A Historic Train in Colorado: The Director’s Cut

This is an extended version of my original post entitled “A Steam Train to Durango” and chronicles my experience aboard the Silverton-Durango Steam Train in September 2022.

The artwork in the header is by Lori Preusch. See more of her work at Dandelion Press.

I am carrying a postcard that my great grandmother sent from Durango to her daughter in Gunnison, dated September 16, 1929. Nearly a century later, I embark on a similar itinerary on the narrow gauge Silverton to Durango Steam Train.

It’s cool and overcast today. I spend my morning drinking coffee in the lobby of the Grand Imperial Hotel. By the time I head to the train stop (a patch of gravel at the end of the tracks on Blair Street) a soft rain has started and a wind has kicked up, sending me scurrying for my bowler hat which has flown off my head. I make a mental note to NOT stand on the observation deck on the train, as should I lose my hat again, rescue will be impossible. The weather does clear upon the train’s arrival.

The Denver & Rio Grande Railway was founded by William Jackson Palmer in Durango in August 1881 and by July 1882 had reached Silverton, carrying both passengers and freight the 45 miles between the two towns. The line went on to connect mining camps in Rico, Telluride and Ouray by 1890. The railway was built as a narrow gauge, with rails 36″ apart, which was cheaper and which allowed tracks to be laid on sharper curves (24 degrees), steeper grades (2.5%) and more narrow shelves that a standard track of 56.5″ width would not be able to accommodate. At one point outside of Rockwood, the railroad ties are just 6″ away from the edge of the abyss.

It took 30 hours to make the journey from Denver to Durango by train, which was still faster than by stagecoach. Trains drove the stagecoach lines out of business. Cars, in turn, would start to replace the trains in the 1920s, and the D&RG line was abandoned in 1952, to be reborn later as a tourist attraction. The Silverton train is now a Registered Historical Landmark as designated by the National Park Service, and has also been named a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.

At last, we board, and I find my seat in the Alamosa Parlor Car, built in 1880 and is the second oldest car in the fleet. It was converted to a coach car in 1885; an office and sleeping car for railroad staff in 1919; a 14-passenger parlor car in 1924; flipping from parlor to coach car between 1937-78 before being fully restored to its original 1880 condition in 1981. We are at the end of the train where I expected the caboose to be, which means there is no foot traffic from people trying to get to other cars. It also affords the most picturesque views of the full train in front of us.

The car is very narrow and I share a table the size of a chessboard with three other passengers. At 2:40 PM, we set off with a tremendous lurch that clears the contests off the tables. The tables are bolted to the floor, but the chairs are not, and I spend much of the trip grasping both the chair and the table in order to stay seated. You can compare riding a narrow gauge rail to moderate turbulence on an airplane. And yet, the cabin stewards are steady on their feet as they walk the length of the car serving drinks and seeing to any other needs we might have.

The young attendant shares both historical notes and personal anecdotes. The Brakeman comes onboard towards the end of the line, and hands his hat to me for safekeeping while he tells us about his job and the tools he uses. I am of course, obliged to document that happenstance.

We arrive in Durango at a quarter past six. I check into the General Palmer Hotel which is just steps from the train depot. I spend the next day in Durango, and catch this shot of the train on my way to the post office, with the historic Strater Hotel in the background. Always Wave at the Train. The Train Always Waves Back.

I return to Silverton on September 16 on the 9 AM train. Several passengers ask about my dress. I share Velma’s postcard, which I realize is dated today from 93 years ago, so I tell people I am taking a commemorative journey. Several photographs and questions later, I take my seat so attention can turn to our steward, Isaac. He provides a wealth of detail about our route and the train.

Two engines, both built in 1923, are pulling the train today because it is loaded so heavy. Our steam is produced by burning recycled oil in place of the original coal. (Two of my fellow passengers from the previous trip had commented on soot and cinders flying into the windows when the trains ran coal.) We reach Hermosa at 9:30 AM and the rail yard five minutes later. At 9:50 AM we pass a “siding” where dual tracks allow trains to pass each other. It’s named after Judge J. H. Pinkerton (no relation to the Pinkerton Agency as far as I can tell), whose ranch was a stop on the toll road between Silverton and Animas City. It is now called the Golden Horseshoe Resort.

I note the return of the brakeman whose cap I held on the previous trip. His name is Nick. He takes his hat off and personally thanks every military man on the train for their service, which I found quite touching. We also learn that our conductor today is Kyla Bredon, who worked her way up from coalman to become the first female conductor in the history of this train line. Kyla (photo provided by a fellow passenger), Issac (not shown here) and Nick are among the 350-400 personnel who keep this train, and its diesel cousin, running.

We slow to 10 mph around a sharp curve called Granite Point, the site where a train rolled over in early 1917, destroying two of the three coaches but none of the passengers. We enter Rockwood, an old stagecoach transfer point, at 10:05 AM. We have reached the end of the road, so to speak, and the only way to get to the Animas Canyon and Silverton from here is by train, horse or on foot.

The second engine is unhooked and drives ahead before we enter the second rock cutout (a topless tunnel) and enter the San Juan Forest. This stretch is called the High Line and cost $100,000 per mile to build in 1882. This train was robbed here once, a story Isaac tells to a spellbound audience before disclosing that it was during the filming of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

We have been following the Rio de las Animas de Paeditas, “The River of Lost Souls” named after Spanish party who drowned after being told it was too dangerous to cross by the native Ute Tribe. It is the steepest river without a dam in the US, and in the spring it is a Class 5 Rapids. We stop to take on 3,000 gallons from the Tank Creek Water Tank at 10:45 AM, and hook the second engine back up so we ‘doublehead’ our 3,000 foot incline into Silverton.

We pass a small park near Tall Timber Resort where a number of films were made, including Denver and Rio Grande which climaxed in the planned destruction of two locomotives in a head-on collision, since the narrow gauge during the time of filming (1951) was considered junk. Other films shot in this area include Around the World in 80 Days, Maverick Queen, How the West Was Won, and The Prestige. The West, part of Ken Burns’ production on the Civil War was also filmed here.

We reach Cascade Canyon at 11 AM, the halfway point between Durango and Silverton and the furthest point the train reaches during the winter months. We stop again to take on water at 11:40 AM. Isaac tells us that historically, the coalmen would shovel coal like mad at this point, to build up a head of steam for the next 1,000 foot climb. He also says that the burned areas we see along the way are where the engineers burn old railway ties and windfall timbers during the winter months, in order to keep the easement clear. Wood that is usable is carted off for use in the surrounding campgrounds.

Tenmile Creek marks the final 10 miles and 30 minutes from Silverton. We reach Elk Creek at 12:05 PM and pull into Silverton a few minutes later. I note that the train’s side-to-side roll is more significant here than it was at the Durango end. The train stops to turn around and let passengers off for lunch. I depart this wonderful trip and, after my own lunch at the Lone Spur Cafe, I start up a more modern contrivance, and drive back over the Million Dollar Highway to my next destination in Montrose.

For further reading:

  • Cinders & Smoke: A Mile by Mile Guide for the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, by Doris B. Osterwald.
  • Narrow Gauge to Silverton: The Story of an American Heirloom, by John Hungerford.

2 thoughts on “A Historic Train in Colorado: The Director’s Cut

  1. You really know how to get the most out of an anachronism! A truly impressive level of immersion and discovery! Well Done!


  2. The funny thing was that I had lost track of what day it was until I was on the train heading back to Silverton from Durango. Just as I started to pass the postcard around, I looked at the date and realized it was that very day… I think it was kizmet : )


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