Day 6: Durango, Colorado
One of the highlights of a visit to historic Durango, CO, is the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Built in 1881 to haul silver and gold ore out of the San Juan Mountains, it is estimated that over $300 million in precious metals was transported over the route. Today, the ore is gone and the mines gone bust, but there is still plenty of loose change to be found in the pockets of tourists, and a few hundred thousand passengers ride the old rails each year.
Happily, the elegant old downtown hotel we unwittingly chose last night—the General Palmer—was built and operated by the same magnate who owned the original rail line, and is located not 100 paces from the D&SNGRR depot. Beside the platform, the old steam locomotive puffs and hisses, blowing smoke, and we board the restored passenger coaches to take our seats.
Now called the D&SNGRR, the railroad continues to provide year-round service operating a historical train with rolling stock indigenous to the line. The coal-fired and steam-operated locomotives are 1923-25 vintage and are maintained in original condition.
With a couple blasts of the whistle and a jerk of the couplers, the train pulls out of the station promptly at 8:15am and we make our way out of Durango. The rails soon converge with the Animas River and we begin to follow it northward toward Silverton. Sometimes skirting its banks, or crossing it on bridges high and low, or winding our way along narrow canyon ledges far above the roaring water, the Animas will be our near-constant companion for the 45-mile, 2800-foot ascent to the old silver mining town.
We make several stops along the way; some to pickup passengers at tiny stations in the forest, some to take on water from large tanks, some for no apparent reason whatsoever. After the third unexplained stop somewhere in the middle of the woods, the conductor comes through our car to apologize; the locomotive is having a bit of trouble today and must pause periodically to build up a head of steam for the next climb. I think of the sweaty locomotive fireman who must hand-shovel nearly six tons of coal into the firebox, to boil almost 10,000 gallons of water for the round trip.
After a few more such stops we finally arrive in the historic town of Silverton, CO, nestled in a green and rocky mountain valley, and we quickly disembark for lunch. After cheeseburgers in a local diner, Lorie heads off for shopping in the restored downtown district while I seek out the original and unvarnished fringes of this rough former frontier town.
Returning to Durango in late afternoon, we do a bit of shopping in the historic downtown district, enjoy perhaps the best Mexican dinner ever at Francisco’s Restaurante Y Cantina on Main Ave., then retire to our room at the General Palmer.