We came to Farmington to hike in the Bisti Wilderness, see the alien egg formations and then explore Chaco Canyon. Since the heat wave followed us that just didn’t sound fun. So we went with plan B: Durango Colorado, 60 miles away, and up in the mountains!
Our destination was the Durango & Silverton Narrow Guage Railroad, D&SNG, built 1881-82 to transport supplies north and mining ore south between Durango and Silverton. Given the 45 mile mountainous route with elevation increasing from 6522 to 9318 feet, the train was an engineering marvel.
When mining became less profitable after World War II the train’s future was at risk. Hollywood provided a financial bridge as many films were made using the train and surrounding areas. Tourism followed.
Over time, disrepair and neglect threatened the rail line again. Charles Bradshaw, a railroad historian, purchased D&SNG in 1981 upgrading the rails and equipment, and tourism grew again.
In 1989 a fire swept through the round house destroying infrastructure and damaging locomotives and cars. Once again Bradshaw invested in the Durango and Silverton and the line was saved.
There are several options to ride, all with assigned seating. We opted for an open air car.
Our locomotive was #481, a Baldwin-K36 class, one of ten built in 1925 and numbered in series from 480-489. Nine of the ten are still out there. The D&SNG owns numbers 480, 481, 482 and 486. Each weighs 143 tons when fully loaded with water and coal and pulls 10-12 cars up the canyon.
Passengers on the other side of the car were pleased with their view as we began.
Coal locomotives have risk of escaping cinders. A special “car” follows with 30 gallons of water to douse any stray ember. Another 500 gallon car follows that one.
What wasn’t clear is how many of these precautions have always been or how many are in place now because of the 2018 “416 Fire.” Government investigators found the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and current owners, American Heritage Railways, responsible for the fire that destroyed 54,000 acres, crippled the local tourism economy and cost $25 million to fight. Litigation is pending….
After arrival, train guests are guaranteed 90 minutes before return departure. The other option is to take the bus down which allows more time in Silverton and still gets into Durango before the returning train. We opted for the latter since we had more fun planned.
Hunger quenched we set about exploring. We learned between 300-500 people winter in Silverton when temperatures can dip to 30 below zero. Most businesses operate from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
We saw a shrine on the hill and went part way up. I later tracked down the story. In the 1950s, Silverton was struggling with mines closing. The men’s club from St. Patrick’s Catholic Church was looking to honor Christ and decided to build a shrine. County commissioners agreed to donate the land and owners of a (dismantling) local brewery donated the stone. That excited the Italian stone masons and the shrine on the hill became a community effort.
Three miracles are attributed to the Christ shrine. First, shortly after installation a uranium company purchased one of the mines reviving employment in the area for a time. Second, 1000 seedlings donated by the Forest Service, planted by the community, and watered three times weekly for a month and a half before the rains came, survived their first winter and flourished. The third attributed miracle came years later, in 1978, when Lake Emma burst through the mine when no one was present, thus no one was killed or injured.
In town we found Freenote Harmony Park. These parks are the project of grammy winning musician Richard Cooke. His mission was to build Global Musical Parks on five continents, including all 50 states in the US. I appear to be concentrating way too hard!
We watched as workers knelt on either side and peered under the train as it went by. We were told they were watching every axel and break pad. They do so for every train coming and going.
We thoroughly enjoyed the train part of our day!
Next up was the BarD Old West Music Show and Chuckwagon Supper. We’ve been to quite a few of these over the years and this one was outstanding. BarD has been in operation since 1969 with shows nightly from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day.
We had a great day in Colorado and even had to wear a jacket for part of the day. Imagine a train whistle celebration for that!