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The Durango & Silverton Railroad 7/4/2016

by Chris Guenzler

Robin Bowers and I left the hotel, drove to Durango and paid only $10 cash to park. I went and picked up our tickets.

Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is a three foot narrow gauge heritage railroad that operates 45.2 miles of track between Durango and Silverton in Colorado. The railway is a federally-designated National Historic Landmark and is also designated by the American Society of Civil Engineers as a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.

The route was originally opened in 1882 by the Denver & Rio Grande Railway to transport silver and gold ore mined from the San Juan Mountains. The line was an extension of the D&RG three 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 & Toltec Scenic Railroad. 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 United States which has seen continuous use of steam locomotives. In March 1981, the Denver & Rio Grande Western sold the line and the D&SNG was formed.

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 original form.


William Jackson Palmer (1836-1908) was a former Union General (serving in the American Civil War) who came to Colorado after managing the construction of the Kansas Pacific Railroad into Denver in 1870. Prior to the war, he had risen within the ranks of the Pennsylvania Railroad serving as secretary to the president. After arriving in Denver, he formulated a plan to build a three foot narrow gauge railroad southward from Denver to El Paso, Texas. In 1871, the Denver & Rio Grande Railway began to lay rails south from Denver. Palmer and his associates had agreed that the choice of three foot narrow gauge would be well-suited to the mountainous country, and relatively less expensive construction costs would enhance the viability of the new railroad. The original north-south plans of the D&RG eventually expanded to include extensions throughout the booming mining country of central and southwestern Colorado.

On August 5, 1881 the Denver & Rio Grande Railway arrived in Durango, Colorado. The new town was founded by the D&RG in 1880 chiefly through the talents and organization of General Palmer's business partner Dr. William Bell. Construction to Silverton, Colorado began that fall. Only 11 months later, the D&RG reached Silverton on July 10, 1882. Trains hauling passengers and freight began immediately. The Denver & Rio Grande Railway soon re-emerged as the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad (1886) and ultimately began operating as the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad on July 31, 1921 after re-organization of the Colorado lines and Rio Grande Western of Utah. Eventually, the railroad became widely known as the "Rio Grande".

The Silverton branch, as it became known, struggled under D&RG ownership following the Panic of 1893 and the end of free coinage of silver. Typical of many portions of the surviving narrow gauge branches into the middle of the twentieth century, the line faced sagging revenue due to ever declining mining ventures, highway trucking competition and insignificant passenger revenue. Annual snowslides and several major floods on the branch would only continue to challenge the railroad's ability to survive. 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 began to see a gradual increase in passenger traffic on the mixed train to Silverton.

In 1950, the railroad adorned a locomotive and four coaches with a colorful 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 by the early 1950s, year-round operations had ceased and only summer tourist traffic and very light freight business would be handled on the mixed trains during summer months. 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. The area was now christened "Rio Grande Land". A second daily train to Silverton was added in 1963, and the ridership continued to grow.

Since 1971, this line and the line that is now the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad had been the only remnants of what was once an extensive Rio Grande three foot narrow gauge network. Rio Grande was actively trying to sell the line and in 1979, Charles Bradshaw, a Florida citrus grower, offered the railroad a legitimate opportunity to divest itself of its antiquated and isolated line as negotiations began for purchase of the rail line. The last train in the line under Rio Grande operations departed in October 5, 1980. After a work train operated the following day and returned to Durango, the railroad concluded its narrow gauge train operations.

New ownership

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, double-headed trains 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 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&SNGRR has two museums, one each in Durango and Silverton.

Steam Technical information

The steam-powered locomotives used today on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad were built during the 1920s. There are two classes, K-28 and K-36, which are based on wheel arrangement and pulling power of the locomotive.

The K represents the nickname "Mikado" that describes a locomotive with two non-powered, pivoting wheels in front of eight driving wheels, which are connected to driving rods powered by the engine's pistons, and finally two non-powered trailer wheels located under the cab. The name comes from the fact that the first significant use of the type was a series built by Baldwin Locomotive Works for the Japanese Railways in 1887.

470 Series

The 470 series or 2-8-2 K-28 locomotives were ten engines designed for freight service along the D&RG. They were built by the Schenectady Locomotive Works of the American Locomotive Company (Alco) in Schenectady, New York in 1923. Out of the original ten only three 470s remain, and all are owned by the D&S. The other seven were requisitioned by the United States Army in 1942 to be used on the White Pass & Yukon Route in Alaska during World War II. They were later dismantled for scrap in 1946.

Locomotives 473, 476 and 478 operated on many parts of the D&RGW. Engine 473 served frequently on the Chili Line that operated between Antonito and Santa Fe until it was abandoned in 1941. 476 and 478 saw an extensive service on the San Juan passenger train, which ran between Durango and Alamosa until 1951. They also operated on the Silverton Branch from the 1950s through 1980 and are still in service today.

480 Series

The 480 series or K-36 locomotives were ten engines designed for the D&RGW. They were built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1925. The 480s were the last ten narrow gauge locomotives constructed for the DRGW. The 480s were used for freight-hauling throughout the narrow gauge network.

D&SNG owns four K-36s: 480, 481, 482 and 486, all of which are operational. The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad owns engines 483, 484, 487, 488 and 489. Engine 485, unfortunately, fell into the turntable pit in Salida, Colorado in 1955. It was scrapped for parts thereafter, however some accessories, running and valve gear was salvaged and used on other locomotives.

490 Series

The 490 series or K-37 locomotives were part of a class of thirty standard gauge 2-8-0 engines built in 1902 for the D&RG by Baldwin Locomotive Works. In 1928 and 1930 ten of the C-41s were rebuilt at the Rio Grande Burnham Shops in Denver into narrow gauge 2-8-2s. The D&SNG operated only one K-37. 497 was rebuilt in 1984 and operated for seven years. It is the only K-37 to go to Silverton under its own power. It was later determined that the trailing truck was having trouble negotiating the curves in the Animas Canyon so the D&SNG traded it to the C&TS for K36 482. This trade was mutually beneficial for both railroads as it gave the C&TS a fully operational locomotive, giving in exchange a locomotive that had never run, and likely would never operate under C&TS ownership. Numbers 493 and 498 are owned by the D&SNG, but are not operational. 499 was included in the 1981 purchase from the D&RGW as well, and was stored in Durango until 1999 when it was cosmetically restored and traded for long out of service locomotive 486 which had been on display at the Royal Gorge since the early 1960s.

The Trip

On the way to McDonald's, our engine reversed onto the train. We went and had breakfast but they took too long to bring it to us and I finally found the girl who brought our meal very quickly since we were taking the train, after which we walked back to the station.

Our train is ready for boarding. We had engine 481, coach 213 "Bitter Root Mountain", coach 336 "Rockwood", coach 333 "Tacoma", covered open air car 414, concession 126, coach 227 "Durango", covered open air car 416, coach 631 "Tall Timber", coach 632 "Tall Timber Legacy", "Knight Sky" 314 and parlor 152 "Cincos Animas".

Our train departed Durango at 8:00 AM and we were off to Silverton.

We made our way out of downtown Durango.

We follow this bike path that was here on my last visit and the condominiums have grown. Durango has certainly grown from my last visit here in 2008.

Now out of town, the Animas River.

Our train took a curve.

The wye near Durango.

Not a cloud in the sky on this morning.

Other people found our photo spot from yesterday.

A waterfall on Missionary Hill.

The Animas River.

Our train took another curve.

The Hermosa water tower.

The train crossed Fall Creek.

We climbed the grade towards the US 550 bridge. I called Elizabeth so she could hear the train climbing to Rockwood.

The train stopped for passengers at Rockwood. After we went through the Rockwood Cut, we entered the most spectacular section of this railroad, the High Line high above the Animas River. Sit back and enjoy the pictures.

Our journey over the High Line.

Our train on a curve.

The train is getting ready to cross the trestle over the Animas River.

Crossing the Animas River.

The Animas River.

The train and the Animas River.

The beautiful Animas River.

Our train and the Animas River.

The Animas River.

The train and the Animas River.

The Animas River as we ran north towards Silverton.

The train and the Animas River.

The Animas River.

Beautiful mountain peaks can be seen from the Silverton train.

Both ends of the train in these views.

What a view!

The train and the Animas River.

The train came to the restored Needleton Water Tank. We stopped to take water here from a former tank car.

The train and the Animas River.

The Animas River.

Another mountain peak as we looked up that canyon.

The train and the Animas River.

It doesn't get any better than this!

Or this!

Robin Bowers enjoying his first ride aboard the Silverton.

What a unique and beautiful view of this mountain peak!

The train and the Animas River.

It amazes me how much beauty there is in this great state of Colorado.

Garfield Mountain.

Both ends of our train in the Animas River Canyon.

Kayakers enjoying the Animas River.

The train and the Animas River.

Incredible views can be had from the Silverton train.

The train and the Animas River.

The ever-changing Animas River.

The train and the Animas River as we are nearing our destination of Silverton.

The train is crossing the Animas River for the final time on our trip north.

The Detroit Mine.

The Silverton station.

The train takes the final curve into Silverton.

Up this street to where the northbound trip will end. Robin and I had now arrived in Silverton where we detrained and walked to the front of the train.

Our train at rest at Silverton. We would now explore the town.

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