Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Train – Entertainment & Attractions – Durango Downtown
Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad – An American Classic
Exerpts from Robert Royem’s coffee table book
Under the direction of General William Palmer, the Denver & Rio Grande, founded in 1870, had developed a large narrow gauge network throughout Colorado. Rails headed south from Denver, through Colorado Springs, Pueblo, and Walsenburg. Then branching westward, track led to the now famous railroading towns of Antonito, Colorado and Chama, New Mexico. The push toward Durango culminated with the arrival of construction crews in July 1881. They paused only briefly before beginning the advance to Silverton.
The labor force numbered upwards of five hundred men, consisting of many new immigrants, especially those of Irish and Chinese descent. Like many new arrivals to America, they performed their arduous tasks for little remuneration (daily pay averaged $2.25). The often dangerous work continued through the harsh winter of 1881-82, with some workers living in caves they dug out of the hillside near Rockwood instead of the thin-walled railcars that had been provided. To create a ledge out of the solid granite high above the Animas River required the use of tons of blasting powder. Because of the treacherous terrain, the cost for that portion of track was a staggering one hundred thousand dollars per mile! Construction crews finally reached Silverton in July 1882, completing the span that lay almost five hundred track-miles from Denver.
It was certainly one of the most challenging railroad projects ever undertaken (ranking with the Central Pacific Railroad’s daunting effort through the Sierra Nevadas). The entire line was designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1968….
In many ways, The Silverton is a symbol of trains everywhere. It embodies the essence of the classic steam-powered trains that were so instrumental in the shaping of our nation. It also mirrors many of the changes that have occurred in the American West during its span of existence in southwestern Colorado. The train has successfully changed roles during an economic transition that has seen priority shift from hauling ore to carrying tourists. While it may be nostalgic in appearance, the train operates in a modern context, reflecting the values and realities of American society today.
Durango has always been a railroad town! The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad company the town of Durango in 1880. The D&RG had sought access to the rich mining area in the San Juan mountains to the north for years. The site of Durango was chosen as a suitable base for their last forty-five mile push into Silverton….
Construction of the track from Durango to Silverton was completed in an astonishing nine months and five days! Durango quickly became an important regional site, both culturally and economically. The vast mineral deposits near Silverton assured the train’s success from the beginning, and construction had begun on the smelter before the track was even finished….
Will Rogers once said of Durango: “It’s out of the way, and darn glad of it”. Today, Durango is not as “out of the way” as it once was. Modern transportation and a growing disillusion with urban life in America have turned Durango into a thriving and growing community….
Today, the mines that brought the train here originally are gone. As in many areas of the American West, the modern economy relies heavily on tourism. The same mountains along the train’s route that earlier provided mineral riches, are today valued for their striking scenic beauty. To the delight of rail fans everywhere, Durango is still a railroad town!
Silverton was incorporated in 1876 (the same year Colorado became a state), and still retains much of its gritty authenticity and frontier charm. Nestled into a valley a robust 9,300 feet in elevation, its colorful history is linked to the mineral riches of the surrounding mountains. Until 1991, when the Sunnyside Mine closed, Silverton was an actual mining town….
The train’s arrival in 1882 heralded a period of growth that did not wane until the first decade of the twentieth century. Silverton was a classic boomtown of the American West and retains that aura today.
All photos and text © Robert Royem
Robert Royem Photography, highlighting more of Robert’s work on steam-powered trains of Colorado and New Mexico, as well as compelling examples of his field photography in the great American southwest and much more!
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The enduring legacy of steam-powered trains in America is nowhere more evident than in southwest Colorado, home of The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. The Silverton journeys throughout some of the most beautiful and dramatic scenery ever traversed by rail.
To help introduce you to this railroad we offer excerpts and photographs taken from the highly acclaimed coffee-table book An American Classic: The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad by Robert T. Royem. The book is described as “the photographic celebration of a uniquely American railroad”. It contains hundreds of original photographs of the train in vibrant color and dramatic black and white, along with several beautifully reproduced photographs from the 1880’s. To compliment the photography Robert has included an historical overview of this train and its place in America. Robert T. Royem. Train Reservations
If you have already ridden aboard The Silverton, this book will serve as a reminder of your unique and unforgettable journey. If you have yet to ride this train, acquaint yourself with one of the world’s preeminent steam-driven railroads. We hope you enjoy the sampling we present of the book. If you are interested in owning your own copy of the book, purchasing information follows.
The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad runs on a forty-five mile spur of track originally constructed by the Denver & Rio Grande Railway. Crews initiated the final push toward the mineral riches [of the San Juans] during the fall of 1881. Just twelve years prior, in 1869, the transcontinental rail link had been established in Promontory, Utah-America was physically united! It was an era of boisterous expansion, and a spirit of heady optimism infused the developing nation. The train gave Americans a taste of freedom and mobility that had never been known. As the vehicle for much of the incredible movement that was occurring, the train was helping to shape the destiny and even the spirit of America.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, the railroad opened the vast American West to masses of new immigrants. For the first time, the natural riches of an immense continent were accessible to anyone possessing the ambition and sense of adventure to seek them. This indomitable spirit was certainly present in Colorado! Mining booms had already created legends of communities like Central City, Cripple Creek, and Leadville-all towns located near rail service by 1881. The last great prize awaiting Colorado’s railroads lay in the remote southwest part of the state, in the rugged San Juan Mountains. Train Reservations
All photos and text © Robert Royem
An American Classic: The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad – Continued