Saturday, July 8, 2023

Durango and Silverton: America's Railroad

by Martha Hutchens

Durango Silverton Railroad
Image by Martha Hutchens

I recently had the opportunity to ride in a steam-powered train in the mountain of Colorado, the famous Durango to Silverton line. The scenery was fabulous, and the history fascinating. As with most things, it began with one man’s dream.

General William J. Palmer arrived in Denver in 1870. Previously, he worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad, and when he arrived in Denver, he envisioned his railroad—the Denver & Rio Grande (D&RG)-- heading south through Santa Fe, NM and eventually all the way to Mexico City. He didn’t take government funding as many of the railroads did at this time, choosing to find private investors instead.

His first track ran from Denver to Colorado Springs, which he founded in 1871, believing it could become a center for recreation and tourism. This line went on to Pueblo, Colorado and Palmer planned to take it through Raton Pass and on to Santa Fe. However, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe occupied the pass first.

Palmer turned his attention to another path to Santa Fe, passing through the Royal Gorge. Once again, the Santa Fe line got there first. This time, Palmer turned to the courts. The final settlement allowed Palmer to build to the west of Canyon City, but not south, ending his quest to take his railroad to Mexico City.

Starter Hotel, Durango Colorado
Image by Martha Hutchens

This settlement forced D&RG to focus on tracks in the mountains of Colorado, and eventually led to them establishing the rail line from Durango to Silverton.

Silverton, Colorado, sits at 9318 altitude, in the caldera of an ancient volcano. This area is a mineral treasure trove, having some of the highest percentage of ores on the continent. However, getting there was difficult, and supplying the miners a herculean task. Mining started in earnest in Silverton in the early 1870s, though transportation was still problematic.

In 1876, Palmer announced his intention to build a line to Silverton. He founded the town of Durango (altitude 6522 feet) to be the hub of operations for this line.

Animas River
Image by Martha Hutchens

The line would be 45 miles long and rise in altitude almost 1800 feet. The steepest grades in this line would be 4 percent rise. For a long part of the path, the line would follow the Animas River. They chose to use narrow gauge line (three feet between the rails) because it would allow sharper curves, necessary in the mountainous terrain. The line was completed in eleven months, arriving in Silverton in July of 1882. The line has been named a National Historic Landmark and a Civil Engineering Historic Landmark.

The High Line
Image by Martha Hutchens

The famous (or infamous if you are afraid of heights) High Line was perhaps the most difficult part of this route. The rails sit on a man-made rock ledge, 240 feet above the Animas River. Workers were lowered from the cliffs above with rope harnesses. They drilled into the rock with hammers and chisels, set black powder charges, and were lifted back up before the charges detonated.

Due to the train, transportation costs of ore from Silverton dropped from $60 a ton to $12 a ton.

But the railroad’s history didn’t end in 1882. It was just beginning.

In 1882, a hotel opened near Trimble Hot Springs, where visitors could take advantage of the healing waters.

In 1905, the hydroelectric Tacoma Power Plant was built. It still generates power today, some of which powers the town of Silverton. There is no road access to this power plant. The utility company has its own gas-powered rail cars to transport its employees to the site.

Numerous avalanches, landslides, and fires have temporarily interrupted service. In 1884, a wye was built about 10 miles outside of Silverton to allow trains to turn around if the rails were blocked farther north. Material were then transported the rest of the way by animals, including occasionally by dog sled.

In the 1950s, several movies were filmed along the train route, including “A Ticket to Tomahawk” and “Across the Wide Missouri.” A train wreck was staged along the railway for the movie “Denver and Rio Grande.” The spectacular scenery in these movies encouraged tourists to ride the train, which had been opened for passengers in 1948. The tourist business saved the railway, because mining started to diminish in the 1950s.

Image by Martha Hutchens

As you can see from the pictures, the scenery is worth the trip!

Martha Hutchens is a transplanted southerner who lives in Los Alamos, NM where she is surrounded by history so unbelievable it can only be true. She won the 2019 Golden Heart for Romance with Religious and Spiritual Elements. A former analytical chemist and retired homeschool mom, Martha is frequently found working on her latest knitting project when she isn’t writing.

Martha’s current novella is set in southeast Missouri during World War II. It is free to her newsletter subscribers. You can subscribe to my newsletter at my website,

After saving for years, Dot Finley's brother finally paid a down payment for his own land—only to be drafted into World War II. Now it is up to her to ensure that he doesn't lose his dream while fighting for everyone else's. No one is likely to help a sharecropper's family.

Nate Armstrong has all the land he can manage, especially if he wants any time to spend with his four-year-old daughter. Still, he can't stand by and watch the Finley family lose their dream. Especially after he learns that the banker's nephew has arranged to have their loan called.

Necessity forces them to work together. Can love grow along with crops?

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting today. I think riding that track might be a challenge for me...but the scenery sure is beautiful! I also learned that "wye" is a real word, I had to look it up!!