Sunday, June 13, 2010

Riding the Narrow Rails to Silverton

With today's entry, we begin the first day of our third year of traveling around this beautiful land. In the course of these travels, we have learned more about our country's history, its resources, and its people. We have had fun and enjoyed many culinary and musical contributions to our diverse culture. We look forward to our next year.

"Two tickets for the train next Tuesday?" (Not as simple a question as you might think.)
"Round trip or train/ motor coach combo?" "Round trip."

"What class--Presiden-tial, First, Deluxe, or Standard Class?" "Standard" (not even bothering to ask for the differences, but this option sounded less expensive).

"Vintage enclosed coach or open-air gondola?" "Gondola." (grateful for the clarifying adjectives that avoided the need for another question).

"Do you want to buy some protective eyewear or a pancho--remember, there may be some cinders from the steam engine? If so, they're on sale in the gift shop." "Thanks, but that won't be necessary."

"Finally, don't forget to dress in layers. You go from an elevation of 6520' in Durango to one of 9305' in Silverton." "Thank you."

So, when Tuesday arrived, we felt prepared.

Much of the time, photo-graphing the scenery was simply a matter of pointing the camera straight out of the gondola.

However, when we wanted to photograph the engine as it pulled the cars around a curve, we had to work around the heads, arms, and cameras of fellow passengers. This simple manuever became a dangerous act when the train came within an arm's length of the cliffs.

When the mining boom of the late 1800s struck the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado, General William J. Palmer addressed the problem of bringing supplies to the isolated mining camps between Durango and Silverton by building what was called the Silverton Branch of the Denver and Rio Grande railway (D&RG).

The D&RG chose to build narrow gauge (so named because the rails are 36 inches compared to standard guage rails that are 56-1/2 inches apart, which is a standard based on Roman chariot wheels) because the construction was cheaper, the equipment cost less, and the narrow gauge was better suited to the sharper curves of the mountain terrain.

The Silverton Branch, built in 1891-82, is now known as the Durango & Silverton Narrow Guage Railroad.

If I heard the conductor correctly, what is occurring here is a "boiler drawdown."

When the gold and silver mines closed and freight and mail contracts shifted from railroads to roadway carriers, the railroad was forced to look for new ways to generate income.

It was the beauty of the Animas River and the San Juan Mountains--their forests and waterfalls--and the train itself that attracted Hollywood. Some 19 fims have featured the D&SNGR, including Ticket to Tomahawk (1950), Viva Zapata (1952), Around the World in 80 Days (1956), How the West Was Won (1963), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Support Your Local Gunfighter (1970), and The Claim (2000).

At a top speed of 18 mph, it takes the train 3-1/2 hours to travel the 45 miles from Durango to Silverton. Much of the scenery on our side of the train consisted of the San Juan Mountains and the West Needle Mountains.

Except for the commu-nity of Rockwood, the Tall Timber Resort, some isolated cabins, and this abandoned portion of a mining operation, the length of the trip was a Mother Nature travelogue.

With these beautiful views all around, I had almost forgotten that we had a destina-tion, not just a journey, in mind when we left Durango.

The town of Silverton lay just ahead. We had two hours to discover the town's treasures before the scenic return to Durango.