Paul Carson: A portrait of the Chief Conductor of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

by Patty Templeton

“I have been with the railroad for 10 years. I came into the operating department as a brakeman.” Now, Paul Carson, a guy who thought he was visiting Durango for a summer, is chief conductor of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (D&SNG). Not bad for a kid from Pennsylvania who learned about trains from his granddad.

Carson is a broad-shouldered, bespectacled fella with sandy hair and a jovial voice. You know Superman’s cover-persona, the clean-shaven Clark Kent? Yeah, that’s what Paul Carson looks like – sturdy and by the book. The man digs structure and railroad canon, so much so that he collects railroad rule books. “The oldest one I have is about 115 years old.” No, constant reader, we didn’t get to sniff the century-old pages. Carson, wisely, doesn’t keep rare books in his train yard office.

Though his days are spent curlicuing through mountain passes in a sunshine yellow and coal black steam train, Carson isn’t play-acting. He strides through train cars making cordial chitchat with passengers, but Carson is not a Victorian character putting on a show. “There are narrators in certain train cars. It is much safer to let them have that job [of storyteller and historian].”

“One of the things I hear a lot [from passengers] is, ‘Well, if you’re back here, who’s driving this thing?’” said Carson. See, the engineer is the one in the front cab driving the train, along with the fireman (the person who shovels coal into the engine). A conductor collects tickets, keeps tabs on how the train chugs along, eyeballs the track for irregularities, and sentinels the safety of crew and commuters.

The D&SNG breathes steam and roars into being, and Paul Carson, as conductor, has to bridle not only the iron beast but its environment. The train, open for freight and travelers in July of 1882, is a registered national historic landmark. It’s remarkably safe, but you never know when bears may raid a concession car (it happened before Carson’s time), when a derailment can endanger every car, when a spark might start a wildfire, or when a sasquatch could strut through the brush. “This was a few years ago, but there was a man up by Silverton who would wear a Bigfoot outfit and you’d see him from far off walking through the trees.” Sure, Bigfoot Man wasn’t a real danger, but still, if there were a monster, Carson is the kinda guy who could command a crew, battle a kaiju, and live to conduct another day.

Heck, even if Durango was plague-struck and the virus caused a zombie surge through the San Juans, Carson said the train could be a safe evac space. When pressed on the matter, Carson laughed, took a thoughtful moment, and said, “If it comes to that, I think we should all get on the train and ride to Cascade Canyon. I think we’d be safer up there.” Rest assured, the fully loaded 18-mph train could outpace all but fast zombies.

Carson doesn’t have time to daydream at work, but he will spitball history for a hot minute with you. When asked what era of the train he would travel back to, if possible, Carson said, “I would have liked to work out of Durango between the early 1940s through the early 1950s … There would have been trains coming from all four directions into Durango. The Rio Grande Southern [was] active until 1952 and many of the local industries would have been in full production because of the war effort.” It was an intersectional age of technology.

The train has switched from a necessity to nostalgia, but what you think is a day of historical tourism can turn into a meditative experience. “There’s this old John Lennon quote, ‘Life happens when you are busy making other plans,” he said. “In an environment where there is no cell service or Wi-Fi, the train almost forces people to step away from their phones and appreciate life and the world for what it is and all that it encompasses. That’s a good thing.”

Patty TempletonDGO Staff Writer


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