with our pre-paid parking which you can purchase when you make your reservation. At this time they were only offering one round trip to Silverton a day, which left at 9:00 AM. This will be Elizabeth's first trip on the Durango and Silverton Railroad and my fourth.

The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, often abbreviated as the D&SNG, is a 3 foot narrow-gauge heritage railroad that operates on 45.2 mi of track between Durango and Silverton in Colorado. The railway is a federally designated National Historic Landmark and was also designated by the American Society of Civil Engineers as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1968.

The route was originally opened in 1882 by the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad to transport silver and gold ore mined from the San Juan Mountains. The line was an extension of the D&RG 3 foot narrow-gauge line from Antonito, Colorado to Durango. The last train to operate into Durango from the east was on December 6, 1968. The states of New Mexico and Colorado purchased 64 miles between Antonito and Chama, New Mexico, in 1970 and operates today as the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad (C&TSRR). Trackage between Chama and Durango was removed by 1971.

The line from Durango to Silverton has run continuously since 1881, although it is now a tourist and heritage line hauling passengers and is one of the few places in the U.S. which has seen continuous use of steam locomotives. In March 1981, the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad sold the line and the D&SNG was formed. Today, the D&SNG, along with the C&TSRR, are the only two remaining parts of the former D&RGW narrow-gauge network. The railroad has a total of nine narrow-gauge steam locomotives (eight of which are operational) and soon-to-be eleven narrow-gauge diesel locomotives, six of which were acquired within the last three years, in their current roster. The railroad also operates former D&RGW No. 315 for special events. Some rolling stock dates back to the 1880s. Trains operate from Durango to the Cascade Wye in the winter months and Durango–Silverton during the summer months. Durango depot was built in January 1882 and has been preserved in its original form.

The Silverton

After World War II, domestic tourism began to grow across the country and the Silverton branch of the railroad would benefit. Bolstered by national exposure via Hollywood movies being filmed along the line in the late 1940s, the railroad created The Silverton, a summer-only train service on June 24, 1947. A short time later, the railroad adorned a locomotive and four coaches with a colorful yellow paint scheme and launched modest public promotion. With this effort, "The Painted Train" officially started a new era of tourism that continues to this day. Freight traffic, however, continued to decline and during the 1950s, The Silverton operated as a mixed train.

By the 1960s, a modernized D&RGW did not see the Silverton Branch as worthy to maintain and a petition was filed with governmental agencies to abandon the route. The Interstate Commerce Commission declined to grant the request due to the continued increase in tourist patronage. Following the ICC's ruling, the railroad reluctantly responded by investing in additional rolling stock, track maintenance, and improvements to the Durango depot. The railroad purchased some of the property around the depot, cleaned up the block extending north to Sixth Street, and facilitated the opening of gift shops and other tourist-friendly businesses. As ridership continued to grow, the D&RGW operated a second train to Silverton on certain days.

The 1970s

Since 1971, the Silverton branch and nearby Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad were the only remnants of the Rio Grande's once extensive narrow-gauge system. During the late 1970s, the D&RGW was actively trying to sell the Silverton branch, and in 1979, Charles Bradshaw, a Florida citrus grower, offered the railroad a legitimate opportunity to divest itself of the now isolated route. On October 5, 1980, The Silverton made its last run under D&RGW ownership and after operating a work train the following day, the railroad finally concluded its 3 foot narrow-gauge train operations, bringing to a close an era that began 110 years earlier with its narrow-gauge railroad from Denver to Colorado Springs.

Present day

In June 2018, the railroad shut down for several weeks due to a wildfire, named the "416 Fire", which was fought by two air tankers, six helicopters and some 400 firefighters on the ground. An estimated 54,129 acres of the San Juan National Forest were burned, with losses estimated at more than $31 million. Given the fire risk from coal cinder-sparked wildfires, the railroad's owner plans to invest several million dollars to replace coal-power with oil-power for their steam locomotives and acquire two new diesel powered locomotives. The railroad was suspected of sparking the blaze and some area businesses and residents filed a civil lawsuit against the railroad and its owner in mid-September 2018. The railroad is currently aiming to have at least half of their operational steam locomotives converted to oil-power.

In March 2020, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak in the country severely affected the US. For the safety and protection of guests and employees, the D&SNG suspended all operations until June 23, 2020.

New ownership

The D&SNG was founded by Charles Bradshaw Jr., of Florida, with the intent of purchasing the right-of-way and equipment while expanding the infrastructure and passenger revenue. His plans were fulfilled with the March 25, 1981, acquisition of the D&RGW's 45-mile (72 km) Silverton branch and all of its structures and rolling stock.

The improvements to the railroad in the 1980s would prove to be the most dramatic growth on the Silverton Branch since the earlier part of the century. Bolstered by the assistance of former Rio Grande operating managers and a relatively sizeable staff of new employees, Bradshaw's plans were set in motion immediately. Included in the sale were former D&RGW locomotives and rolling stock that had not seen service in Durango for many years. "K-36" and "K-37" class locomotives were eventually restored to operating condition and these larger class of engines operated to Silverton for the first time ever following bridge and right-of-way improvements to the line. 1880s vintage coaches were exquisitely restored and new coaches were added to the roster of rolling stock. For the first time in many years, doubleheaded trains (trains with two locomotives) and additional scheduled trains were employed to handle the continually growing passenger trade. The Durango yard facilities also saw dramatic improvements. An extension was added to the old roundhouse, a new car shop was built on the site of the original "car barn", and the depot saw extensive repair and internal modifications. The workforce grew with the railroad, and Durango's tourist image expanded as new businesses and revamping of the old railroad town continued to take shape. The original 1881 Durango roundhouse was completely destroyed by fire in the winter of 1989. All six operable locomotives had been inside at the time and were damaged, but not beyond repair. All locomotives were eventually restored to operating condition. A new roundhouse was constructed on the same site, opening in early 1990, and its facade made use of bricks salvaged from the original building.

In March 1997, Bradshaw sold the D&SNG to First American Railways, Inc., located in Hollywood, Florida. Then in July 1998, the railroad was sold again to American Heritage Railways. At the time, American Heritage Railways was headquartered in Coral Gables, Florida. Since then their headquarters have been moved to Durango, Colorado. The D&SNG has two museums, one each in Durango and Silverton.

Our ride

We walked past McDonald's and stopped to take pictures of the engine.

Durango and Silverton 2-8-2 493 which had been converted to oil from coal.

The Durango station built in 1881 by the Denver and Rio Grande Western. Even though we had our boarding passes, we had to check in and pick up our tickets. We then boarded the train and were in Gondola 404.

The view from our gondola. I detrained and walked up to the front for a picture of the train and engine before we departed.

The train before departure.

The engine before departure. Elizabeth and I chose seats across the aisle from each other. Why? This way we could shoot out of both sides of the train and not be in anyone else's way. The seats in these open cars face out rather than ahead. A short safety briefing was given by the conductor before we departed and stressed that masks had to be worn throughout the trip. The concession staffers came through the train, told of things you could purchase and distributed a price listing.

The train left Durango by switching on to the main line to Silverton.

Our train is heading for the first crossing of the Animas River which means River of Lost Souls. After crossing the river, the concession staffers came through and we bought the guide book and DVD set.

Crossing the Animas River.

Rafters are popular on the lower reaches of the river.

Leaving Durango proper.

A new bicycle path follows the railroad out of town.

Heading for the mountains.

The train passes the Las Animas Live Steamers.

We next passed the Hermosa water tank at Mile Post 462.5.

The train after crossing US Highway 550.

The train taking one of the curves along an irrigation ditch.

The rear of the train along the ditch.

The journey up to the US Highway 550 bridge.

The train going under the Highway 550 bridge. Now sit back, relax and enjoy the trip to Rockwood.

The trip to Rockwood.

The train passing through Rockwood and past Electra Lake.

The train passing through Rockwood Cut.

We then entered the San Juan National Forest. Now enjoy a trip from here to near the bridge across the Animas River on what is called the High Line.

The trip across the High Line.

The second crossing of the Las Animas River.

Passing through Tacoma.

On the way to Tank Creek at Mile Post 474.6. Here the engine would take water.

The engine taking water at Tank Creek.

The train crossed Tank Creek. Enjoy the trip to the third crossing of the Las Animas River.

The third crossing of the Las Animas River. The trip north to the Needle Mountains was next.

The trip to the first view of the Needle Mountains.

The train curves in front of the Needle Mountains.

Another view of the snow-capped mountains.

The train taking a curve to bring in the next mountain range.

The Grenadier Range.

Still running along the Animas River.

Another view of the Grenadier Range.

Another peak came briefly into view.

The train passed one of the park settings along the railroad.

You always have the Animas River on one side or the other on the way to Silverton.

The Needleton water tank.

The trip to where Mount Garfield came into view.

Mount Garfield.

The trip to the fourth crossing of the Las Animas River.

The fourth crossing of the Las Animas River.

The view looking back down the river.

The trip to Deadwood Gulch, Mile Post 495.1. This oil-burning engine seems to be making more smoke than the coal-burning version. The conductor told me that the fireman is very happy with the oil burner as he does not have to shovel 500 tons of coal into the firebox during a round trip.

The Deadwood Gulch waterfall.

A view looking forward and back.

The fifth and final crossing of the Animas River as we entered the Silverton valley.

The Detroit Mine which is for sale.

On the wye was the 8:00 AM train from Durango, pulled by a former White Pass and Yukon engine.

The Denver and Rio Grande Silverton depot built in 1882.

Durango and Silverton 98-ton center cab switcher 11, originally United States Steel.

Our train turning onto East 12th Street in Silverton, the terminus of the trip. We detrained and walked up to the front of the train.

The train in Silverton.

Durango and Silverton 2-8-2 493, an oil-burner, at rest in Silverton.

This is the "La Plata", Car 332, which had the bathrooms we would use from the open car.

Our open car, 404.

The three coaches behind our open car.

The "Silver Vista" built in 2006 to replace the 1947 one destroyed by fire.

Durango and Silverton 350 "Alamosa" built in 1880.

Durango and Silverton B-2 "Cinco Animas" built in 1883 as an immigrant sleeping car. The consist of this whole train was Durango and Silverton 2-8-2 493, combine 213 "Bitter Root Mine", concession car 64, coach 332 "La Plata", covered open car 404 (built in 1916 from a box car), coaches 312 "San Juan", 630 "Prospector", 632 "Red Mountain", glass-topped open car "Silver Vista", first class 350 "Alamosa" and B-2 "Cinco Animas".

The rear of our consist. I took Elizabeth over to see the two cabooses in town.

Denver and Rio Grande Western caboose 01511.

Santa Fe caboose 999001.

Something I would never do to any caboose if I were to own one. We walked over to the Silverton Northern engine house.

The Silverton Northern engine house built in 1892.

The Casey Jones, a home-built railbus built by the Silverton Northern Railroad mainly to provide the doctor in Silverton transportation up the line to where he was needed in cases of illness and accident when miners or their families or others along the line could not get through down to Silverton. Another use of it was to transport miners and others into Silverton and back up the line on an irregular basis.

Also inside was a handcar.

They are also building additional covered space for some of their equipment. We heard the train heading toward the wye and we got ourselves in position to take pictures.

Durango and Silverton 493 pushes the train to the wye to be replaced by the 8:00 train.

The Denver and Rio Grande Western station in Silverton.

The history board about Silverton's railroads.

The Silverton Northern station built in 1890. We took a walk looking for a place to get some ice cream but then saw another train at the loading location and went to investigate.

This engine powered the 8:00 AM train from Durango to Silverton this morning.

Durango and Silverton DL-535 107, originally White Pass and Yukon 107. This was the first sighting of one of these engines by my lovely wife as I had ridden behind one on the White Pass in 2004. Elizabeth and I found the Rocky Mountain Funnel Cake shop where I had mint chocolate chip ice cream cone and Elizabeth savoured a huckleberry pie ice cream cone, a flavor she had never had before. These hit the spot as we did not feel like having a proper lunch. We returned to the boarding and we waited for our train to arrive from the wye. Once it did, we were the first to head to the front to take pictures of ourselves.

My lovely wife Elizabeth with her new steam engine, 493, her 56th steam engine ridden behind.

The author in front of his new steam engine on this railroad.

Leaving Silverton behind at 2:45 PM, heading back to Durango.

Kendall Creek Waterfall on the east side of the tracks.

The natural beauty abounds on the Durango and Silverton Railroad.

Durango and Silverton 493 drifted down the grade.

Looking back up the canyon.

Looking down the canyon.

The Needles Mountains as clouds try to cover them. This is the first trip I have been on when it did not rain and I think it was the luck of my lovely wife that it did not.

Heading back down the Animas River toward Durango.

The second crossing of the Animas River where 493 blew down.

The rear of the train at the second crossing.

The trip across the High Line. From here I relaxed the rest of the way back to Durango. It had been a wonderful trip aboard the Durango and Silverton Railroad. Elizabeth thoroughly enjoyed her experience on the train. We detrained and went into the gift shop and purchased ten souvenir items. We walked back to the car, a couple of very happy railfans. We left the parking lot and went to Subway for dinner then drove to the Days Inn in Cortez, Colorado where we caught up on the Internet, I watched television while Elizabeth worked on her trip logs before we retired for the night.