Durango to Silverton – steam trains and snowballs

Thursday 6th October.
It is a well know secret that we love train journeys, especially if it involves a steam engine and a trip through lovely scenery. I get very excited as we park up at the station to see some cars covered in snow.

” There’s been a blizzard in the mountains round Silverton”, we are told. 

We board our vintage carriage hoping that we are not underdressed for the few hours we have in the old mountain mining town.

Durango got its name when the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad ( D&RGW) decided that a railway to the isolated mining centre at Silverton would help getting the valuable gold and silver out of the hills. As the road improved and mining slowed down the railway and Silverton itself fell into decline and was threatened with closure. It was the arrival of a burgeoning film industry and an unknown film star, Marilyn Monroe, who starred in ” A Ticket to Tomahawk” that saved the line. As tourism boomed the line was improved, long neglected rails and equipment were restored and the fine heritage line has indeed become a magnet for a quarter of a million or more visitors a year.

The narrow gauge steam train sets off with blasts from the whistle that are so evocative of all those old films and my early childhood when my family would ride the Blue Train to the South of France in the days of steam. 

The train is pulled at a crawling pace up a steady incline that follows the river gorge through forest that is turning more autumnal as we gain height.

We pass the scene of the famous film moment when Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid make a plunge into a canyon river 

Butch: I’ll jump first

Sundance: Nope

Butch: Then you jump first

Sundance: No I said!

Butch: What’s the matter with you?

Sundance: I can’t swim!

Butch: (laughing) Why you crazy *******, the fall’ll probably kill ya.

At this point and at several others the train passes inches from the steep ravine and the river torrent hundreds of feet below.

We are on the lookout for bears and elk or moose but see none today. The passing scenery is mesmerising however and we are left wondering about how it was possible to build and maintain such a railway in the 1880’s and the pioneering spirit that would see such a vision through with the limited technology at hand.

We arrive in Silverton to bright blue skies. The blizzard has passed but left the surrounding mountains covered in a thin layer of snow and I find enough lying in a North facing station wagon to make a couple of snowballs with which to pepper Marilyn.

A steam train AND snowballs. What more could a man want!

We take an hour or so after an American lunch to walk around the old town. With a population of just 637 it has four impressive looking churches all of which can see each other’s spires. Perhaps folk here go on a church crawl to pass their Sundays. That would be before or after their visit to the several brothels that sprang up in the shadows of the church spires. They must have been interesting times in these mountain mine towns and times would not have changed much from the 1880′ s through to the 1950’s when tourism sanitised the place and brought a different kind of prosperity.

We get a return journey and arrive back in Durango as the sun begins to go down. We have time for a brief visit to the excellent railway and heritage museum before enjoying a delicious meal at ‘Ken and Sue’s’ – a restaurant I would recommend.

And then it’s back to the ranch, bed and the circling Coyotes.