Editor’s note: On a recent Wednesday, Patty Templeton rode the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad to Silverton and back, riding in the cab part of the way. What follows is her account.Up frontGrit, clank, clamor, roll, and shudder – standing in the cab of a Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad locomotive is akin to traipsing atop a metal-backed ocean. It’s bound to bull you from your perch, if you ain’t observant of the lurch and sway. Coal scatters under boot and two left feet can mean a faceplant to the hellfire blazing firebox or spilling from the side entries. If you topple out ’cause you didn’t have purchase of a handrail, you could drop down a mountain.
Of course, all that doesn’t matter to seasoned professionals like engineer Isaac Randolph and fireman John Walden. The train chugs 45 miles from Durango to Silverton. As the iron horse trundles forth, steep rock faces and waterfalls wash awe on passenger cars while soot layers Randolph and Walden. They labor in a compact metal box brimming with pressure gauges, throttles, safety valves, boiler bits, levers, hoses, pipes, lights, and on each side of it all, there’s tall, worn seats for the both of them.
Not that the fireman gets much of a chance to sit down. The speed of 18 mph is reached via Walden’s elbow grease as he transfers coal to the firebox that feeds the boiler: Bend, balance, shovel, spin, pedal-step the firebox open, coal-toss, turn, repeat. From Durango to Silverton and back again, the fireman will shovel nearly six tons of coal from the tender, the train car behind the cab that holds the fuel. That’s about the weight of 10, full-grown, inland grizzly bears.
Better plug them ears up, too. The fireman feeds the train and it belches out clangs and thunder-rumbles. The old-time whistle that blares beautiful across Durango? That’s Isaac Randolph signaling missives to the conductor, head brakeman, rear brakeman, and rest of the crew. He pulls a burly, smudged rope in long and short blasts to create a language similar to Morse code. It’s surprising that passengers see any canyon creatures with the way a vintage, 1920s locomotive on 1880s narrow gauge track roars through the wild.
What’s going on in the back?The D&SNG briefly pauses at Rockwood, a sleepy stop an hour or so out of Durango. You gingerly tread down widely-set steps and quick-foot it on the gravel past the silver-lettered, black locomotive to the passenger cars. The sky is gray. The wind is high. As the elevation increases, there’s more of a snow-itch fingering through the trees. Though a tad chilly, it’s an exquisite day.
If the folks in the locomotive’s cab breathe life into the beast, Paul Carson, chief conductor, corrals the train into a cordial, panoramic experience. The train tips the scales at 286,600 pounds, the same heft as 204 full-grown buffalo. Got that much weight propelling up a mountain and it’s good to have someone with an eye for safety.
Up until 1888, brakemen had a vigorously perilous occupation. A brakeman would strongarm an iron wheel atop a train car attached to a metal rod to manually slow the train. Front and rear brakemen would leap from car to car tightening the brakes – no matter the weather or time of day – until they met in the middle. Thankfully, air brakes were created and now the position mostly assists the conductor and helps switch the train from track to track.
Outside are rickety bridges, black rock, ancient greenery, steep cliffs, the rush and gush of the Animas River, wise mountains, pines sinking riverside, the black ghosts of fire pits, and the crumbling remains of former freight cars line the tracks. Inside, historical narrators bring the San Juan National Forest to life with dramatic facts of yesteryear.
Both crew and passengers can walk through the fully-enclosed coaches that connect to open-sided gondola cars which connect to, most importantly, the concession car. You will be entertained if you enter the concession car. Hot coffee on a breezy train is dang near to bliss. Add in the folks behind the counter clowning around, and the time traveling to Silverton disappears.
Silverton: SmallTown, USADirt roads, ragtime tunes, boldly painted buildings, plenty of churches, and less than 700 folks call Silverton home. This quaint tourist town drops down to a population of less than 300 people in the winter. You’ll have several hours in town – plenty of time to eat at the quirky, highly-taxidermied Handlebars Food & Saloon and cruise down to Sugar Rush, a candy store specializing in salt water taffy.
The mountains backdrop the stationary still steaming train and, with a few more people bustling around you, it’d be easy to imagine Silverton in its heyday. At one point, it had 5,000 persons and a boozing, brotheling, gambling, pugnacious thoroughfare. But, before you wade too deep in the rivers of reverie, the D&SNG’s whistle sounds – a warning to climb aboard for the three-hour, picturesque expedition down to Durango.
Plenty of time to think on nostalgia, now, and how, in 1825, the Quarterly Review stated, “What can be more palpably absurd than the prospect held out of locomotives traveling twice as fast as stagecoaches?”