Durango to Silverton
branch is one of the last two narrow gauge sections of track still
in operation today, of what was the Denver and Rio Grande (D&RG)
railroad.. Today it is still operated as a tourist
line called the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (D&SNG).
As shear beauty goes, you can't do much better than
the spectacular views from train as it winds up the Animas River valley,
hanging on cliffs, crossing bridges, and following near the river
was the main line terminus of the San Juan extension of the D&RG. At one
time in the early 1900ís, there were three railroad branches departing from
Durango. The Silverton branch headed north from Durango and followed the Animas River to the
town of Silverton. Next, the Farmington branch went
south from Durango along the Animas River to the City of Farmington. Finally the
Rio Grande Southern traveled west and
continued to Ridgway.
Ute Indians were the original people in
the Silverton area. In 1860 Captain Charles Baker arrived in the Silverton
valley while he was exploring for gold. He and a team of mining explorers worked
their way up the Gunnison River and crossed over Cinnamon pass into the northern
Animas valley near Silverton. Baker and his men eventually established camps in
the area and staked several mining claims. Gold was discovered in small amounts
only. It was Silver and other metals that the area became famous for.
After a temporary delay for the Civil War and two Indian
treaties later, mining activity was booming. The Denver and Rio Grande Railway headed by General Palmer began building to reach the
mines near Silverton in 1882. Before the railroad came the only form of travel
involved horsepower. The railroad brought the supplies the San
Juan area needed to grow and it carried away the booty being dug out of the
Many of the original routes for the roads and railroads of
the San Juans were designed by Otto
Mears. Mr. Mears
eventually operated several of the smaller lines to the mines around Silverton.
When the purpose for the railroad declined in the 1960ís,
the Silverton Branch was doing well as a pleasure line operated for the sole
enjoyment of the passengers. The tourist demand was responsible for
eventual preservation of the last remnants of the D&RG. In 1967 the National
Park Service designated the Silverton Branch of the D&RGW as a National
Historical Landmark. In 1981 the Silverton branch was sold to Charles
Bradshaw and it has been operated as the D&SNG under several different
owners ever since.
BUILDING THE RAILROAD
Once General Palmer had the D&RG tracks laid to Durango
in 1881, the work continued up the Animas River canyon to Silverton.
Immediately north of Durango the river valley is wide and generally flat
so it was fairly easy going to Rockwood.
Beyond this point, approximately half way to Silverton, things suddenly changed.
Just past Rockwood a deep cut was required for several
hundred feet and then the game reversed at the shear cliffs of the High
Line section of the Animas River valley. In those days they called it
the Shelf and that is a good description of what the railroad builders had to
create on the shear granite walls. The geology and the river have cut a narrow
canyon here that is over 400 feet deep from the tracks. Its
another 200 feet from track level to the top of the canyon. During construction,
brave souls had
to swing from long ropes to drill the powder charges into the cliffs.
Palmer was relentless in his charge to Silverton and forced
the work to continue on the High Line through winter. Once
the initial shelf was blasted out of the mountain, fills were needed in other sections.
At some fills anchor rods were drilled into the rock base and molten lead
poured in the rod holes for a good grip. Then vertical retaining walls were
formed by fastening cribbing to the anchor rods and filling to the desired
height with rock.
Just north of the High Line a long wooden trestle
was created through a long, sag valley. The trestle was initially built to save
time and then later it was replaced with fill.
Work was not get much easier between the High Line and
Silverton. Many more trestles and three more bridge crossings of the
Animas were required.
The railroad finally entered Silverton in July of 1882.
Silverton is located at the bottom of a huge volcanic caldera so
the General had to play fair and meet the existing town of Silverton's demands for once. Normally he
would dictate his own terms and if the town refused to go along, he would just
start his own town a few miles away and effectively kill-off the old one. In Silverton there was
just not enough room for two towns in the park valley.
THE RAILROAD YEARS
Once the D&RG Silverton Branch was completed in 1882,
gold, silver, lead, zinc and copper ores started flowing down from the mines
near Silverton to the smelter in Durango. The train carried supplies and passengers
back up the canyon to the mines.
A clever system of smaller rail lines
were built around Silverton for local service in the area by Otto Mears. Times were good and
thousands of tons of ore came out of the mountains.
Of course success is never won without some difficulties
along the way. In 1893 the Federal
government repealed the Silver Purchase Act and would no longer purchase silver
to make U.S. coins. Silver mining was hurt badly by this action and the railroads
suffered accordingly. Furthermore, half the mines in the Silverton area had
problems keeping water out of the shafts and were very expensive to operate.
By 1930, things were really getting tough and railroads
began to disappear into memories. However, activity would start up in the mines every now
and then for the next 30 years. Revenue for the railroad came from sources
beyond mining silver. Uranium for the atomic bomb was carried to the
smelter at Durango during World War II. In the 1950ís and 60ís there was an
oil and gas boom around Farmington and the D&RG was busy
hauling pipe and oil. Passenger service also continued as did sheep and cattle
Cars and trucks eventually started competing with the railroad's
duties. The D&RG even started its own trucking company and that was one of the
biggest competitors with the railroad. In
the depression years the D&RG started cutting back operations of the trains.
Small towns lost service and branch lines were closed. The light rail traffic
was not justifying operation of the railroad. In 1949 the owners of the railroad
started actions to end passenger service on the line and in 1951 only freight
was carried on an irregular basis. Once the daily passenger service was stopped,
it became difficult to keep the line open in winter.
In 1969 the Interstate Commerce Commission approved the
D&RG's request to abandon the narrow gauge lines between Antonito and
Durango. The Silverton Branch remained open because it was still profitable to
carry passengers to awe and gulp at the Animas River valley.
Charles Bradshaw purchased the Silverton Branch in 1981 and
began passenger operations as the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge. Tourist traffic still sustains
the railroad today.
Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
Today the D&SNG railroad takes you on an unforgettable ride
through the San Juan mountains of southwest Colorado. As you climb over a half
mile in elevation, you will see some of the most spectacular scenery in the
world. The train crawls up steep mountain slopes on track that clings to rock
cliffs and crosses over shaky wooden bridges.
The journey begins at the historic Durango depot where you
can watch steam locomotives crawl out of the roundhouse in the morning and take
a spin on a magnificent turntable. Once your train is assembled and all you
passengers have boarded, we ride north along the Animas River canyon to the town
of Silverton. Along the way the train travels from low rolling foothills to high
The lower elevations around Durango are semi-arid
regions of sand, sage brush and Juniper trees with giant red and tan rock
outcroppings here and there. The river valley is green and lush fed by a
constant flow of melted snow arriving from the high mountains.
As the train climbs into the deep canyons the scenery
begins to change quickly to more rugged rock cliffs with evergreen trees and
tall snowcapped peaks looming in the distance. The awesome High
Line area is where the track hangs on cliffs 400 feet above the river. This
is the beginning of rugged wilderness areas that you can only reach by foot,
horseback or train.
The trip continues up the Animas River valley and across an
old time bridge at Cascade. Then you pass long forgotten mining camps, claims
and other lost enterprises near Needleton and Elk
Nearing your destination the train emerges from the canyon
below Silverton into a large bowl valley surrounded by famous 12,000 foot peaks
where the old time miners and engineers hooted and hollered from the top of the
A real steam locomotive has a heart and
soul that you can really feel while on board. Several trains are sent up the line and back each day so
there is lots to see. Reservations to ride the train are best made in advance.
The hospitality you will enjoy is first class throughout the area.
Many of the historic buildings and track appear the same
today as they did 100 years ago. Highway access is easy throughout the San
Juans. You can spend a number of days exploring old mining towns, hiking, fishing and all those other things you like about
the mountains. If you like to shop, you will see plenty of stores with the local
The National Park Service designated the Silverton Branch
of the D&RGW Railroad as a National Historical Landmark in 1967. Furthermore
the American Society of Civil Engineers has designated it as a Civil
Experiencing the railroad would be nothing today if not for
the people who operate and preserve old railroads. Most experts agree that the
best way to preserve a steam locomotive is to run it. Employees of the active
railroad lines, museums, volunteers and historians all play a part. Even the
visitors who ride the trains support the effort through the dollars they spend.