The Durango - Silverton Railroad

The train in the middle

Courtesy of C. S. Gilson, 3641 Hermes Drive Salt Lake City, Utah 84117 The train in the middle of the street in Silverton.

C. S. Gilson

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Salt Lake City, Utah 84117

We had looked forward for a long time to taking a real steam ride from Durango, Colorado to Silverton and back. The railroad is owned by the Denver and Rio Grande and tickets can be purchased right here in Salt Lake City or Denver. The tickets have to be confirmed by the Denver office as they sell about every seat on the train each day. Tickets cost about $6.00 for a round trip. It is wise to always get your ticket in advance as few fail to show up at Durango after having a reservation.

On the way there we stopped at many places of interest and no doubt missed as many as we visited. First we saw Red Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Cedar Breaks, Mountain Meadows, St. George and Zion National Park. Staying at Kanab and working out of there for a day we visited the Grand Canyon (north rim) and Pipe Springs. Pipe Springs is an old Mormon fort built over three springs. Men were killed near the fort while trying to retrieve their stolen cattle from the Indians. The fort never had to stand siege but it proved a haven to those staying there or traveling on west. Then we visited Glen Canyon Dam, Navajo Reservation and stopped at several trading posts which are run by Indians. After leaving the land where the Indians now live we stopped for a short while at the four corners and a longer time at the Mesa Verde. This is a wonderful place and I would like to go back again and spend more time. It takes more time than we allotted for it. These people, the Ancient Ones, lived there for about 1300 years. It is an invigorating place and on a hot afternoon in the land around it, this high plateau proved to be very pleasant with a nice breeze. You can look in almost every direction for miles and as they were a peace-loving people they must have felt secure as it was almost impossible for a war-like tribe to plunder. This plateau is about 4500 feet above the surrounding country. Many of their utensils were left there as well as some grain they raised. The museum has many interesting items that just takes hours to see. A young woman's skull has an arrowhead in it which no doubt caused her death. No one knows why this happened. Among other game they hunted a small deer. It was our privilege to see three of them. The Ancient Ones were driven out by many years of drought but the deer managed to stay or come back. I could write a whole story on most of the places but would say Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park, Grand Canyon, Pipe Springs and the Mesa Verde were the most interesting. I started out to tell you about the Silverton train and had better get with it.

August 30, 1966 at 8:30 we boarded the train on car seven for Silverton. The conductor had a mike and could talk to everyone in all cars and told us what to look for along the way. He told us right off that by now we no doubt found it was not the California Zephyr and that if we were going some place we were on the wrong train. We were going for a ride and time didn't matter. You could go to the platform and take pictures and look at the sights. There is just one little hitch-cinders rain down on you all the time. Some soot rains down also as well and when you go by a stream it looks as if it is raining-it is-cinders. There was a concession at one end of a car but you must bring your own change as they explained they were running a railroad and not the Chase Manhattan Bank.

The river running along the way to Silverton was called 'Rio de Las Animas Perdidas' by early Spanish discoverers and means River of the Lost Souls. Legend has it that an exploring party perished in an attempt to cross the torrent waters. The track follows along the river part of the way but has to leave it in one place to get out of a box canyon. It follows an old stagecoach road and it appeared as if a ride on the Overland could have loosened your teeth in the early days. This railroad was used in producing the following movies: 'Around the World In 80 Days', 'Ticket to Tomahawk' and 'Denver and Rio Grande'. The narrow gauge is three feet wide and it is best to turn sharp turns. Sometimes it is 700 feet to the river below and it is best not to step off the train as often the mountain goes almost straight down beside you. It makes you wonder if there is anything holding up the rails because you can't see the support. Other times it is like going over flat country but that doesn't last very long. They will let you off any place and if you come out of the brush and wave they will stop and you can get on. Many did get on and go into Silverton to get supplies. If you go the other way you have to stay over night to get back. Some passengers have to stand as all seats were taken.

When we left Durango we had 472 passengers. There is a 2% grade to get out of the box canyon and the steepest grade is 3.8% with 24 degree curves. The engine can pull 315 tons and they about have their limit every trip. That engine surely snorts to get up the grades. The fireman has his job cut out for himself as he must shovel six tons of coal on the trip. It is about 6,000 feet at Durango and goes up to 9,302 feet elevation at Silverton. On the way up we stopped several times to take on water. They use between 2,000 and 3,000 gallons of water each trip. The water tanks are ideally situated as they fill from mountain streams which are higher than the tanks and just run over when full. During the summer two trains are run a day but approaching the School term tourists slack off and they were running just one at the end of August.

A word might be said about the country in general. The aspen was just turning and there was a little snow on one of the highest peaks the night before. The river was very fast and large boulders in it as well as many twisted rails which were washed out during a flood. Some mentioned to the conductor that it would be a thrill to take a boat ride down the river. He spent a good five minutes telling every one why they should not do it. Many have lost their lives and the last men who tried it barely got out. No one has ever made it down that river to date. Near Silverton was a long hill on which a number of automobiles were seen which went off the road for one reason or another. They never bothered to haul them back as it wasn't worth it. No one lived who went over the bank. We could see a lot of snow slides which took great rocks, trees and ever the track out in times past. A shoofly is an area where the track is built around a snow slide which often occurs. The timber line is 11,000 feet and the mountains are about 13,000 feet. In this part of the country are deer, elk, bear, mountain lions and beaver. Also men are in the mountains mining uranium. There is a horse ranch back in the hills and the railroad is the only way to get in or out. Nearly all the guests at the ranch ride out to meet the train and to take pictures and bid good by to those leaving and to look over the newcomers. Often along where the train crosses the road near Durango cars would be stopped and people taking pictures of the train as it went by. Everybody would wave. Actually, the train only averages 13 miles an hour. That was more than it could make on some grades and plenty fast on some of the stretches on the way down-at least for me.

It took three hours and forty-five minutes to get to Silverton and three hours and twenty minutes to go back. It is just 44 miles each way. The railroad took over the stage line right of way in 1882. They used to run right through the winter and that took some doing but now they stop for the winter. The railroad has hauled some $300,000,000 worth of ore from the Silverton area and now would be out of business except for the people who want to ride the train even if they don't want to go any place. The engine is a 18' x 22' and runs on 200 pounds of steam pressure. It is a 2-8-2 Schenectady. The two great floods which affected the railroad was in 1911 and 1927. It did a lot of damage and some of the results can be seen yet. If a bridge is weakened it is better to just build a new one than to try to repair the old one. Some are in the river bed in ruins.

In the No Name area two girls from Denver spent the summer on research for their college work. They often rode the train for supplies and on returning to college in the fall one was killed in an accident. Her classmates brought her ashes back to the place she had spent such a wonderful summer as she requested.

On the way back we encountered a mountain storm which was something to be remembered. We had a car on the back with a top on and the sides open. We were disappointed that we didn't get to ride on that because you can see so well and take pictures. Our disappointment left us when that storm hit and I don't doubt someone got wet. Your ticket states the car you are to ride on.

Near Durango we saw some queer looking cattle and found out they were a breed from France. I believe they call them Chalet cattle. We watched a large barge dredging for gold in the river and could see a switchback road across the valley which they used to haul logs to the mill from the San Juan Mountains. The valley just above Durango is quite fertile and broad. The lower valley has lots of grass and the river even flows smoothly which is more than you can say up higher.

When we reached Silverton they just stopped the train in the middle of the street. We had an hour and forty-five minutes to see the town and get our eats. They have men all over the place to persuade you to go to their eating place and they can serve you faster than you would suppose. It will hold you over but it isn't the Blackhawk Restaurant in Chicago. However, it is a pleasant experience. The jail there is nice to go in as it is a museum and the cells you can visit upstairs. The thing I like best about it is you can leave when you want to. We visited a number of stores and of course went into the printing office, as printing is my occupation. The editor told me there were days and days that the weather was so bad that they couldn't do anything, but quickly he added that he loves it there. I don't know if he liked the business or the lack of it. They had a press that was brought in via California and the Horn. What a job that must have been to transport that much iron. They blow the engine whistle five minutes before the train leaves. If you don't want to spend the night in Silverton you will get a move on you and get aboard. I don't know how some who are always late would manage in this case. The train started up by backing into a big Y which must be a half a mile to where the switches are. Then we started down for Durango.

This was a day pleasantly spent and we would like to do it again sometime. Many of you have no doubt made the trip and many may want to. If I can help you secure your ticket write me or write direct to the Rio Grande Railroad, Hotel Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah. They are thinking of running a steam train taking a day to go and a day to come with the overnight stop at Almosa. I hope many can find time to take the train and know you will enjoy it as we did. It is a trip back into the mining era that most of us never knew.

When we reached Durango we went on to Dodge City to see Mr. Dillon and the rest--he, too, is becoming ancient history.