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Take a trip through time on the historic Durango & Silverton Railroad

Deborah Stone | Sep 28, 2015, 6 a.m.
The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is ranked as the "Number One North American Train Trip." Photo by Deborah Stone

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The train's coaches were upgraded, but many still retain their historic bones. Photo by Deborah Stone

A ride on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is first and foremost about history. It’s a testament to engineering prowess, hard work, determination and extraordinary vision. And it all began with the mining boom that struck Southwest Colorado in the late 1800s.

Deep in the heart of the precipitous terrain of the San Juan Mountains, a rail was built to carry supplies and transport minerals to and from the high elevation mining camps. At the helm of this ambitious project was General William Jackson Palmer, the head of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. Palmer answered the need for faster and more economical transportation in this region by building a narrow gauge railroad with three-inch rails versus four-inch, the standard for U.S. railroads. His decision stemmed from the fact that construction and equipment costs were cheaper and the narrow gauge was better suited for sharper curves.

It took less than ten months to complete the section of tracks from Durango to Silverton and in 1882, the railroad began operations on the Silverton Branch. In its heyday, it was a very profitable enterprise, but then the Great Depression hit, followed by WWII, and mineral prices fell, devastating the once lucrative mining industry. Fortunately, Hollywood stepped in and saved the day by filming a series of movies with the train, including “A Ticket to Tomahawk,” “Denver & Rio Grande,” “Around the World in 80 Days” and many others.

Dedicated railroad historian and preservationist Charles Bradshaw, Jr. eventually bought the Silverton Branch in 1981 and upgraded the long neglected steam locomotives and coaches. He also renamed the railroad and boosted passenger service exponentially. Today, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is owned by Allen and Carol Harper of American Heritage Railways, who also operate the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in North Carolina.

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The scenery is reason enough to ride the train. Photo by Deborah Stone

When you ride the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, it’s easy to see why the experience is ranked as “One of the World’s Top Ten Train Rides” and the “Number One North American Train Trip.” The scenery alone is reason enough. Your journey will take you through spectacular wilderness that will leave you dizzy from all the grandeur. It’s a panorama of rushing rivers, picturesque waterfalls, deep gorges, narrow canyons, pristine lakes and verdant forests. And then there are the mountains – snow-capped, towering and majestic sentinels that rise up 14,000 feet. You’ll follow the course of the Animas River as the train climbs up out of Durango and goes through six geological zones for the 45-mile trip to Silverton.

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Photographic opportunities abound as you pass through spectacular wilderness that will leave you dizzy from all the grandeur. Photo by Deborah Stone

Photographic opportunities abound and your train car narrator will point out all the Kodak moments, while regaling you with tales of bygone days on the railway, along with pertinent information about the history and geology of the area. Of special note is High Bridge, a wrought-iron construction that’s 130 feet long; Baker’s Bridge where the famous “jump scene” from the movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” was filmed; Tacoma Hydroelectric plant, the oldest of its kind in the U.S. that still uses its original generators; Needleton Tank, an historic wooden water tank; and the famous High Line and its horseshoe curve. The latter was the most difficult portion of the line to build, as it was cut out of canyon walls at approximately $100,000 per mile.

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