Forget wagon trains and sodbusters. It was the railroad that won the West, powerful steam locomotives hauling raw materials to markets back East and returning with settlers from places like Chicago and St. Louis. Large-scale mining was not possible until narrow-gauge track was laid through the mountains; more than one Colorado town owes its very existence to the railroad companies.
Colorado's railroad legacy lives on in many train museums and lovingly preserved lines. The popular Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and Museum offers both a historic museum in the roundhouse in Durango and a ride on an authentic coal-fired steam train that has been in continuous operation for 120 years. Running daily (between May and October) from Durango for 45 miles through the San Juan Mountains to the former mining town of Silverton (elevation 9,320 feet) and back again, the train gives passengers a true taste of what railroading was like over a century ago. The round trip is an all-day affair -- seven hours on the train and a two-hour-and-fifteen-minute layover in Silverton -- guaranteed to satisfy even the most die-hard train buffs. About 200,000 passengers a year take what the Society of American Travel Writers calls one of the "Top 10 Most Exciting Train Journeys in the World."
The D&SNGRR has added appeal for those of us who didn't cut our teeth on Thomas the Tank Engine. Two years ago, with permission from the U.S. Forest Service, the railroad added a wye, or turnaround, in the middle of the San Juan National Forest, 26 miles from Durango, on the banks of the Animas River. It's a two-hour trip to Cascade Canyon Station, an enclosed pavilion beyond the tracks in the otherwise pristine wilderness, which makes it perfect for a stop to admire the view for an hour before heading back to Durango in time for dinner. Between November and April, the Winter Train runs daily to Cascade Canyon and back.
Durango for information or reservations, call 1-970-247-2733 or log on to www.durangotrain.com
"You get to see all the highlights of the trip between Durango and Cascade Canyon," according to Kristi Nelson Cohen, vice president of sales and marketing for the D&SNGRR. "That includes the High Line, a two-mile stretch along a high mountain ledge blasted out of granite. It's a 400-foot drop to the river, which is why the train travels only five miles an hour there."
This year, the D&SNGRR has put together a number of "specials" running to Cascade Canyon throughout the summer. On July 15, the Brass 'n' BBQ train leaves Durango at 2:30 p.m. for a concert at the station by the Music in the Mountains Brass Quintet, followed by a barbecue.
"We've never done this before, and I know the musicians are looking forward to hearing what they sound like surrounded by granite peaks," Cohen says.
On July 6 and August 3, the Mountains by Moonlight train offers evening cocktails and hors d'oeuvres under the full moon.
Then, for nine days only -- August 20-22, 27-29 and September 3-5 -- the High Noon train departs Durango at midday for an afternoon wine-and-cheese reception at Cascade Canyon, returning to town by 5 p.m.
Each train carries only 350 passengers, so reservations for the specials should be made early.
In between High Noon trains, on August 23-27, the third annual Railfest takes place. Five days of nothing but trains, this year complete with excursions on the 1875 Eureka & Palisade #4 wood-burning steam locomotive, the oldest of its kind still running. It's listed as a historical artifact on the National Historic Register for its contribution to Western history.
"Railroad purists tell me a locomotive can't be cute, but really, this one is," laughs Cohen. "It looks like something out of a Disney film, with shiny brass filigree, a natural-wood oak cab and colorful paint job."
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Railfest will also host three of the seven Galloping Geese in existence. During times of financial hardship in the 1930s and '40s, these gas-powered "buses" hauled passengers and freight along the rails between Durango and Ridgway. A swap meet, another moonlight train, tours of the "G" gauge railroad setups in gardens throughout Durango and the arrival of the Presidential Special made up of private first-class coaches from the 1880s round out Railfest's events. For only $250, you can book a ride on the VIP train on Friday, August 24, that includes a champagne brunch on board, a catered luncheon in Silverton and a wine-and-cheese reception on the return trip, all in the company of American Heritage Railways president Allen C. Harper, owner of the D&SNGRR, and J.C. Kenefick, former president of the Union Pacific Railroad who was superintendent of the Denver & Rio Grande's Alamosa division in the early 1950s. That's when the D&SNGRR finally gave up hauling freight and became strictly a scenic-excursion line.
Summer wraps up with Cinders, Song & Sauvignon, Fort Lewis College Concert Hall's annual wine-tasting train that travels through spectacular fall scenery while passengers sample the fruit of the vine.
For all this train mania, what does the rest of Durango think about the Durango & Silverton line? The railroad employs about 250 seasonal workers, eighty of them year-round, and has an economic impact of about $95 million per year on the town. That's not surprising when you remember that Rio Grande Railroad executives founded Durango in 1881 because they didn't like the incentive package offered by the town of Animas City, three miles to the south.