Rising about 2,800 feet over its famously scenic forty-five-mile route, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad was originally built in 1881–82 as part of the Denver & Rio Grande Railway’s effort to reach the mines of the San Juan Mountains. For decades the line hauled ore from Silverton down to smelters in Durango, but after World War II its business shifted to tourism. Now operated by American Heritage Railways, it continues to be a major tourist attraction in southwest Colorado and has been named both a National Historic Landmark and a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.
Mining the San Juans
Large-scale mining began in the San Juan Mountains after the 1873 Brunot Agreement removed the Ute Indians from the area. The remote and rugged region had rich ores but limited transportation access, making the shipment of those ores slow and expensive. To tap this potentially lucrative market, in 1880 William Jackson Palmer’s Denver & Rio Grande Railway started to build the narrow gauge San Juan Extension west from the San Luis Valley. At the time, narrow gauge lines were relatively common in the Colorado mountains because they had rails that were only three feet apart, allowing for tighter curves, cheaper construction, and more efficient operation than the standard gauge of four feet, eight and a half inches. The railroad forged a route over Cumbres Pass to Chama, New Mexico, and then west through the Southern Ute Reservation to reach the Animas River, with the ultimate goal of reaching Silverton.
Originally the Denver & Rio Grande planned to have a station in Animas City, a small farming and ranching town that served as a supply depot for San Juan miners. When the railroad was approaching Animas City in 1880, however, the town rejected the railroad’s requests. Following a pattern that it had used elsewhere, the railroad decided to establish its own town, called Durango, two miles south of Animas City, and locate its station there. The town site was surveyed in September 1880. By the end of the year Durango had 2,000 residents—more than six times as many as Animas City, which became a small suburb of the booming railroad town until the two finally merged in 1948.
Building from Durango to Silverton
In July 1881, the Denver & Rio Grande reached Durango and almost immediately started building the final forty-five-mile stretch up the Animas River to Silverton. The railroad had already acquired the Animas Canyon Toll Road, built a few years earlier to connect Animas City to Silverton, and used parts of the road for its route. Grading started in August, and by October track was being laid north from Durango. The first eighteen miles to Rockwood were relatively easy and had been completed by late November.
After Rockwood, however, the route left the wide valley and entered the steep, narrow Animas Canyon, making construction more difficult. It was also more expensive, with costs reportedly reaching tens of thousands of dollars per mile. In some places the crew had to blast the canyon walls to create a narrow rock shelf for the tracks. With 500 mostly Chinese and Irish workers rushing to complete the line, the grading operations reached Silverton in late spring 1882.
Silverton eagerly anticipated its rail connection to the outside world, which promised to inaugurate a long boom in the local mining economy. On June 27, 1882, Silverton residents heard their first train whistle from a work train about three and a half miles away. A large celebration to welcome the railroad was held on July 4, even though the rails still fell two miles short of their goal. The first construction train finally rolled into Silverton on July 8, passenger service started on July 11, and trains hauled their first ore on July 13, less than a year after work on the line started in Durango.
Profits and Problems
The Denver & Rio Grande line from Durango to Silverton lowered freight rates by more than half, which had its expected effect on the local economy. Silverton’s population soon doubled to 2,000. Mining boomed, with San Juan County reaching $1 million in production in 1885. Over the next two decades, three other narrow gauge lines—the Silverton Line, the Silverton Northern, and the Silverton, Gladstone and Northerly—branched out from Silverton to nearby mining districts. These connections helped spur production in the Silverton area, which hit $3.6 million in 1920.
A variety of natural disasters and human events have conspired to close the rail line from Durango to Silverton, but so far none have succeeded. The route’s remote location and rugged terrain make it susceptible to floods, avalanches, and rock slides. Snow damaged the line in 1905, 1916, and 1928; rocks slid onto the track in 1951; and floods wreaked havoc in 1909, 1911, and 1927. The October 1911 flood was especially severe, with the railroad losing much of its track. The Denver & Rio Grande appealed to famed roadbuilder Otto Mears for help, and with his assistance the track was repaired before the onset of winter.
From Ore to Tourists
The railroad could afford to invest in maintenance and repairs as long as the San Juan mines continued their output, but production peaked in 1920 and declined thereafter. In the 1920s, the narrow gauge lines branching out from Silverton began to consolidate and close; all three were gone by 1941. Meanwhile, passenger rail travel began to drop off as people turned to automobiles and airplanes. By the 1930s, the construction of new highway routes and the 1929 opening of the Durango Municipal Airport meant the railroad was no longer the primary method of getting to and from Silverton. All these changes ate away at the profits of the Silverton line.
After World War II, the line started a slow transformation from hauling ore to hauling tourists. The line gained publicity in the 1940s and 1950s, when Hollywood studios used it to film Westerns such as Across the Wide Missouri (1951). At the same time, the line’s passenger traffic started to grow. Tourists and railroad enthusiasts increased passengers on the line from 3,500 in 1947 to more than 12,000 in 1953. In 1961 the Durango–Silverton line was named a National Historic Landmark, and in 1962 it attracted more than 37,000 passengers during the summer season.
Despite the rise in traffic, the Denver & Rio Grande Western (as the Denver & Rio Grande was known after 1920) remained somewhat ambivalent about the tourist business because it was hoping to sell or abandon the costly and remote Silverton line. In 1962, when the Interstate Commerce Commission denied the railroad’s request to abandon the route, the Denver & Rio Grande Western embraced tourism and started to remake the line to better accommodate tourists. Under the direction of Alexis McKinney, the line was modernized with heavier steel rails; trains added gondola cars for sightseeing, and baggage cars were converted to snack bars. In Durango, the depot was renovated and nearby blocks were turned into a Victorian-style shopping district. In Silverton the train started pulling straight into town instead of backing in, and the rails were extended to Blair Street to deliver tourists directly into town.
Even though the rest of the San Juan Extension from Antonito to Durango was abandoned in 1968, the isolated branch from Durango to Silverton kept running because of its strong tourist business. In fact, its success helped inspire the opening of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad in 1971 on a section of the old San Juan Extension route over Cumbres Pass. A flood in September 1970 destroyed more than five miles of the Silverton line’s track, but after repairs the line’s popularity continued to grow. By the late 1970s, it carried more than 120,000 passengers per year.
Not wanting to keep running an orphaned line far from its other operations, in the late 1970s the Denver & Rio Grande Western started a serious search for a buyer. The company found the Florida businessman Charles Bradshaw Jr., who had the money, ability, and interest to acquire the Silverton line and maintain it at a high standard. In March 1981 the sale was announced during Durango’s centennial celebration. The line took on a new name, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, and added more trains in the summer as well as a few trains in the winter.
The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge has proved especially popular among railroad enthusiasts. The line is one of the only surviving narrow gauge routes in the US, and it is prized for keeping that piece of American railroading history alive. The Durango turntable, which dates to 1923, is among the oldest known narrow gauge turntables in the world. The Durango roundhouse, built in 1990 after a fire destroyed the original, is the only known narrow gauge roundhouse to be constructed since 1906.
After Silverton’s last remaining mine, the Sunnyside, closed in the early 1990s, the town became more dependent on tourism than ever before. Ironically, the train became just as important to the town’s economic survival as when it first arrived in 1882, except now it carried tourists instead of carting away ore.
In 1997 Bradshaw sold the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge to a Florida-based entertainment-rail company called First American Railways. First American’s ownership was rocky from the start, with rate increases and other changes provoking fear and distrust in Durango and Silverton. After one year, First American sold the Durango & Silverton line to real estate developer and railroad enthusiast Allen Harper. Harper’s company, American Heritage Railways, continues to operate the railroad today.
Still one of southwest Colorado’s major tourist attractions, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge is often considered among the most scenic train rides in the country and even the world. It draws hundreds of thousands of passengers per year. Because of the railroad’s booming tourist business, more daily trains depart Durango today than at the height of the mining boom a century ago.