On the second day of my journey through Colorado’s mining towns, I rode the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. I had reserved a seat in an open gondola on the second train. This is the second time I’ve ridden this train; the first was ten years ago, in 2002, when I took my two oldest children. I had a camera malfunction and could only take a few photos with my daughter’s film camera. This time I was loaded for bear, with my HD video camera and two batteries, two Flip cameras, my still camera, and my iPad, as well as a tripod, panoramic head, and my wireless microphone system. All this was in a backpack which was quite heavy.
The D&SNGRR uses authentic steam engines to pull a combination of closed and open cars. The gondola car I was on has a roof and benches facing the sides but no windows – the sides are open to the air (and the soot from the engine). I was in car 30, toward the end of the train, which allowed some great photos as the train pulled around curves.
This train follows the actual route and grade laid down to service the mining town of Silverton. Durango was built as a railroad town and hub for the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad in 1881, and a narrow gauge track was built in 1882 along the Animas River from Durango to Silverton, a distance of 45.6 miles. Part of the route was carved out of steep cliffs overlooking the Animas River Gorge, and it is spectacular scenery. Three shorter routes extended on from Silverton into the canyons northward to service the mines and smaller communities.
The route takes three hours each direction. The first hour out of Durango is not very interesting – you gradually work your way north, crossing Highway 550 several times as you travel through trailer parks, along golf courses, farms, and a few towns and tourist traps along the Animas River. As we traveled, we noticed a lady by one of the crossings dressed in Native American costume waving a stick with feathers on it. Then a few miles up the track we saw her again at the next crossing, and again at the next. Either she’s a clone or she has fun every day greeting the trains as they pass, then jumps into her car and drives to the next crossing (the train is quite slow, so this is easy enough to do). I remember seeing her ten years ago doing the same thing.
We reached the town of Rockwood and stopped to take on water and to pick up a few more passengers. This is the last town before the gorge. Leaving Rockwood the grade winds its way up the side of the canyon wall, with shear cliffs falling into the swirling river below. The train inched its way around curves, puffing and belching soot and steam. If you’ve seen the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, it is here that Robert Redford and Paul Newman (or their stunt doubles) jumped from the boulder onto the train. It was also here in the gorge where they jump into the river to escape the persistent posse.
Further up the river the rocks along the edges of the river take on a reddish-orange tint. Some of this is natural staining from iron sulfate deposits further up stream. The silver ore was associated with these same deposits and years of smelters and concentration plants, along with exposed tailings piles, have added greatly to the stain.
I videotaped much of our journey and tried to narrate some of it, but there was too much noise even for the wireless microphone. I talked with other passengers. One had gotten a teaching credential from San Jose State in science education the year after I went through the program. I also walked between the cars with a Flip camera and got some good footage. As the valley opened up just before Silverton, a stray gust of wind blew my hat off and out of the gondola.
In Silverton, I walked with my heavy backpack over to the depot office to see if the chase car that follows the train (just in case the steam engine lights any fires) could look for my hat. I ate a buffet lunch, then used my panoramic head to get some panoramas from the center of the streets in Silverton. I also videotaped the first train pulling out, our train using the triangle tracks to turn around and back into the station, then got some great footage of the train blowing off steam. We boarded about 3:00 and left at 3:15.
On the way back to Durango I saw my poor hat lying right beside the river, but there were no good landmarks to locate it by. It never was recovered. And I liked that hat . . . I used up all the batteries on my HD camera, filled two SD cards on my still camera and used the batteries up for that as well (I wasn’t able to get them completely recharged this morning), and filled up most of the Flip cameras. Inching along the gorge, I was on the outside this time and got some great shots (I hope) of the train and the gorge below, with my last battery dying just as we got to Rockwood. From there on I dozed as best I could on the uncomfortable bench with the constant rocking of the car. We arrived back in Durango about 6:30.
Back at Lightner Creek Campground, it was raining slightly and I did the best I could to charge up my camera batteries by wrapping the cameras in plastic bags and setting them on a camp chair to keep the rain out. I had set up my tent that morning, so I called home while waiting for the rain to end, made supper, read a book on my iPad, and enjoyed a comfortable evening.