The Durango – Silverton Railroad

1 / 8
Courtesy of C. S. Gilson, 3641 Hermes Drive Salt Lake City, Utah 84117 The train in the middle of the street in Silverton.
2 / 8
Courtesy of C. S. Gilson, 3641 Hermes Drive Salt Lake City, Utah 84117 R. D. Shock, 829 5th Ave., Durango, our engineer waiting beside his engine in Silverton for the return trip.
3 / 8
Courtesy of C. S. Gilson, 3641 Hermes Drive Salt Lake City, Utah 84117 A stop for water in the mountains.
4 / 8
Courtesy of C. S. Gilson, 3641 Hermes Drive Salt Lake City, Utah 84117 High above the river and right on the edge.
5 / 8
Courtesy of C. S. Gilson, 3641 Hermes Drive Salt Lake City, Utah 84117 The river is very swift in places.
6 / 8
Courtesy of C. S. Gilson, 3641 Hermes Drive Salt Lake City, Utah 84117 A bridge that was damaged during a flood it is no longer used.
7 / 8
Courtesy of C. S. Gislon, 3641 Hermes Drive Salt Lake City, Utah 84117 A former jail, now a museum in Silverton.
8 / 8
3647 Hermes Drive Salt Lake City, Utah 84117 Pulling up a grade in the mountains.

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

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

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

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.

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment