One in a series of occasional posts about railroads and depots in the American West.
When you travel the American West, you see them: the long trains threading across the desert beside the interstate highways or climbing through mountain passes: trains.
The first European settlers reached the West on foot, horseback or in covered wagons, but the advent of railroads filled the territory with people and connected it with the eastern part of the continent. There are old depots in dusty villages practically forgotten by commerce and tourism; cabooses converted to storage sheds or wayside museums, trestles and bridges that were state-of-the-art engineering in their day.
Most of the cities of the West were made, in one way or another, by the railroads, and some are indelibly linked with railroad history. You don’t have to be a railroad aficionado to notice the heritage, because it’s an inherent part of the West. Durango, Colorado is one of those places.
Durango is in south-central Colorado (red circle).
Durango owes its existence to a railroad, having been established by the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad (D&RGW) in 1881 as its terminal for shipping silver out of the mountains.
Today, the well-preserved depot, roundhouse and switchyard occupy a prominent spot at the foot of Main Avenue, near the banks of the Animas River.
Durango is a fascinating old town, and there’s a lot to see. With about 17,000 residents, it’s the largest town in the vicinity, with a wide variety of restaurants, shops and hotels, including a couple of historic old places, the Strater and the General Palmer.
Durango is accessible from all directions by good roads, and is an excellent base from which to explore and hike in the mountains, tour Mesa Verde National Park 35 miles to the west, and a reasonable spot from which to reach the spectacular Great Sand Dunes National Park at the top right of the map above. It’s near several sites in New Mexico I’ve written about this year, including Farmington and Nageezi (yellow and teal circles), from which Chaco Culture National Historical Park can be reached; Chama (black circle), the home of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad; and the Rio Grande Gorge (purple circle).
There may be no better place than Durango for an introduction to the heyday of the silver boom and the concomitant rise of the narrow gauge railroads that ran through steep mountain valleys.
Next to the depot, the former roundhouse is now home to a large collection of railroadiana in the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum.
Included is old rolling stock and a a couple of steam locomotives: one you can climb into.
There’s a passenger car named after William Jackson Palmer, co-founder of the D&RGW and namesake of the abovementioned hotel.
The place is more than just a museum. There are still trains pulled by steam locomotives, you can ride from Durango north through the Animas valley to the old mining town of Silverton (blue circle at the top of the map). CLICK HERE for information, although in August, 2016, I find the website a bit unclear. It suggests that the trains run from early May through most of October, after which I assume service ends as snows close the route. It may be simpler to call the number on the website for detailed information.
Silverton, too, has its share of railroad interest, including the old depot, rolling stock and locomotives. The onetime silver mining boomtown was once home to about 5,000 people, but today has 658 official residents. In fact, it boasts a Carnegie Library, still serving the community, although I unaccountably failed to photograph it
If you don’t take the train there, reach Silverton from Durango on U.S. 550, known as the Million Dollar Highway. It’s a memorable drive through the mountains. Consider continuing north to another mining town, Ouray (yu-RAY), and then Montrose, from which you’re just a few miles from the remarkable Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
If you travel the West, it’s good to learn at least a little about the history of the railroads, and Durango lets you do that. If you wish, you can even ride along.
© Brad Nixon 2016. Some photos © Marcy Vincent 2016 as indicated, used by kind permission.
Posts about other historic western railroad sites: