The city of Durango, Colorado was founded in the year 1879. Shortly thereafter, the railroad arrived in Durango in 1881. Nine months after that, the city of Silverton also had its own railroad, starting in July of 1882. Both cities are located in the southwest portion of Colorado.
Originally, the railroad was built to haul silver and gold ore from the San Juan Mountains, but from the beginning passengers have been overwhelmed by the beauty that the scenic route offers. The train officially began to promote itself as a passenger train in July of 1882, right after it added tracks to Silverton. Over $300 million of precious metal has been transported by the railroad on this particular route and an estimated 200,000 passengers per year travel on the train.
In case you may be wondering what "Narrow Gauge" refers to, it is the type of rail that the train travels on. Narrow gauge rails are three feet apart while standard gauge rails are four feet, eight and one-half inches apart. Narrow gauge rails were originally used to prevent a man and woman from sleeping in the same bed on the train (the narrow passenger cars only have room for single sleeper bunks on each side), but there are other benefits as well. The cars are less expensive to make than standard cars and are built to withstand the rough mountain terrain. In addition, the rails are less expensive to install and can make sharper curves around mountains.
Over the years, the railroad has survived many challenges. To begin with, in 1893 ten large mines in the area were forced to close when silver prices dropped. A fire in Durango in 1889 destroyed the downtown area. For the next 20 years the railroad faced many more challenges, including floods, snow, and war. Making matters worse, Silverton lost approximately 10 percent of its population in the 1918 Spanish Flu Epidemic.
Things turned around by 1947 when Hollywood discovered Durango and the railroad. As a result, many movies were made that featured the train, including Ticket to Tomahawk, Across the Wide Missouri, Denver & Rio Grande, Viva Zapata, Around the World in 80 Days, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and How the West Was Won. Actors and actresses that have starred in movies featuring the train include Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Debbie Reynolds, and Michael J. Fox, just to name a few. Many actors have actually ridden on the railroad.
In the late 1960's the Durango-Silverton was named a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Services and is also an American Society of Civil Engineering Landmark. The train has also been recognized as one of the "Top Ten Most Exciting Train Journeys in the World" by the Society of American Travel Writers and received the "5-Star Award for Best Attraction" by the National Association of Travel Journalists.
In the 1980's the railroad continued to promote its scenic route. It began to weatherize its engines and coaches so they could be used in the winter months. Third and fourth trains were added and major reconstruction was completed. By 1986 there were four trains running to Silverton with a fifth running to Cascade Canyon.
Today the train provides year-round service, still carrying stock and people. The locomotives remain 100% coal-fired and steam operated. The train travels at an average speed of 18 mph and makes the 45 mile trip from Durango to Silverton in 3.5 hours. All coaches are heated during the winter and have restrooms. Passengers also have the option of riding in open gondola cars that provide panoramic views of the mountains. Snacks and beverages are available on every train.
There are two different routes to choose from, as well as five different classes of cars. The Vintage Coach and Open-Air Gondola are considered regular service while the Parlor Car, Silver Vista, and Presidential Class Cinco Animas are first-class options. Passengers traveling in Parlor Cars and Presidential Class must be at least 21 years old while passengers in the Silver Vista Class must be at least 16 years old.
In the winter months the Winter Cascade Canyon Excursion is available. It departs on Wednesday through Saturday, from November 22 to March 7, and daily starting on March 8 through May 5, departing at 10:00 a.m. and arriving back at 3:00 p.m. It is a roundtrip run (26 miles, one-way) from Durango to Cascade Canyon, running along the Animas River. Picturesque views of the San Juan National Forest in winter are featured on this ride. The cost for Vintage Coach is $45 for adults ($89 for a first class parlor car seat) and $22 for children ages 5-11. Children under 5 ride free if they sit on an adult's lap.
During the summer, daily steam service is offered roundtrip from Durango to Silverton, also traveling along the Animas River. Service begins on May 6 and runs until October 28. Adult Vintage Coach tickets are $62 and a child's ticket is $31.00. A first-class Parlor Car is available for $109.00 per person (ages 21 and over) and includes complimentary non-alcoholic beverages, croissants, and one glass of champagne
The Silver Vista and Presidential Class Cinco Animas are first-class options also offered throughout the summer months. The Silver Vista is for adults only, ages 16 and over. Tickets are $119.00 and include first class amenities. The Presidential Class Cinco Animas is offered from May 15 to October 11 for adults age 21 and over and includes all non-alcoholic beverages and other first/presidential class amentias. The round trip cost for this trip is $129. On all trips to Silverton there is a two hour and fifteen minute layover before the train heads back to Durango.
Lastly, the Mountain Express runs round trip from Durango to Cascade Canyon from June 23 through August 6, on Fridays and Saturdays only. It departs Durango at 11:00 a.m. and returns at 4:00 p.m. Guests may choose between the Vintage Coach and Open-Air Gondola on this ride. The cost for adults is $59 and children from ages 5-11 are $29. Children under 5 ride for free if they can find an adult lap to sit on. This ride is a half-day wilderness adventure that features information about native flora, Colorado wildlife, nature studies, and fire ecology. Smokey the Bear pays a visit to guests as they pull into Cascade Station and goodie bags are provided for all children on board. This selection is a great educational experience and ideal for families.
In addition to the scheduled train rides, there are many special events scheduled in 2006. On May 5, Narrow Gauge Day is celebrated at the Durango Depot with hotdogs and live music. May 6 is Opening Day to Silverton and May 27 is the Annual Iron Horse Bicycle Classic where cyclists race the train to Silverton. Special events continue throughout the summer and can be found at the railroad's website. For more information or to make reservations, visit the website www.durangotrain.com or call 877- 872-4607. All Aboard!