The Durango-Silverton Railroad has been in continuous operation since 1882 carrying passengers between these two quaint western Colorado towns. Originally started to support the mining operation in Silverton, it was part of the larger Denver & Rio Grande Railway. The opportunity to ride on an original steam-powered train is the reason we added this spot to our itinerary.
Durango, located approximately 56 miles east of Mesa Verde, is a modern, up-to-date town that still maintains much of the character of its past. With a population of only a little over 18,000, it features some first-class coffee shops (based on Jim’s personal sampling) and is said to have more restaurants per capita than San Francisco (completely unverified). Much of the architecture in the town imparts a modernized old west feel.
From a visitor’s perspective, the railroad is the primary attraction. Serious railroad buffs along with hoards of other folks from around the world come to ride one of the finest examples of narrow gauge steam railways in the world (Narrow gauge has tracks that are 3-ft apart versus standard gauge which is 4-ft 8 ½-inches in width). The company owns seven vintage steam engines dating from the 1920’s.
The train travels 45.4 miles each way along the Animas River from Durango (elevation 6512 ft) to Silverton (elevation 9305 ft - higher than the highest point in Mesa Verde). With this degree of climb, it only reaches a top speed of 18-20 mph, with many stretches at only 5-10 mph, and the trip takes 3 ½ to 4 hours each way. About 6 tons of coal (shoveled by a single fireman!) and 10,000 gallons of water are required each day for the round trip!!
The railroad offer several different kinds of cars and classes of service all accurately updated or meticulously recreated representations of cars used in the past. We chose to brave the chilly weather and travel on the Silver Vista, a unique car with tempered glass panels in the roof and open sides (the railroad does provide blankets and hot drinks to keep away some of the cold). The railroad recreated this car from original plans rediscovered from the 1920s. But rather than ride the train roundtrip (an all day affair), we opted to do the return trip by bus, which was much quicker.
As you would expect (since this trip is about scenery), the views along the way are impressive. The train hugs cliffsides and travels closely along the river.
The destination town of Silverton is a sole survivor among a number of abandoned ghost towns from the gold and silver mining days of yore. With a year-round population of about 400, it clearly survives on tourism and definitely plays up the old west appearance. We arrived here in time for some lunch - barbeque at Thee Pitts (featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives on the Food Network). After lunch we did a little shopping and then boarded the bus back to Durango.
The ride on the train, with its chugging, whistling, and clouds of smoke, from Durango to Silverton really does feel like a step back in time. The people who run the railway do so seriously with a devotion and dedication to this bit of history. We were definitely glad we made the trip.