‘Steam-powered time machine’
Editor’s note: Rick Spitzer is the author of “Colorado Mountain Passes: the States Most Accessible High Country Roadways,” which is for sale at The Bookworm of Edwards for $21.95. Parts of the book will be serialized in the Vail Daily every Sunday this summer.
Coal Bank Pass, on US 550, is part of the scenic San Juan Skyway, a 236-mile loop of paved road through the San Juan Mountains. This stretch of highway holds even more designations: it is also an All-American Road, a National Forest Scenic Byway, and a Colorado Scenic & Historic Byway.From Durango, the road heads north and passes Boyce Lake and the Durango Mountain Resort. Pigeon and Turret Mountains, both over 13,000 feet, dominate the horizon here. Three of Colorado’s 14ers – Windom, Eolus, and Sunlight Peaks – soon come into view to the south. The road then begins the ascent to Coal Bank Pass, where it tops out at 10,640 feet. The highway descends a short distance before beginning another climb to Molas Pass, about 7 miles northeast.
The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (D&SNGRR) provides the single most important attraction in the town of Durango. The train travels north through the town to meet the Animas River, which it follows to Silverton. The railroad line does not travel past Coal Bank Pass, but on the other side of the West Needle Mountain range to the east. Construction of this line was completed in 1882. In its heyday, the D&SNGRR hauled hundreds of millions of dollars worth of ore from Colorado mines. However, as Colorado’s Gold Rush ended and mines began closing down, use of the D&SNGRR line declined.It might have gone out of operation had Hollywood not stepped in. Authentic westerns often needed vintage trains, and the D&SNGRR fit the bill. The trains of the Durango & Silverton “starred” in more than 20 films, including “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956), “How the West Was Won” (1963), and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969).This new visibility renewed interest in the D&SNGRR. The entire railroad was listed as a National Historic Landmark on July 4, 1961, and it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966. In addition, the entire 530 acres of the town of Silverton became a National Historic Landmark in 1961. In the 1960s the Durango & Silverton also received the honor of being named a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.
This historic railroad, in continuous operation since it was built, is now a scenic, tourist railroad. It still uses vintage steam locomotives to pull refurbished rolling stock consistent with what was originally used on the line. The locomotives, also maintained in their original condition, are coal-fired and steam-operated. The line’s inventory includes seven active locomotives, three diesel locomotives, and three locomotives in static displays. Its rolling stock includes 49 passenger cars, open gondolas, concessions, private cars, boxcars, and cabooses.The train requires only four employees to operate: an engineer, a fireman, a brakeman and a conductor. The conductor is in charge of the train, and the brakeman assists the conductor. The fireman shovels six tons of coal on a roundtrip, and during that time the boiler uses 10,000 gallons of water. The engineer operates the controls of the locomotive under the direction of the conductor. Both the fireman and the engineer carefully watch the water level in the boiler. If the water level were to drop below a critical level, a devastating boiler explosion could result. A concessions staff and private car attendants provide the creature comforts for passengers on the train.A ride on the Durango & Silverton Railroad is a treat for the senses. Some describe the train as a coal-fueled, steam-powered time machine. With the sights, sounds, and smells of the train, it is easy to imagine what the tourists in the late 1800s experienced when enjoying the only form of transportation that did not require bone jarring hard work or one’s ability to hang on for dear life.The D&SNGRR operates daily from the first of May to the end of October, carrying around a quarter of a million passengers a year. Many also enjoy a winter excursion to Cascade Canyon. The D&SNGRR maintains two museums. One is in Durango at the south end of the roundhouse. The other is in the Silverton Freight Yard in the Silverton Depot. Admission for both is included in the train ticket and is good for two days prior to or two days following the ride on the train.