arrive in Silverton, Colo., to the sights and sounds
of an old west town after a 45-mile ride aboard The
Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, June
Colo. — Without railroads and mines, what would the
American West be? Less populous, less prosperous, less
polluted. And the town of Durango might not be anything at
sporty and historic, stands 6,520 feet above sea level
among the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado, its
downtown streets skirted by the Animas River. Look past
the runners, rock climbers, kayakers and fly-fishers, past
the rampant Subaru wagons, the snowboarders of winter and
the second-home-owners of summer, and you’ll notice the
narrow-gauge rail tracks alongside the river, leading into
is the route that brought the town to life in the 1880s.
Built by the Denver & Rio Grande Railway in an
11-month blitz of blasting and trestle-construction, this
track for decades carried gold and silver from the mines
outside Silverton (45 miles upriver), following a path
that clings to cliffs and squeezes through narrow canyons.
after mining began to fade in the late 20th century, the
train began its second life, carrying Hollywood film crews
and tourists. Nowadays, it carries hundreds of tourists
daily — including L.A. Times photographer Mark Boster
and me in late May — and no ore at all.
last major Silverton mine closed in 1991, and the old
Durango smelter and mill, which processed uranium from the
1940s through the ‘60s, have also shut down. Durango
(population: about 17,000) has evolved into the sort of
town that fuels city people’s semi-rural daydreams.
the grand old Strater Hotel (built in 1887), just above
the Diamond Belle Saloon, you can rent Room 222, where
author Louis L’Amour spent many an August in the 1960s
and ‘70s, writing his western novels and listening to
the ragtime piano player downstairs. (But I’d rather
sleep in Room 327 — lots of exposed bricks and
the seven-mile Animas River Trail (no motors allowed), the
supply of runners and cyclists seems endless, many of them
students at Durango’s Fort Lewis College.
Mountain Bike Specialists on Main Avenue and 9th Street,
you can pick up that SRAM 11-speed rear derailleur you’ve
been pining for. Elsewhere along Main, if a storefront
doesn’t house a brew pub, field-to-fork restaurant or
art gallery, it’s probably a real estate office.
fact, if you’ve been to Wyoming, you might say Durango
is getting Jackson Hole-ier by the day.
in Jackson, someone, or some plaque, is bound to remind
you of the many saloons, whorehouses, feuds and shootouts
the city once sustained. One day in 1906, for instance,
the county sheriff and the Durango town marshal shot each
other in a dispute over who should control local gambling.
(The sheriff died. The marshal, Jesse Stansel, moved to
one day in 1922, after an argument involving Prohibition,
the Durango Democrat’s top editor, Rod Day, shot to
death the Durango Herald’s city editor, William L. Wood.
big conflicts on the Herald’s front page during my visit
were a little different. On one, Durango and Anchorage
were competing to be named the "Best Town in
America" by readers of Outside magazine (only to be
eliminated by Provo, Utah, and Duluth, Minn.).
another, hundreds of cyclists were preparing for the 43rd
Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, a Memorial Day ritual in which
cyclists race the train to Silverton, only to have a
snowstorm shorten the route. In a normal year, mountain
bike salesman Jeremy Thompson told me, "The fast
riders always beat the train. The fastest guys do the race
in about 2 hours and 20 minutes."
train? Its standard one-way journey to Silverton takes 3
1/2 glorious hours.
or not you recognize the trackside scenery from the
dramatic 19th century photographs of William Henry Jackson
or old movies such as "Around the World in 80
Days" (1956), odds are good you’ll sigh at the
sound of the train whistle, gawk at the coal-burning,
steam-belching machinery and then squint into the distance
like Clint Eastwood, the better to see the black
locomotive chug around a distant curve.
my ride, I shared one of the train’s open gondola cars
with a man from Texas making his 15th trip; his son, a
college freshman making his 10th trip; a German couple who
wore all sorts of Harley-Davidson insignia and spoke no
English; a tall Frenchman whose red sweater kept sneaking
into the corners of my photos; and a professorial man from
altitude-challenged Holland, who gave voice (in English)
to what everyone should have been thinking.
an amazing landscape!" he said.
glided alongside the river, passed stands of aspens,
inched over high and low bridges, all the while climbing
until we were 400 feet above the river and snowy peaks
dominated the skyline. At Tank Creek, we paused while the
engineer blasted steam from the locomotive. By the time we
reached tiny, touristy Silverton (population 628), we’d
nearly drained our camera batteries and gained almost
2,800 feet of elevation.
Silverton: It’s a town out of time, surrounded by snowy
peaks and dominated by Old West storefronts painted in
rainbow colors. In the Train Store, railroad souvenirs. In
the Storyteller Indian Store, jewelry. In the Eagle’s
got to spend only three hours there (and came this close
to buying a $39 leather wallet with an inset buffalo
nickel), but I can understand why some locals are eager to
see mining rise again. Without it, just about everything
depends on the whims of tourists.
had arranged to take a bus back to Durango (it’s faster
than the train). But my thoughts kept drifting back to the
Baker’s Bridge area, on the river about 14 miles above
Upstream, the U.S. Geological Survey has found old mines
leaking a stew of chemicals into the Animas, reducing fish
and bug populations, and the Animas River Stakeholders
Group has acknowledged elevated zinc concentrations at
Baker’s Bridge. Yet from the tracks, it still looks
water roars and hisses far below. The tall trees huddle
‘round, backed by snowy mountains. Local kids dare each
other to leap into a swimming hole nearby.
probably glimpsed this spot in "Butch Cassidy and the
Sundance Kid" (1969). This is the cliff where the
posse seems to have the outlaws cornered, the moment when
Sundance confesses he can’t swim and Butch tells him the
fall will probably kill him anyway. Then the two make
their death-defying leap.
West of old, the West of movie myth and the imperfect West
we now live in — sometimes, they’re three different
places. And sometimes they all come together in a moment
on a train.