Facebook Page
Riding Durango & Silverton

Adventurers in the Rockies

Chapter Four

 Riding the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

 and a visit to the private Animas Valley Railroad

July 4, 2016



Robin Bowers

Text and Photos by Author

The author retains all rights. No reproductions are allowed without the author's consent.

Comments are appreciated at...

    It was a great morning in the Colorado mountains on America's birthday as Chris G. and I left our top floor suite at the Dolores Mountain Inn in Dolores, CO with the destination of the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad in Durango, CO. We went south on Rt 184 to US 160 then east to the  junction of  US 550. At the junction we then went north on US 550 to the town of Durango.


    Our steam locomotive (481) for today's trip leaving the roundhouse. The Durango Depot is located at Mile Post 451.52 and Silverton Depot, near the end of the line, at MP 496.7. The number indicates the distance from the Denver & Rio Grande's base in Denver along the original line of track, most of which no longer exists. Our Durango based train is considered westbound, and the return eastbound, even though, as the map shows, Silverton lies basically north of Durango. In the early years of the D&RG, any train leaving their base in Denver was usually headed west, so westbound became accepted terminology within the D&RG for any train heading away from their base, and the tradition continues here for the D&SNG.

    A vertical climb of 2,900 feet over 45 miles. Five active steam locomotives regularly working at their tonnage rating, each consuming 6 tons of coal and up to 10,000 gallons of water on a round trip. Three trains a day seven days a week, all summer. Tracks twist 45 miles through the narrow Animas River canyon, while trains climb grades of up to 4 percent and traverse a shelf blasted into a cliff 150 feet above the river. Tracks ends at the rugged outpost of Silverton, where the railroad once interchanged with three mining railroads branching out into the neighboring canyons. Silver, gold, and uranium were the primary traffic.           


481 is a 2-8-2 built in 1925 with a 36" narrow gauge.


After 481 was coupled to the passenger cars, we were boarded and ready for our 8:45am departure with arrival in Silverton at 12:15pm. Our journey begins in the Durango Yard (MP 451.52) at an elevation 6,520 feet above sea level.


    A train ride to Silverton is an all day adventure: 3 1/2 hours up, a 2 1/4-hour layover for lunch and exploration, and 3 1/2 hours back down. Trains are up to 12 cars long and consist mostly of yellow standard-class coaches and open-air gondolas, with several maroon silver premium-class cars on the rear. A concession car splits the train in half and serves snacks, soft drinks, and alcoholic beverages.


Departing from Durango, the train rolls through the open Animas River valley for 40 minutes before leaping into the 2.5-percent, half-hour assault on Hermosa Hill.


    MP 453.9 At the crossing signal, the rails intersect 32nd Street. This was the heart of old Animas City, a settlement that was established by the D&RG in 1880. Main Avenue through Animas City was once a beautiful road lined with white picket fences.




Animas Mountain.


    MP 455 -463: This eight-mile section of the line takes us from Durango's city limits through the beautiful Animas Valley. The broad valley was created by glacial activity that took place about 10,000 years ago-not long in geologic time. As you enter the valley, the low-lying hills to the southeast are evidence to a terminal moraine-deposits that mark the end of a glacier's path.


    MP 462.5: The old wooden water tank in Hermosa, one of only two remaining on the Durango - Silverton line, had been structurally stabilized by is not operational at this time. Water is currently drained out of a converted tank car when needed. The D&RG built this wooden water tank at Hermosa so engine crews could fill their tenders one last time before heading up the long hill from here to Rockwood.





MP 468.2: Shalona Lake.


  MP 469.1: Picking up passengers at flag stop, Rockwood. el: 7367.



Entering the San Juan National Forest.




    MP 469.6: The train rides on a rock ledge, some 240 feet above the Animas River, that was created with extensive black power blasting. To drill into the rock and set their charges, workers were lowered perilously over the granite cliffs in harnesses. Area miners were hired to do much of this work- a similar technique was used to dislodge ore in the mines. As far as known, no workers died while working on the High Line.






    MP 471.23: The High Bridge, 190 feet long, is made of steel girders with a heavy wooden deck. In 1894, this bridge replaced the original all-timber trestle that had been constructed during the fall and winter of 1881-82. The current bridge was reinforced in 1981 to support the heavier K-36 series of locomotives (480s) that owner Charles Bradshaw Jr. wanted to use on the line. Up until then, the heaviest locomotives operating on the Silverton Branch were K-28s (470s).



    Between Rockwood and the High Bridge the tracks drop about 400 feet in elevation. This is the only downgrade on the entire line from Durango to Silverton. From here north, once again, the grade is challenging.



Mountain wild life.


  Looking back toward end of train.


    A favorite shot for photographers; the fireman and engineer alternately open the "blow-down" valve to clear sediment that accumulates on the bottom of the boiler. The hot, white mist shoots dramatically from the sides of the locomotive, and on sunny days, rainbows can magically appear.


Zipline adventures.



    MP 484.4: The original Needleton water tank was a stop for the train on the way to Silverton until the mid -1970s. A restoration project returned the tank to its original appearance, completing the work in 2004. Though the tank does not hold water, the structure is stabilized and could be adapted at some point in the future. Water is dispensed from the body of a steel tank car just north of the wooden tank at MP 484.5.


el: 8141.







MP 489.87: Old trestle over the Animas River at Elk Park Bridge.


  Maintenance of way work.


    MP 490.70: Elk Park is a beautiful and historic site. In 1884, a wye was built here to enable trains blocked by the deep snow slides further north to turn around, and it was used for this purpose until the 1950s. Animal-powered pack trains would continue from here when possible. There was also a D&RG section house here at one time. Stock-loading facilities were built in Elk Park for the herds of sheep that the railroad brought up to access summer pastures. Today Elk Park is well known to outdoor enthusiasts seeking a convenient approach to Grenadiers and beyond. el: 8883.


    Fellow traveler who I talked with on the ride up to here. He works at a VA Medical Center in the southeast and was going to spend a few days exploring the mountains. We dropped off a dozen hikers and picked up about the same amount.


Getting their thrills in the Animas River rapids.






    MP 494.60: Remains of a tipple used by the King Mine to fill ore cars on a small spur can be seen here. Kendall Falls comes cascading down from hundreds of feet above, just north of the old tipple. The mine lay in Cataract Gulch, on the west side of the river. and ore was cabled across, powered by an old locomotive tank.  The cascades on the west side of the river are known to railroaders as Angel Veil Falls.


    After the first major silver strike in 1871, Silverton became a prosperous mining community. Between 1882 and 1918, the Las Animas district mines produced $65 million in ore. The Grand Imperial Hotel, an 1880s showplace for the silver kings, and the gold domed San Juan County Courthouse are evidence of the opulence of Silverton bonanza years.

    In the years since, several of the boom-and-bust cycles typical of the mining industry happened, making fortunes and then sending them plummeting. The boom cycles saw influxes of people from every ethnic group on earth, and the bust cycles saw towns turn into ghostly reminders of themselves.

    Today Silverton is the only town left in San Juan County, with a population of 600, supported by tourists who ride the rail to see the magnificent scenery and relive the incredible history of the area.


    MP 496.70: The Silverton Depot served as the terminus of the D&RG line for many years. The Silverton Depot was built in 1882 as a temporary structure because the townspeople and the D&RG could not agree on a suitable permanent location for the building. (Some current Silverton residents observe that if they were trying to agree on a site today, the two parties would probably still have a hard time agreeing!) The same "temporary" building is still standing today.


    The D&RGW donated the depot to the San Juan Historical Society in 1969, and that organization made repairs to the building. For seven years the depot was leased to the well-known purveyor of historic books, Sundance Publications, as a printing facility and office. In 1985, the D&SNG re-acquired the building, and it has functioned for the railroad ever since. The Silverton Depot and Freight Yard Museum were opened to the public in 1999.


MP 496.90:  12th Street and Blair Marks the end of the line for D&SNG in Silverton. Most of the activity in town is located within a short walk from here.


Our train at end of the line at 12th Street and Blair. After leaving the train Chris and I walked to the rail yard to take photos of the cars and equipment.









Train 480 coming into Silverton.





    One of the busy streets (10th St.) in Silverton looking northwest toward downtown Silverton next to depot. Leaving the depot I walked up 10th Street to Blair and made a right on Blair to where our train was parked. Chris stayed at the depot to take more photos and I went in town looking for a place to have lunch as were two train loads of passengers doing the same thing.




Notorious Blair Street.

    What was Silverton's largest industry after mining? That's right - saloons that stayed open 24 hour a day. In fact, in a three block area on Blair Street, there were 32 saloons and bawdy houses. There were hundreds of men working in the mines high in the hills above town and most were young and single. If they had any spare time they spent it in the saloons- and with the "ladies of the Night."

    During the 1890s, temperate members of Silverton society hired the renowned, dapper Bat Masterson and his gun-slinging gang to clean things up. Their efforts had little long-lasting impact. Mining was a masculine, often solitary, occupation, and many felt that the enterprises on Blair Street served an important social function for men seeking release from the tedium and danger of their jobs.

    As in Durango, houses of prostitution and their employees has taxes levied on them, revenue that served the community at large. The last of the bordellos on Blair Street remained open until the 1950s. By then most of the gambling was over and the "ladies" had moved on, citing competition from the local girls who "gave it away" during a fit of patriotic fever in the midst of World War Two.

    Why is it called the Red Light District?  The names comes from the red lanterns that the railroad workers carried as a kind of "pager" of the day, so they could be found in case of an emergency. Ironically many hung outside of the brothels and Blair Street through off shift hours.


The Bent Elbow - Hotel, Restaurant, Saloon,  1114 Notorious Blair Street.
The Bent Elbow was originally the Zanoni-Padroni Saloon. The original Bent Elbow was right next door, but burned down in 1968. One of the first owners had his wife as the bouncer, Big Tillie.

Grand Imperial Hotel


Ground Broken.

    The largest building yet undertaken in Silverton. Ground was broken this week on the west of of Green Street below the Bank of Silverton for a large brick building, the largest yet undertaken in Silverton. It will be 100 feet in front and 75 feet deep and three stories in height. The first or ground floor will be divided into four stores, three of which have already been spoken for. Then second story will be fitted up exclusively for offices, and the town council have applied for a ten years' lease on the third story, to occupy the same for corporation purposes. The building is being erected by W.S Thomson of London, England, and Dr. S. H. Beckwith, of the Martha Rose Smelter. A large number of workmen are now employed and employment will be given to many more as the building progresses.
From the July 27, 1882 edition of the San Juan Herald.


Silverton City Hall.


San Juan County Courthouse and Silverton Police Department built in 1907, at a cost of $79,000.
San Juan County has the highest mean elevation of any county in the United States, towering above the rest at 11,240 feet of above sea level.


    The Grand Imperial opened in 1883, a year after the railroad arrived in Silverton. A hostel served miners in the basement, and the upper rooms were for the more well-heeled clientele. Over the years, the Grand Imperial has been the scene of much heartbreak, tragedy and triumph. It has housed movie stars in its best rooms and grimy miners in the basement hostel.

    After having made a round trip of seeing the town plus finding a nice place for lunch, it was now time to meet up with Chris and board for our return trip to Durango.


12th Street and Blair marks the end of the line for the D&SNG with Kendall Mt. and Ski Area in back ground.


Arriving train on left and our ready for departure train on right.



480 waiting to back up to the wye.


Waiting platform




  Approaching the Silverton Depot.


RV camping area.


MP 496.30: The Silverton Wye is used to turn the train around while you stay in town. Train 480 backed into the wye on the track on right and will now leave on the left track to main and then back into town for the departing track and platform.


Angel Veil Falls.


Find the red dot and you'll see the climber.






A stop to pick up outdoors adventurers.







Coming around the tightest curve (28 degrees) on the D&SNG's 45-mile line.


Leaving the San Juan National Forest.


    MP 469.1: This is the important flag stop of Rockwood and was an established community with its own post office years before the railroad's arrival. Early settlers used the area for livestock grazing and timber-harvesting; local hillsides provided many of the rough-hewn ties for the line to Silverton. The climate here was great for growing russet potatoes, and lots of spuds were shipped up the racks to Silverton. Rockwood became a popular picnicking spot for Durangoans taking advantage of the convenient train transportation. Today, Rockwood is still an important siding for the D&SNG. The railroad stores track-maintenance equipment and supplies here, and many passengers drive to Rockwood to board the train.




Locals giving a warm welcome to tourists on the train as we approach Durango.

Rio De Las Animas Perdidas or River of Lost Souls.


Train 482 approaching Durango.

    After arriving Durango, Chris and I drove back out of town on US 550 to get a few last photos of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.


    Leaving this photo spot, we then headed for County Road 203 and a visit at the Las Animas Railroad. As this is a private railroad in the owners back yard, Chris had made contact beforehand expressing an interest in visiting and requesting an invitation. Arriving at the site we were greeted and welcome by Andy Saez and his wife. 



From Andy's backyard he can see the Durango and Silverton six times a day in summer.




Andy's pride and joy.


Inside this museum and a Fred Harvey waitress with the uniform sewn by his wife.


Santa Fe dinner ware.



Almost everything here has a story.



Prototype of a rocket launcher on a rail car.


After concluding our visit at the Las Animas Railroad, we drove back to Durango with a stop at Burger King for a to-go-dinner to eat as we drove. Leaving US 550, we then took US 160 east to Pagosa Springs to spend the night of the Fourth of July. Along the way we pass Chimney Rock.


Our evening passed quietly sans fireworks this fourth at San Juan Motel and Cabins.

The wonderful ride on the D&SNG and a great day spent in the San Juan National Forest can now be crossed off my bucket list. Do this at least once and you'll see why this attraction is so popular and why people come from all over the world for this experience.


  Proceed to next chapter: Chasing the Cumbres & Toltec Railroad

Return to Chapter Three

Return to Table of Contents

Return to Home Page

Text and Photos by Author

The author retains all rights. No reproductions are allowed without the author's consent.

Comments appreciated at ....

Thanks for Reading !!