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Silverton Branch
   
Durango to Silverton

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The 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 rapids. 

Durango 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.

 

HISTORY

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 mountains.

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 shipments.

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 mountain passes.

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 Park

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 world.

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 wares.

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 Engineering Landmark.

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. 

See Also:

 

Back to Large Map...
Vicinity Map

 

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Area Map

 

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Relief Map

 

rockwood nr 480 train on curve 1997 tlhprn.jpg (88542 bytes)
Near Rockwood 1997

 

highline view train retaining wall mp469.6 1997 tlhprn.jpg (140207 bytes)
Highline on Silverton Branch 1997

 

highline view shelf train 1997 tlhprn.jpg (100049 bytes)
Highline Shelf 1997

 

needleton view animas river train 1997 tlhprn.jpg (82703 bytes)
Needleton 1997

 

silverton town view storm mt 1997 tlh prn.jpg (95568 bytes)
Silverton 1997

 

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