"All Aboard!" From Durango to Silverton on the D&S Narrow Gauge Railroad
Engines 473 and 476 are firing up and ready for the trip to Silverton. Photo by Carol and Bob Culver, Culver’s Travels
by Carol and Bob Culver
Climb aboard the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (D&SNGRR) in southwest Colorado for a taste of Old West history and a great train ride through the San Juan Mountains. There’s fun for everyone aboard; extraordinary scenery along the way; and you ride aboard one of the best preserved narrow gauge railroads from Durango to the old mining town of Silverton.
The billowing smoke and sound of the giant coal-fired steam-powered locomotives welcome early morning Durango visitors. Kids of all ages get a chance for a close-up of the steam engines and passenger cars refurbished in turn of the century elegance. The railroad’s conductors, brakemen and engineers are there to answer all your questions and explain every nuance of the narrow gauge.
Why “narrow gauge”? The tracks are 36 inches apart, compared to standard gauge rails that are 56 inches apart. Some say the reason for narrow gauge is Puritanical ” the narrow passenger cars only have room for one bed on each side. So, in theory at least, it prevented men and women from sleeping in the same bed on the train. A pragmatic reason is cost. The smaller narrow gauge rail cars are less expensive to build and easier to transport to their railhead destination. Also, there are lower roadbed construction costs, and the rails are less expensive to install and require a narrower ledge carved out of the side of a mountain. Importantly, the train can make sharper curves in less space.
A passenger’s view of the inside of the train car. Photo by Carol and Bob Culver, Culver’s Travels
Before climbing on board take time to look around Durango. It was a frontier mining town and the hub and center of southwest Colorado’s economy in the late 1880s and early 1900s. Today, restored buildings highlight downtown, including the 1887 Strater Hotel and the General Palmer Hotel ” an 1898 Victorian showplace. The “Boulevard” showcases several blocks of turn of the century homes ” a pleasant historic walkway while waiting for the train to depart.
Don’t miss the Railroad Museum. It’s in the rebuilt roundhouse next to the train station. There are steam locomotives inside as well as a parlor car, caboose, and ever so many gadgets and narrow gauge memorabilia to climb around, touch, and examine.
The familiar call of “All aboard!” finds everyone heading for their seats. Be careful, as the brakeman warns; hold on if you get up to move about along the way as the ride may get a little bumpy from time to time. These are not the smooth-riding modern design passenger cars we ride in today, but rather turn-of-the-century style ” including wood panel walls, refurbished down to the smallest detail.
Pretty soon the loud low familiar: “Woooo!! Woooo!! Wo!! Woooooooooo!!” sound of the train whistle fills the air and we’re off ” heading for Silverton!
Ever so slowly the train eases out of the station, through the train yard and downtown Durango, past stores, then suburban homes, then into the countryside paralleling the Animas River. You climb high in the San Juan Mountains through the San Juan National Forest up the 3,000-foot grade to Silverton.
A photo tip: the “Million Dollar Highway” between Durango and Silverton (U.S. 550) follows part of the train’s route. But, its path is higher into the San Juan Mountains and goes over the Coal Bank and Molas Passes. Less than an hour into the train trip the D&SNGRR passes under the “Million Dollar Highway.”
The bridge is a few miles from Durango and is a great spot to get a picture of the train as it passes below. There is a small parking area along the highway at the north end of the bridge. Walk back about 20 yards and you’ll have a “million dollar” photo-op of the train as it passes by.
The train averages about 13 mph and will make several stops ” two for water for the thirsty steam locomotive, and others for backpackers, hikers and campers to get on and off. The scenery is spectacular: waterfalls, forests, valleys and range after range of mountains. Along the way there are sightings of old mines, wildlife and an occasional summer cabin or campsite hidden away in the woods. It’s more than a little exciting to look down as the train carefully creeps over the “High Line” ” a stretch of track that hugs a very narrow ledge on a sheer cliff high above the Animas River hundreds of feet below.
Passenger cars round a curve during the D&SNGRR trip to Silverton. Photo by Carol and Bob Culver, Culver’s Travels
Finally the train passes through Silverton’s train yard to town center. Arriving passengers are greeted in Silverton with a delightful visit back to the mid-1800s.
While just a few blocks wide ” and with one paved street ” Silverton (elevation: 9,320 feet) is packed with things to do and see. There is a two-hour layover here with opportunity to have lunch at one of the town’s many restaurants, a chance to admire century-old Victorian buildings, shop for souvenirs, visit the Historical Society’s Museum in Silverton’s old jail, and just walk around the town to enjoy its early era feel.
Imagine being here in the 1800s during Colorado’s first gold strike. Prospectors flocked to the San Juan mountains from around the world seeking their fortunes. As mining became more intense, the search expanded in ever-widening circles. Gold was discovered in the early 1860s near where Silverton later was established. But true to the luck of those days there was not a lot of gold found in Silverton. As the name suggests however, they found silver, silver and more silver. It is estimated that over $300 million in precious metals was carried out of the Silverton area on the rail line.
As the prospectors’ race to reach the San Juan mines was in full swing, the railroad pioneers were interested in building a line to haul people, freight, food, clothing and support supplies in ” and precious metals out. Durango was established as the railhead in 1881 on one end, and on the other the Silverton depot opened in 1882. The narrow gauge line reached other destinations in earlier years, but today the Durango to Silverton link is all that remains.
Over 200,000 visitors each year take the daylong round trip from Durango to Silverton. If you want to take the train one way and the sometimes parallel “Million Dollar Highway” back, there is an optional return bus ride from Silverton back to Durango that saves about two hours. Another option ” in order to linger longer and tour a local abandoned mine at your leisure ” is to stay overnight in one of Silverton’s historic hotels.
Passengers are greeted to this peaceful scene in downtown Silverton when they arrive on the train. Photo by Carol and Bob Culver, Culver’s Travels
Whatever the occasion or the time of year, a ride in history on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is an experience you will long remember.
For information about train schedules and special activities call 1-800-408-0230 or (970) 247-2733; or for reservations, 1-888-train-07.
You can write the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad at 479 Main Ave., Durango, Colo. 81301 or check out their Web site at http://www.durangotrain.com.
For hikers and backpackers there are a number of trail heads only accessible by rail, where the train will stop to let you off and pick you up later.
General information about the D&SNGRR
For a free “Travel Planner,” and information about the area and accommodations contact the Durango Area Chamber Resort Association at 1-800-525-8855. Mailing address: P.O. Box 2587, 111 S. Camino Del Rio, Durango, Colo. 81302. (Web address: http://www.durango.org)
The Silverton Area Chamber of Commerce can be reached at 1-800-752-4494.
WHEN TO GO: The D&SNGRR runs year round. In early spring the highways generally are clear of snow and ice, but the mountains still are snow capped, adding to the beauty of the scenery. Fall has the obvious advantage of colorful foliage.
The in-season train schedule starts in spring, with one train a day making the round-trip. In the summer season, additional trains are added, but, the number of scheduled trips tapers off in the fall. During the winter ” Thanksgiving through April ” the train turns around about half way to Silverton at Cascade Canyon because of the snow avalanche danger further up the track.
Advance reservations are important as the D&SNGRR is a popular attraction. Those not in their seats a half hour before the scheduled departure may find their place sold to “stand-by’s.”
Two cautions: If you are not accustomed to 6,000-10,000 foot altitude, take it easy as you walk about. Also, this is mountain country. Pack a jacket as it can be cool even in summer and particularly in the evening. Be prepared for surprise late afternoon and early evening thundershowers.
SPECIALS: Throughout the year there are a wide variety of “specials” aboard the D&SNGRR. Sometimes ” particularly for the “train buff” ” there is an opportunity to travel with visiting locomotives. Special historic parlor cars can be reserved for group outings.
One annual event is the “Photographer’s Special,” a charter train that provides photographers the opportunity to get off the train at several locations to take pictures. The train also may be backed up so photographers have the chance to get off and photograph a “run-by.” And, passengers have the opportunity to photograph regularly scheduled trains entering and leaving the depot and yard at Silverton.