If you've traveled to Silverton, Durango or points in between, you've probably seen the characteristic black smoke of a coal-powered steam locomotive lumbering through the landscape.
“The railroad actually dates back to 1881-1882," explained Chief Conductor Rich Millard. "It was part of what was called the San Juan Extension of the Denver & Rio Grand Western Railroad that actually started building out of Denver, Colorado in the late 1870s.”
The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (as it is known today) was originally built to serve the area's mining industry.
“They built narrow gauge, which means three feet between the rails because it was much better suited towards mountainous terrain," explained Millard. "It’s kind of an engineering marvel that they were able to construct it in only thirteen months.”
Now, the railroad ferries a different type of cargo: tourists. I got a chance to ride on the D&SNGRR from Durango to its winter turnaround at the Cascade Canyon wye.
“We are very proud that we are annually ranked in the top ten, if not the top five scenic rail journeys in the world by National Geographic Magazine (and the) Society of American Travel Writers.”
Running a scenic train is a large operation and isn't exactly easy, he said.
“The cost of maintaining this type of operation from the historical equipment that we run to the route itself is mind-boggling. We haul a lot of people and of course operate at a profit.”
The railroad employs almost one hundred annual employees. Jeff Ellingson is one of them and he curates the railroad's museum in Durango.
“The whole railroad is really a working museum," said Ellingson. "We’re the oldest narrow gauge railroad in the United States. So, this is a room of cool stuff, but really we’ve got an entire railroad that is an operating steam-powered railroad and you can literally go back into time when you ride this train.”
“In the summertime when we’re running four trains a day, we have as many as two hundred people here working on the property,” said Millard.
With the historic and meticulously-kept equipment, the real coal-powered locomotive and all the sights and sounds you would expect, it's an authentic experience.
I even caught the conductor checking his pocket watch.
“The railroader and the pocket watch kind of went hand and hand. It’s one of the many historical aspects that we like to keep alive here on the Durango & Silverton," said Millard.
Many also ride the train for the scenery. The railroad twists and turns up the stunning Animas River Gorge, nestled in the Weminuche Wilderness.
On the train, I also met with young Jonathan Smith, who volunteers his time for the railroad.
“During the summer, I’m here almost every day. And during the school year, I’m here when I can be," said Smith.
That's all volunteer time from a fourteen year old young man. He doesn't hide the fact that he loves trains, but he also loves seeing the passengers enjoy the ride.
“They’re just in awe. And it’s so fun to see them look at it for the first time and experience what I get toe experience every day. And they’re always just so excited and thrilled and wanting to know more."
"Here, you’ve got the train—narrow-gauge railroad that’s been operational for a hundred and thirty years. That just blows my mind, something that’s been operational for a hundred and thirty years," said Wayne Parker, visiting from Phoenix, Arizona. "Yes, it’s definitely a Wonder of the Western Slope!"
“It’s a place where you can come here and experience things that have been here since 1881. You can come here and experience things just as they were a hundred years ago,” added Smith.
Millard says that every single season has something different to offer, from the colors of fall to the waterfalls in spring. To avoid summer crowds, he suggests visiting in the winter. Around the holidays, the railroad offers an authentic Polar Express experience.
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