It’s 11:10 on a brisk winter Colorado morning and I am gently swaying up the through the winding San Juan mountains while enjoying a “Rusty Spike” coffee. I’m on vacation and today my husband and two of our dearest friends, Barbara and Quentin are relaxing in the caboose of the world -renowned Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Designated as a National Historic Landmark by the National Parks Service along with the distinction of an American Society of Civil Engineering Landmark, the train is from the steam engine era of the 1880’s. Frankly, that didn’t really inspire me to jump aboard this train either, but it came highly recommended by a friend and that Rusty Spike cocktail, um, “coffee” was making this ride become more fun!
The first obvious question is what is the difference between a regular railroad and a narrow gauge one? The standard railroad we normally see has rails set 4 feet and 8 and a half inches wide. The narrow gauge rails are set exactly 3 feet apart. I was amused to learn that General William J. Palmer, the President of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad first saw a narrow gauge railroad in the British Isles while on his honeymoon. He realized this would be the solution for his plan to lay a railway between Durango and Silverton (45 miles) and between Cumbres and Toltec (63 miles). The narrower tracks are less expensive to install and enables the train to turn much sharper along those precarious mountain curves. It is also rumored that Palmer did not want men and women to be able to sleep in the same bed and the less than commodious narrow gauge cars only fit single sized beds.
Right from the start, when the railroad opened in 1882 to carry mine ores for the lucrative gold and silver mining industry, it also offered passenger rides. The incredible views of the mountain pass and canyons made for a memorable scenic ride. By 1893, the price of silver dropped steeply forcing the majority of the mines to close. Along with a catastrophic fire which took out the downtown section of Durango and the advent of the automobile, the railroad was being phased out. During WW1, the government took over the operations of the railroad. Once the war ended, the DSNGRR resumed authority over the then financially struggling railroad. When the Spanish Flu broke out decimating ten percent of the town’s population and the two remaining mines closed, the railroad had to follow suit.
During WWII, the government requisitioned the narrow gauge equipment to use in Alaska and the smelter in Durango reopened to process the uranium. Because of the Cold War, Durango continued to process uranium into the late 1940’s. The Silverton staff are credited to have worked diligently to help promote tourism and kept the line active during these difficult years.
Leave it to Hollywood to discover the area and put it on the map again. Many movies have been filmed in the area including Around The World In Eighty Days, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, Support Your Local Gunfighter, Durango Kid and The Prestige. The train slowed as we passed the boulder strewn clifftop where my favorite movie scene was filmed. In it, Robert Redford famously announced to Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy that he can’t swim moments before they jump off the cliff to the raging river below.
As we moved in sync with the slight rocking motion of the train, we viewed the snowy mountains with its dramatic drop down to the green-blue river which winds through the canyons like a spool of silk ribbon. Due to snow on the rails we could not make the journey to the town of Silverton. Instead, we stopped in Cascade Canyon a rustic stop alongside the river for a picnic lunch and short walk. Weather conditions are monitored closely so your destination could change at the last minute.
The bright yellow and red rail cars are maintained beautifully with their shiny varnished wooden window frames glistening in the winter sun. The vintage 1923-24 locomotives used to pull the train are coal-fired and steam operated. Our engine would use 10,000 gallons and six tons of coal for a round trip of 95 miles. The train operates year-round and tickets are easily booked online. Seeing the grey smoke plumes rise like a punctuation mark against the blue sky, I could imagine how simpler life was back in the late 1800s, when horses and trains were the main modes of transportation. Although, I did enjoy the modern treat of a Rusty Spike!
Rusty Spike Coffee: Pour 1 oz. of Drambuie liqueur, 1 oz. Jamesons Whiskey and 6 oz hot coffee into large mug and top with a generous dollop of whipped cream.