America’s Railroad: Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge

We are in the process of changing cable tv providers, so we have been watching a lot of YouTube lately. If you didn’t already know, there are some awesome videos out there. One in particular that  caught our attention was the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad which has been on our short list for quite some time:

This video set the “wheels” in motion for our southwest road trip. With our love for trains and western history, the main event on our 330+ mile drive to southwest Colorado was to board the infamous Durango/Silverton train.

Be sure to watch our video at the end of this post and change the gear icon on the bottom right to 1080p for best picture

So let’s continue our road-trip story…  As you recall, we spent a very long day on the road, completed a marathon tour of Mesa Verde, arrived at camp well after dark and managed to get a few good hours of sleep in our tent.  Our camp for the night was in a roadside campground just outside the Mesa Verde park entrance.  It was a cool evening with temps in the upper 40’s, which was the perfect temperature for late summer camping in the 2 person tent. We planned to get up early the next morning to make it to Durango and board the train for our 8:00am departure. We fell asleep under a beautiful starry sky with the faint sounds of coyotes howling in the distance.

The alarm went off at 5:30am, which gave us time to change and pack up the tent. We arrived in Durango a little early, so we drove by the depot to see if we could get a glimpse of the train. It was still dark outside but the tracks were buzzing with workers getting the cars hooked up and getting the locomotive ready to go. We drove down the street a couple blocks and grabbed a quick breakfast and headed back to the train depot. The depot remains almost exactly as it was in 1882 with its huge pot belly stove in the center and the waiting benches that look original. When you walk in the depot and take your place in line at the ornate ticket booth, it is like you have stepped back in time.

The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (D&SNGRR) is located in one of the most beautiful and rugged areas of Colorado, the San Juan Mountains. Its 45 miles of tracks connects Durango to the old mining town of Silverton and it has been in continuous operation since 1881. It was built to carry supplies and passengers to Silverton and gold and silver from the mines of the San Juan mountains. Today it is a tourist and heritage line, but they still use coal/fire steam locomotives from the period and perform all the maintenance on them in their roundhouse at the Durango Train Depot. Some of the steam engines and passenger cars are over 125 years old and are kept in excellent condition.

Once we got our tickets, we explored the depot and gift shop, and then went outside where the train crew was busy getting everything ready to go. We made our way down the tracks looking for our car and realized the engine was not hooked up yet. I looked back towards the round house and saw a plume of smoke rising above the cars on the other side. They were pulling the engine forward to connect to our car, which was the first one behind the engine. We quickly grabbed our cameras and set up to where we could get some good shots of the connection. What a spectacle! The street ahead of the tracks was closed down and the train crew were positioned along the tracks making sure nothing was in the way. Old number 481 made its way around the cars that were already hooked up and across the street where it changed tracks. With smoke coming from the smokestack, steam pouring from the sides and the “clang, clang, clang” of the bell it slowly backed towards the passenger cars. Watching all the moving parts and the raw power of the side rods moving the driving wheels was awesome to see up close. At 286,600 pounds, number 481 shook the ground where we were standing as it passed.

After taking some pictures and video, we headed towards our coach and found our seats. Steaming through town, I was amazed at the people waiting by the tracks to take pictures and we were lucky enough to actually be on board. We followed the Animas River north towards Silverton and quickly began gaining elevation. Even though we have covered similar terrain in the area via 4×4 trails, the scenery from the train was amazing. Kristy bought the official guidebook which enabled us to follow the mile markers and read about the notable events that took place and specific terrain features along the way. The book covered huge avalanches, floods, train derailments and history of the area. About an hour into the trip, we decided to make our way to the open sided car, which was three cars behind ours. It was still a little cool, but this car provided an unobstructed view out of both sides and we got some great pictures and video.

Three and a half hours later we arrived in Silverton. Silverton was founded in 1874 as a mining town and it sits at an elevation of 9,308 feet making it one of the highest towns in the country. Today it is a small, quirky western town with shops, restaurants, a mining museum, an extreme ski mountain and to this day, it only has one paved street. The train pulls in on the southeast side and unloads its passengers in the middle of town. Kristy and I got off the train and headed for some lunch. We have driven through Silverton before, but this time we had a little more time to walk around. We settled on some BBQ at Thee Pitts Again, which was featured on Diners Drive-ins and Dives. Their original location is in Glendale, AZ and they recently opened up in Silverton. We were glad to try “the only authentic award winning BBQ in town.” It was definitely some of the better BBQ we have had in Colorado. After lunch, we walked over to the original train depot, which sits just outside of town and doubles as a small train museum. It houses some really cool artifacts and information on the Silverton mining days. Some of the photos in the museum are amazing showing the train plowing through 20+ feet of snow. I can’t imagine the hardships people struggled with living up there in the late 1800’s.

We heard the bell ringing on the train, so that was our cue to get on board. Steaming away from Silverton, we began the 3.5 hour descent into Durango. Ten thousand gallons of water are used to produce the steam to power the locomotive from Durango to Silverton and back! The sun was at a perfect angle on the way down, which provided for more great pictures. Luckily the weather cooperated and we spent most of the return trip in the open car. As we arrived back in Durango, people were again waiting all over to get photos of the historic train as it passed by. We got off and made our way over to the roundhouse which held an incredible museum. The D&SNGRR museum has complete train cars and locomotives along with train models, pictures, and artifacts donated from railroad enthusiasts who have ridden on and love the D&SNGRR. It was an incredible display of our American railroad history and engineering prowess of the 19th century.

We ended the day at Steamworks Brewery and had some great food and even better beer. Kristy had their fish & chips and I had the meatloaf, for something different. We were impressed and Steamworks lived up to “food worthy of our legendary beer.” The next morning we left Durango and pointed the Outback towards Denver for our long drive home.

Colorado Railroad Museum

We have talked about visiting the Colorado Railroad Museum numerous times and have always wanted to go.  It was featured on Channel 9 News a few months ago which sparked our curiosity even more.  They were offering a free admission day this weekend, so we took advantage.  It is located in Golden near the Coors Brewery about 15 minutes from us.  We entered through the gift shop, a replica 1880’s train depot and decided on the optional “Galloping Goose” ride.  After we walked through the small museum that gave a brief history of the railroad in Colorado, we made our way to the station to take our ride.  As we waited, we saw the largest train they had on display, engine 5629.  It weighs a mere 600,000 lbs and the driving wheels are a massive 6 feet in diameter.  It is one thing seeing these in the movies and in pictures, but to see it in person was unbelievable.  It was truly a steel behemoth.  The goose arrived and we boarded the strange-looking car/train.  These were originally mail carriers used to take mail to the small hard to get to towns in the mountains and later, some took passengers.  There were only 7 of these built in the 1930’s and the museum has three of them.  We took the short loop (3x) around the 15 acre property as we got a history lesson from the conductor.  After riding the goose, we understood where it got its name from: it sways back and forth on the tracks quite a bit.

We got off the train and walked around to see the static displays.  You can go inside some of the cars and engines, but most are locked.  For a fee you can pay for a guided tour and go in all of them, which we might do another time.  They have the oldest engine in Colorado, which was made in 1880 and is about a quarter of the size of engine 5629.  It is amazing to see the old cars made of wood with bench seats inside and then see one of the Rio Grande cars from the 50’s and 60’s, what a difference.  Looking into one of the late 1800’s cars with wood seats wrapped with a red velvet material, I can just imagine women with their bustle gowns and men in top hats riding to the next town.  It is like looking into a time capsule.  One of the most interesting facts we learned was the difference in narrow gauge and standard gauge rails and cars.  I had always heard the terms, but never really thought too much into it.  Standard gauge tracks measure 4 ft 8 in across and narrow gauge measures between 2 and 3 ft 6 in across.  The most extensive and well known of the narrow gauge was the 3 ft wide rails used in the Rocky Mountains.  The narrower tracks and smaller trains were developed to make it through the tight canyons and switchbacks throughout this mountainous region.  One display showed the narrow gauge tracks inside the standard tracks with train cars on either side to show the difference.

Another interesting display was the two examples they had for removing snow from the tracks.  One went in front of the engine and it literally pushed all the snow away from the tracks.  This menacing looking device was called a wedge plow and it was slanted and attached to an open car, which was then weighed down in the rear to compensate for the weight of the snow.  It is about 20 ft long and about 15 feet high and is adjustable.  Another snow removal device was actually part of the engine, called a rotary plow.  It is a huge circular saw that cut up the snow and threw it to either side.  (Click on the links below to see them in action).

Wedge Plow:   

Rotary Plow:   

The Colorado Railroad museum has a lot to offer and I would like to go back in the spring to see everything and especially go inside more of the cars.  It is an evolving museum, as they have a restoration building on site.  They even have two large toy train sets outside.  One is true steam and the other is electric.  The museum is a great representation of our advances in travel and commerce, which helped shape this area in and around the Rocky Mountains. If you haven’t been, you have to check it out.

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