We were up at 6:30 and at the train station at 7:30 to get on board for our trip to Silverton. Silverton is only 45 miles away up through mountain passes (we climbed almost 3,000′) but the narrow-gauge rail climbs at about 5-10 mph so the journey takes 3 1/2 hours.
The Durango-Silverton steam railway line has been continuously running for 136 years.
We had a narrator car, which means we had early-era Durango ‘citizens’ telling us the history of the Durango-Hermosa-Rockwood-Cascade-Needleton-Silverton mines and towns. We got information on the plants, animals, geology and all kinds of things. “Mr. Thomas Grayden,” a successful local businessman spoke on the way to Silverton and “Mrs. Caroline Romney,” a 40-year old widow who started Durango’s daily newspaper spoke on the way back.
I took 370 photos today. Mostly of rock wallks, the train, the Animas River, the town of Silverton, and the surrounding mountains. I brutally thinned the ranks but still have quite a few photos to put in my blog. Part of the line was literally blown out of the red granite walls to make a ledge for the track. Men would be dangled over the edge of the cliff to pound holes for dynamite in the face of the cliff and then blasters would load them and ‘fire in the hole,’ to bring down the rock. They just kept cutting the rock face back from the canyon wall until they had a big enough ledge for the railway. And not an inch to spare!
We passed the Soarin’ Tree Top zip-line. It is the longest, largest zip-line course in the world. They have 27 tree top lines. The only way to access the adventure is to take the steam train from Durango, get off to do your zip-lining and then get picked up when the train makes it’s return run. There are no roads into the place. One of the staff put on a quick show for us as we went by. There are also hikers, hunters, and fisherman that gain access to various parts of the San Juan Forest via the train. The train route has several flagstop locations where you can make prior arrangements to be dropped off or picked up. To build the railway line the engineers followed the Animas River as much as possible since the river had already cut a path through the mountain. It would require less track and less property to purchase, however the path is steep and narrow with 32 bridges back and forth across the river over the 45 miles.
We stopped twice to take on water (this is an unused old water tower) on the way up and once on the way down.
There is only one short ‘downhill’ section on the climb to Silverton so the engine works the entire way. An average trip burns between 5-7 tons of coal. The coal car is loaded with 9 tons of coal before it leaves Durango – and the fireman still shovels it into the boiler by hand.
Because the route is through the high mountain there have been many instances of avanlances covering the tracks. Sometimes they would just cut through the packed snow and make an ice tunnel until spring melt. It was easy to see the avalance routes along the way. As we approached Silverton we could see the result of all the minerals in the water that have leached from the mines or mining process. None of the water of the Animas and most of its tributaries and feeders is safe to drink. It contains too many chemicals and bi-products of the mines.
Once we arrived in Silverton we had about 2 hours to wander around, find some lunch if we wanted, or in our case, find a geocache. The town is 100% tourist oriented today. None of the mines are in operation. Full time residents are about 400 and during the summer season the population rises to 1000. The City Hall and the Court House were built during the town’s heyday years and are elaborate buildings. I loved the sign on the wall in front of the fire department doors. John’s fire hall at home needs some of these to get people to stop parking in the fire department lot while their kids play soccer next door. $7.00 for a 10 minute stagecoach ride around town.
The surrounding mountains certainly dwarf the town. The museum and archive buildings. Unfortunately we did not have time to tour the museum.
One of the fancy trikes from the Four Corner’s Motorcyle Rally going on in Durango this weekend took the highway up to Silverton. Silverton boasts the highest Harley Davidson Shop at 9,318.’ They had some pretty funky benches out front as well. John is signing the log of the only geocache we found today. We looked for a couple of others but had no luck. It was back on the train for the return journey. You can take the train one way and the bus back if you wish or ride the train both ways. There is assigned seats in the cars so whatever you miss on the train ride up you see on the trip back down. If you take the bus back to Durango you see an entirely different perspective of the pass as the highway goes over rather than through and is on the opposite side of the pass from the rail way. You cannot see the highway from the rails and you cannot see the rails from the highway. The beavers have been industriously cutting down Aspen trees along the route. This worries some of the local folks as this is considered by some to be a harbinger of a major flood event. Don’t stick your arm – or anything else – out the window.Taking on water.
Being on the opposite side of the car coming back we were able to see how deep the drop and how narrow is the rail line. You can see the ledge they created for the tracks on this cliff face.
As we neared Durango we got a good look at the lovely red limestone cliffs. The Animas River is nice and calm at the lower end of the pass. People love to wave at the train. At road crossings, on Durango streets, in other other communites, the hikers in the forest, and campers in the RV parks; even people who’s houses are beside the line and have several trains go by every day wave when the train goes past. However the funniest greeting – we had been previously warned by our coach narrator – was the line of bums as we passed “Moon Beach.” I guess this, too, is a local tradition when the train goes by. We were late returning to Durango and got off the train a few minutes before 6. It had been a long day sitting on a thinly padded bench seat on a rocking, jostling train ride. We enjoyed it immensely but I do admit my legs were stiff and my butt was sore. We walked back to our hotel to get rid of our packs, uploaded photos to the computers and walked back to the restaurant for dinner.
We had a beautiful day traveling through time in an authentic 1882 passenger car pulled by a coal powered steam engine. What fun. Tomorrow we head up to Montrose where we will stay two nights so we can check out some more of the area and communities.