Durango is located in southwest corner of Colorado along the banks of the Animas River. The name Durango means "well watered place" in Spanish and the massive San Juan mountains provide lots of water to the Animas River next to Durango. Most of that water comes from melting snow trickling out of 14,000 feet high mountains.
Durango is today one of the last great cowboy towns left in America and that is due in large part to the continued operation of the railroad along the Animas River gorge to Silverton. You can still ride that train today and take a 100 year step back in time.
Durango was Native American territory at first, and there were fierce battles over rights to the region. Many Spanish explorers traveled through on quests for gold. Mountain Men roamed throughout. The prospectors, and then serious miners came along and wealth started to flow out of the veins of the mountains. Much of the wealth moved into and out of Durango because of its location
The original settlement in the Durango area was at Animas City. In the 1870's it was the largest town in southwest Colorado. Jim Baker was the first to lay out a camp there in 1860. Not much happened, except fighting the American Indian for the land, until 1873 when a treaty was reached with the Utes. After that, people started coming to town. Within a short time there were dozens of homes and businesses. The town continued to grow over the next few years and folks had big plans for their fair city.
In 1876 (the same year that Colorado became a state) the Denver and Rio Grande (D&RG) announced it was going to build a new railroad up the Animas River valley to the mineral wealth at Silverton. Over the next few years the railroad started to survey the area and in 1879 the railroad purchased the Animas Canyon Toll Road along the Animas River.
Animas City was offered the role as railroad hub to the region, a title that indeed meant fame, fortune and prosperity. However, Animas City somehow objected to the railroad's demands for free land and probably a hefty donation. So, just as at other locations along the tracks to Denver, the D&RG simply went off and started its own town nearby. The railroad purchased and laid out its new town south of Animas City in 1880 and called it Durango. It went on to become the largest and most modern city in southwest Colorado and Animas City was reduced to suburb.
After Durango took over from Animas City the place quickly became a brawling frontier town. This was the Saturday night town, the payday town. Every wisecracker with a mouth full of dust and a six gun came to town looking to shake off the last week of cow punching, or mine digging, or tree cutting, and on and on.
During the rest of the week Durango was a supply center with beautiful ranches surrounding the town. The ranches were owned by wealthy cattle barons and they hired well known gun slingers to protect their property. One of the most notorious was the Stockton gang. This bunch pretty much did what they pleased around Durango. They were constantly fighting, and having shootouts with a rival gang from Farmington. Finally, the newspaper editor spoke out and published a demand for the Stockton gang to leave town. Ike Stockton himself went in to deal with the editor and was surprised to find he was a woman, Mrs. Romney. Her continued actions and those of the whole town finally drove the gang away.
The Stockton gang left Durango and rode into Silverton next. Here they quickly ended up killing the Silverton Sheriff and getting a reward of $2,500 on each of their heads. Well now, it seems Ike Stockton was not involved in the killings. So, he proceeded to capture and turn in one of his own gang members for the reward money. The betrayed gang member was lynched. A few days later, Silverton Deputy Sheriff Jim Sullivan shot Ike Stockton himself claiming that he hated a traitor more than a murderer.
Durango did manage through its teenage phase and many types of business and industry flourished. Besides the mining and smelting industries there were cattle and sheep handling facilities, lumber mills and agricultural productions. In the late 1880's there were over 500 buildings and a population of 2500 in Durango.
The Silver crash in 1903 was hard on all the mines in Colorado and this also hurt Durango. The mining boom was over and now the permanent residents went back to farming and ranching and everyone else pretty much left town.
As automobile travel began to pick up in the 1920's, more and more vacation traffic went to Durango. Mesa Verde ruins is still a popular site as are all the mountains, streams and forests.
Durango is still thriving and the railroad still rolls up and down the tracks to Silverton. The passenger Depot sits at the end of Main Street like a jewel in the crown of the bustling town. Main Street is lined with historic structures that were once, and still are the hotels, restaurants and shops of the wild west. The railroad is now operated by a private corporation under the name Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge (D&SNG).
You can still hear echoes of the old west miners and cowboys when you walk down Main Street Durango. You are taken back to the time of horses and the iron horse. From the Depot at 5th street, north to 15th street you will find hundreds of historic buildings as nice today as when first constructed in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Today the buildings are there mostly to serve you (the tourist) and all you have to do is walk up, sit down, and tell the pretty person behind the counter what you want. As long as your packin a couple gold coins you can pretty well name your tune.
THE RAILROAD YARD
In 1881, the railroad yard at Durango became a major facility for the D&RG railroad with a large Depot, Roundhouse and Turntable, Coal Tipple, and Water Tank for servicing the powerful mountain locomotives.
Railroad lines were eventually built going all four directions out of Durango. A large smelter to process the Silverton ores was located across the Animas River. This side of the river also had tracks that connected the Rio Grande Southern railroad to the D&RG.
The rail yard served many industries around Durango. A large flour mill, storage warehouses, a saw mill, Texaco and Standard Oil storage tanks and the smelter all depended on the railroad.
Durango's yard was several miles long and followed the Animas River. There were storage tracks north of the depot and to the south were additional yard areas.
From 1905 to 1923 the yard had dual gauge facilities to handle the standard gauge equipment used on the Farmington Branch. After the decision was made that no other tracks west of Alamosa would be converted to standard gauge, the Farmington branch was converted back to narrow gauge.
Few changes were made to the yard from 1927 to 1963. However, beginning in 1963 many structures were removed, the highway was relocated and the old yard tracks began to disappear. A new balloon loop was constructed around the Round House area around 1968. Since then not a lot of change has occurred.
The car shops were located west of the Round House and consisted of a collection of sheds. The complex was dismantled by the railroad in 1972. However, the new private management of the D&SNG built a nice replica of the structure.
Items being shipped on the railroad are distributed from the Freight House. It was located west of the Depot on the other side of the tracks.
One of the favorite structures in the yard was the 75 ton Coal Tipple. This magnificent beast was similar to the tipple at Chama, NM. The wooden framework was reportedly painted box car red at one time and this color then darkened over time with the build up of soot from the locomotives. It may be that the structure was never painted or the original paint faded through the years.
The Sand House is located just south of the turntable. It is a simple wood shed with drying bins inside and a sand bin holding tower in the front.
An Ice House once stood west of the Depot. This building burned down in 1948 and was never replaced. The Water Tank was a standard D&RG 50,000 gallon model similar to the one in Chama, NM.
A large ore smelter and refinery was located west of the rail yard on the west side of the Animas River opposite of the Depot. Ores from the mines were shipped here to extract the valuable metals the rocks contain. The site has held some type of ore processing facility under various names from the beginning of Durango.
The original smelter was first erected in Durango in 1881 after being moved from Silverton. In Silverton it was know as the Green Mill and Smelter. John Porter was involved in both starting the Green Smelter in Silverton, and then again in talking the owner into moving it to Durango. In fact, John Porter was involved in a lot of the action around the region. It is reported he helped convince General Palmer to build the railroad to the San Juans. Porter opened a coal mine outside Durango and built coke ovens to process the coal. Eventually he purchased the Smuggler Union mine in Telluride. In fact John Porter encouraged Otto Mears to build the Rio Grande Southern.
In the 1940's through 1960's the smelter processed uranium ore. Some of the results may have gone into the first atomic bombs being made in New Mexico during World War II. Trains of ore would often been seen with armed guards riding on top.
In the 1990s the smelter tailings pile became a superfund cleanup site because of the radioactive materials contained in the tailings pile. Today the site has been cleaned up and sits as a monument to the uranium days.
In 1890 the General Palmer hotel was constructed next to the depot and it stands today. This always has been a premium room in a classy environment.
The Strator Hotel is just north of the the Palmer and is another landmark along main street.
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