September 21, 2017

The Durango & Silverton Railway

I’m slightly “off piste” in a railway sense. To reach Silverton I have had to leave the train at Denver (the train to Grand Junction was cancelled owing to work on the line) and take a bus to Silverton. It would have been too easy to push on west towards the coast, but this part of my journey needs further exploration – I’m seriously enjoying being in Colorado.

My journey today is a totally a tourist one, but in the past it was a vital part of the incredible story of the gold and silver rushes. The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway was built in a hurry in 1882. Much dynamite was consumed cutting a path through the Animas Valley and the San Juan mountains.

I’m booked on the 14.30 departure from Silverton, so have time for lunch in a micro brewery before hopping aboard. The craft beer in these parts has been a bit of revelation. Silverton is unspoiled, and all that has really changed in the last 100 years is that today people arrive by Harley-Davidson or recreational vehicle, rather than by horse.

What strikes me about the railway is that this isn’t a few devoted volunteers and a single locomotive, but a thriving route with at least half a dozen working steam trains and plenty of rolling stock. I watch the 13.45 train depart and see another one being readied for departure later in the afternoon as I wait to board.

The brightly painted yellow carriages (actually repainted this colour for Hollywood films) are a mixture of open and closed cars, together with a cafe car serving food and snacks. In carriage 20 the seats are not the most comfy in the world (they remind me of Thai 3rd class), but they will be fine for the 3 or 4 hours it takes to get to Durango. Right on time the 1925 Pennsylvania built K36 loco toots its seriously loud horn and we rumble slowly down the line at walking pace.

The scenery is pretty amazing and as the train switches across the river I’m given occasional views of the black loco billowing smoke as we progress through the mountains. I wonder if the open carriage is such as good idea, as there is so much smoke at times that its passengers may well resemble kippers by the time we reach Durango.

The landscape is strangely familiar, and there is a good reason why. A huge number of Hollywood films have been shot here. I’m personally not a Western fan, but even I can see cues from more recent films like “Cliffhanger” and “Thelma & Louise”. Mark, our Brakeman, and Jed, our cafe attendant, both point out things along the way. As we climb higher into the mountains the drop next to the track to the bottom of the valley becomes huge and is not for the faint hearted. This reminds of of something.. Mark explains that it’s the place where the “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” river jump was shot. Paul Newman and Robert Redford only fell about 5 feet, but some poor stuntmen did the whole thing.

All too soon we descend into the outskirts of Durango, the train tooting frequently to tell the locals of our imminent arrival. They seem to love the train, and there is a reception committee outside most houses waving at us as we pass by. Durango is much bigger than Silverton, and the train looks a bit incongruous in the shadow of its modern buildings.

Later in the evening I enjoy a local pale ale sat outside a nearby bar. The trains run until sunset and I discover that their whistle is loud enough across Durango to prevent any form of verbal communication as they cross the road outside the station.

I’m back on the bus for a couple of days, but bound for the Grand Canyon by train from Flagstaff later in the week.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *