Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad



June 16th, 2022

The photographs that follow were taken on a journey on the D&SNG in 2005 and undoubtedly many of the best views are shot from outside the train to encompass the stunning scenery in which the train runs. For that reason there are links mainly to the D&SNG web site to capture this angle.

Words and photographs by Allen Jackson.

The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (D&SNGNGRR) is a tourist heritage line that runs between those two places for just over 45 miles in the south west of the state of Colorado in the San Juan mountains and national forest in the US.

It was originally built to 3 foot gauge opened in 1882 by the Denver and Rio Grande Western Pacific Railroad (D&RGW) that connected the state capital with the neighbouring states of Utah, Nevada and New Mexico. The narrow gauge survived, in 1930, to run between Montrose Colorado and Santa Fé, New Mexico with many branch or short lines. In Britain the main example of three foot gauge is the Isle of Man Steam Railway.

Colorado is a rugged, mountainous, heavily wooded region in the south and a place of outstanding natural beauty. As with many other railroads it was principally mineral traffic that paid the tab with coal, silver and gold as the major earners. The railway’s motto was originally ‘Through the Rockies’ a similar kind of philosophy to the Midland Railway in Britain but much more spectacular.

A toll road was eventually built to connect the two towns which became known as the ‘Million Dollar Highway’ as it is reputed to have thrown up that value of precious minerals in its construction.

Durango is at 6,520 feet and Silverton 9,300 so the outward journey is one of toil, steam and smoke and mostly two engines whereas the downhill return journey more or less the steam and smoke. The journey follows the valley or rather canyon, of the Animas River and often the train is perched on a ledge whilst the furious river rampages and blusters its way down the canyon to lower elevations. To the northeast of Silverton lies the headwaters of the Rio Grande River, in its own national forest. This river eventually forms part of the border between the US and Mexico.

Both World War I and World War II saw Federal intervention as some of the trackwork was sequestered for use in Alaska and the silver ore smelting machinery was used for war production.

After World War II, still under D&RGW ownership, the railroad was seeing increased ridership from tourists and sightseers. By the 1960s, with diminishing freight traffic, the D&RGW sought to abandon the Durango to Silverton section but because of the tourist traffic, generated partly by the movie industry in Hollywood, the governing body, the Interstate Commerce Commission declined to grant the abandonment request.

By 1971 though the only other part of the narrow gauge that survived was what was to become the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad which runs for 64 miles from around Antonito Colorado and Chama New Mexico, south east of the D&SNG.

By the late 1970s the D&RGW was trying to sell off the D&SNG section and by 1979 the railroad had been sold to a Florida citrus grower, Charles Bradshaw. In 1980 the last train under D&RGW ownership had run bringing to an end a 110 year narrow gauge history of the company that had started with the first train from Denver to Colorado Springs.

The town of Durango is redolent of Western movies and many were made in and around the railroad and some properties on the main street still have hitching rails outside as if a cowboy is going to pitch up on his horse and demand whiskey in the saloon. Possibly the most famous Western of all time, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, some of which was shot nearby.

36 minute video of the D&SNG journey.

The depot or station at Durango is remarkably original with the high pitched roofed timber buildings a feature. The roundhouse burned down in 1990 but has been rebuilt and still houses the largely original steam collection. Steam has been a continuous feature on the D&SNG but there is a healthy collection of diesels and some services are run with this mode of power.

The clear clean air and stunning scenery of Colorado is combined with the infectious enthusiasm of the D&SNG staff and the majesty and spectacle of steam up against it make the journey one of those unforgettable events that remain in the memory for ever.

001-D-S-RAILFANS Figure 1. D&SNG number 481 2-8-2 Mikado is seen here awaiting departure from Durango depot. The engine belongs to the K-36 class which were a series of ten engines built by Baldwins of Eddystone, Pa for the D&RGW in 1925. The engines were originally intended for freight work and the 36 in the K-36 designation means that the narrow gauge loco has a tractive effort of 36,200 pounds. In a British context this would equate to an ex-LMS Railway Stanier 2-8-0 Consolidation.

The engine consumes about 3-5 tons of coal on the journey to Silverton and another 1-2 tons on the way back down. The engines are all hand-fired as opposed to mechanical stokers. The railway owns engines 480, 481, 482 and 486 and the Cumbres and Toltec numbers 483, 484, 487, 488 and 489. A mishap befell 485 in that it plunged into a turntable pit at Salida Co in 1955 and obviously no heavy crane or lifting gear was available as the engine was cut up on site. A similar fate befell an ex-LMS 2-8-0 48193 in British Railways days in 1959 at the engine depot at Kirkby in Ashfield.

The train in the photo is shown in single header mode as weight restrictions on a nearby 15th Street bridge at Durango preclude double heading from the depot with class K-36 locomotives although this practice is still enabled for the smaller class K-28 locos.

002-D-S-RAILFANS Figure 2. The D&SNG depot or station building at Durango is said to be original to the 1880s. Inevitably some of the depot is given over to a lively retail opportunity and inside they have an electric LGB railroad train running above the customer’s heads. LGB or Lehmann Gross Bahn is a famous German make of model railway built to 45 mm (1.77 inches across the tracks) gauge track.

The train is awaiting departure and is composed of a motley collection of rolling stock, some in the distinctive yellow colour and others in the more restrained deep red or carmine hue. At the rear is a 40 foot boxcar and a four wheeled caboose which often attracts the nickname ‘bobber’ as the riding qualities are not ideal at higher speeds. Also in the consist are open gondola cars that have basic sides and a roof but no windows and are open to the elements. Some of these vehicles were adapted from boxcars (covered bogie freight wagons) or stock cars (covered livestock freight wagons). Panoramic observation cars attract a premium fare and the carmine livery.

003-D-S-RAILFANS Figure 3. In the yard at Durango was this mixed train headed by diesel number 1 ‘Hotshot’. Hotshot was owned by the Arkansas Limestone Railroad and is a 45-ton centre-cab diesel built by the General Electric Corporation at their Erie, Pa plant in 1957. It is heading the forest fire train and is ready to go with little notice. Some fires have been caused by the steam engines on the route and one steam engine has been converted to burn oil, harking back to the Festiniog Railway in Britain in the 1970s that had a similar forestry problem.

004-D-S-RAILFANS Figure 4. The train engines on our journey were 486, a K36 previously described, and 478 a member of the K28 class. As the nomenclature suggests the K28 is slightly smaller and less powerful than the K36 at 28,000 pounds tractive effort but appears to be doing most of the work here. The K28 class were built at the ALCO (American Locomotive COmpany) at their Schenectady shops/works in New York state and reference to ALCO was made on the piece about Halls and Moguls, some of which were built for the Midland Railway in Britain. They were constructed in 1923 and so older than their larger stablemates but seem to have been built with the outside balance weights more carefully constructed because the engine runs more smoothly and so are not as fatiguing for the crews. The K28 can be tricky to fire and it is long learning curve to acquire the skill.

005-D-S-RAILFANS Figure 5. Both engines are working hard now as the train makes its way up a ledge towards the San Juan mountains and eventually Silverton. The Animas River on the left is fuelled by snow melt although this is the end of May. The train acquired a second forty foot box car, presumably for hikers and bikers equipment. Mixed trains were popular when the railroad ran freight services. When the train reaches its destination there is a large loop upon which the whole train is turned to face chimney first going down the mountain. In Britain there would be a release crossover and run round parallel loop and perhaps a turntable for the engine but there would never be enough room for a complete turn-around.

006-D-S-RAILFANS Figure 6. Even with a combined water capacity of the K28 and K36 locomotives adding up to 10,000 gallons the train has to stop at strategically placed water facilities to top up. A crew member has placed the chute in one of the tender fillers and opens the valve to start the water flow. There are usually water gauges on tenders to give a rough approximation of how full the tank is but the usual method is the Mark 1 eyeball. When it starts to overflow, it must be full.

007-D-S-RAILFANS Figure7. Meanwhile inside the train the replenishing of the passengers is a top priority on the D&SNG. On the D&SNG buffet cars are known as concession cars. Number 64 was originally D&RG mail-baggage 64 built in 1889. In 1983 it was purchased from the Black Hills Central Railroad. Number 64 returned to service in 1984 as a buffet/concession car. The coach is not air conditioned and the scissors gate prevents people falling out of the open windows. The journey to Silverton and back takes almost a full day so human refuelling will be needed and going up the best views are on the right hand side of the coaches viewed from the top.

008-D-S-RAILFANS Figure 8. Arrival at Silverton is the main event of the day and brings crowds off the train, possibly equalling half the local population. The two locos headed by K-28 478 are detached from the train which is parked up in the main street to enable passengers to mingle freely, get something to eat, buy some souvenirs or see local businesses at work like the blacksmiths, visit the museum, or just drink in the clean mountain air. The population of the town is around 700 which reduces to around 300 in the winter when less trains are running. Although Silverton is at 9300 feet above sea level, the mountains continue thereabouts to over 13,000 feet and the highest mountain of the Rockies in Colorado is at 14,440 feet.

009-D-S-RAILFANS Figure 9. K-36 486 is prepared by a crew member for the return journey with an oil round the crucial places. The open nature of the main street at Silverton is clear here and most of the commercial premises are on the right down the street. Also here is a yard where museum exhibits are kept in the open air. There is also a museum at Durango where there are museum and yard tours arranged.

010-D-S-RAILFANS Figure 10. Finally at Silverton is this exhibit in the museum. It is a class 37 numbered 493. The class K-37 had a strange birth in that they were converted from a 1902 built Baldwin standard gauge 2-8-0 class 190 in 1928-30. A total of ten engines were so converted at the Rio Grande’s Burnham shops in Denver from standard gauge 2-8-0 to narrow gauge 2-8-2 wheel arrangement. This locomotive has subsequently been converted to oil firing.

Allen Jackson is the author behind a number of We Are Railfans articles and railway books: https://www.amberley-books.com/author-community-main-page/j/community-allen-jackson.html AllenJacksonBooksComp

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