"Here comes The Silverton up from Durango"

Durango Travel Blog

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The Schedule

Friday, July 19, 1996

 

 

Today, only our second of four days was supposed to be the highlight of our trip. And, it was. We would be taking the famous (at least here in Colorado) Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. It is also known as “The Silverton”. CW McCall, a country singer (biggest hit was Convoy in the mid 1970s) and transplanted Coloradan wrote a song (aptly titled “The Silverton) about a ride on this train.

 

Gold was discovered in the Silverton area in 1860.

My receipt
It wasn’t known as Silverton then, it was just a spot in the very rugged San Juan Mountains of Colorado. But the area was part of the Ute Indian Reservation, and could not be mined legally. The Civil War took focus off the area for time, but the whole region was rich with minerals so it was inevitable that the land would be mined at some point. A series of treaties, culminating with Brunot Treaty in 1873 opened up Silverton for mineral (gold, silver, zinc, and lead).

 

Finding gold and silver ore is one thing. Getting it out of the ground, turning it into useable metal, and getting it to market is another. A train is far and away the best way to move heavy equipment, supplies, and ore from one point to another. With the promise of gold and silver in the San Juans plans were made to build a route from Denver to Silverton.

Jolene and Engine #480
That is where Durango (named for the Mexican city) comes in. Durango came into being because of the railroad. It’s place in a flat valley, south of Silverton was the ideal place to begin a rail spur that would eventually join the two cities. That rail spur was what we would be riding today.

 

It was decided to build this mountainous spur as a narrow gauge. “Gauge” refers to the width between the track rails. Standard Gauge is 56 1/2". Narrow gauge is anything less than that. The advantage to a narrow gauge is that it can make sharper turns. That means less track and less expensive digging and blasting in the mountain to make a flat place to lay the track.

 

Our train was to depart at 8:30 AM.

The Silverton waiting to go
We had gotten to the depot in plenty of time. So we admired the massive steam engine that would be hauling us to Silverton, took a few pictures, and searched the gift shop. I found a book called “Cinders and Smoke”. It was a combination history book and mile by mile guide of our trip. In the front cover it had a listing of what the blasts of the train whistle actually mean. It would be fun to see if they really used these in this modern age. I had no idea. I only knew that the big diesel locomotives blew their horn when they went through town. An obviously alert to cars and pedestrians to get out of the way.

 

We boarded and got our seats. When we bought our seats I had the option of getting a seat in an enclosed car or one that was covered but with open sides. I had sent away for a brochure and it warned and reminded that The Silverton is genuine honest to goodness coal fired stream powered train. That means that there will be smoke and ciders to get in your eyes.

The Family
Having closable windows seemed like a good idea. After boarding I thought it would be a good picture to get everyone at the window of our car, so I went back out and with the family in three windows, and my two girls sticking their tongues out I got the picture.

 

At 8:30, two long whistles, just like the book said, signaled our departure. Very quickly I heard two long whistles, a short one, and then another long. The book said that meant we were approaching a road. And sure enough in a few moments our car passed through an intersection. The orderly part of my brain was very pleased.

 

We settled in and began to take in the sights as they passed. The first was the Animas River, which cut through the canyon we would be traveling.

Stone Age Research material.
We would get various views of the river as we made our trip today. It took several more miles before we were out of town. Before each intersection our engineer made the Long-Long-Short-Long cry with the whistle. About 10 miles into our 45 mile trip we crossed Highway 550, which had brought us into Durango. This also began our pronounced climb. We had been gaining elevation the whole trip, but not the angle of climb was evident.

 

We were fully enveloped by the San Juans by now, and everywhere we looked we saw something to grab our attention. There might be an occasional small animal or bird, a particularly gripping view, or even a deer. Our conductor mentioned that bear and mountain lion sightings are not uncommon. He also said that Grizzly Bear were believed to be extinct in Colorado, but there have been uncorroborated sighting in these mountains.

"And your gonna get a shiver when you check out the river which is 400 feet straight down!"
We paid particularly close attention to the woods.

 

I had been diligent in following our trip with my book, keeping track of where we were at, so I could provide info to Margo, my folks, and the girls. I was really looking forward to a place called the High Line cut. A cut is the result of the all that expensive blasting and digging I mentioned earlier. They “cut” into the side of the mountain to create a place for the tracks to be laid. The High Line cut was the most difficult and expensive of the whole route. It was said to cost $100,000 per mile, in 1882 dollars to make. But, even more important to us riders the views of the canyon and train were spectacular. CW McCall’s song spoke of

 

“And you’re gonna get a shiver when you check out the river which is 400 feet straight down”

 

This was the part of the route he was talking about.

The HIgh Line Cut
When we looked out our windows we were right on the edge, and the river looked waaaaaay down there. Mom was very happy to have the aisle seat. At one point we could look forward out our window and see the front of our train, as it came out of one turn and would soon make another.

 

We made a couple of stops to take on water on the way up to Silverton. To make the steam that powers our train you need water and coal to make that water boil. We are traveling on 2.5% grade, which means that we gain for every 100 feet we travel forward; we have gained 2.5 feet in elevation. That does seem like much, but for anyone who has ever ridden a bike you know how much effort it takes to climb this. The last of these stops was at Needleton. This stop was strategically placed because just three miles up the steepest part of the climb happens. The grade increases to 3% and even to 4% for a stretch. The fireman, the guy who has to shovel coal into the firebox, hates this stretch.

The Animas River
This is because he has to shovel furiously to keep the engine running at full throttle.

 

Our trip was three quarters over at this point. The remainder of the trip was as before. Each bend had something new to show us. We crossed the Animas River twice during these last 10 miles. Each time was something special as we would look down to see the river well below us. While this had been a scenic trip, it was also slow. The whole trip is 45 miles, but with stops it takes 3 ½ hours. That’s an average speed of about 13 miles per hour. Factoring out the stops, that is still only about 15 miles per hour. So by the time we pulled into Silverton, about noon, we were ready for a break. It was going to be nice to get up and walk around some.

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The Schedule
The Schedule
My receipt
My receipt
Jolene and Engine #480
Jolene and Engine #480
The Silverton waiting to go
The Silverton waiting to go
The Family
The Family
Stone Age Research material.
Stone Age Research material.
And your gonna get a shiver when …
"And your gonna get a shiver when…
The HIgh Line Cut
The HIgh Line Cut
The Animas River
The Animas River
The Rules
The Rules
Durango
photo by: X_Drive