It is Opening Day for the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and we have premium class tickets on the Knight Sky Observation car, the newest flagship car in the fleet, built in Durango and put into service in May 2012. This railroad is an engineering marvel built by the Denver and Rio Grand Railway in 1881-1882, headed by General William Jackson Palmer, so that the mining towns could grow and flourish. After WW II, mineral prices fell and the mines closed, but in the 1950’s Hollywood came to town and the railroad struck pay dirt again. In 1981 it was purchased for $2.2 million and many upgrades and restorations to the rails and coaches were made. Today, the D&SNG is owned by Alan C Harper who we met when he came through our car to visit.
We arrived early to watch the STEAM ENGINE hook up to the cars, taking lots of pictures and videos because the sound of the steam engine is the best! We boarded our car and had great seats at the front so we could walk out onto the largest viewing platform of all the cars. The route took us along the Animas River one of the last free-flowing rivers in the West. We passed miles of fertile farmland and as we entered into the San Juan National Forest we reached the breathtaking “Highline”, the most difficult portion of the line to build, cut out of the canyon walls, winding about 400 feet above the Animas River. We had an endless overhead panorama of the San Juan Mountains from within the car viewed through the UV-protected glass windows. What an amazing view looking up at cliffs of different rock formations cutting through the canyon wall. We came to a place called Tacoma where across the river we could see the oldest hydroelectric plant in the US that still uses its original generators. We had to stop twice on the way to Silverton to fill up with water, the locomotive’s tender is filled with approximately 3500 gallons of water from the steel tank. The old wooden water tank, no longer in service, stands alongside the tracks at Needleton, where backpackers de-train here to explore the wilderness of the Chicago Basin area and the massive 14,000′ peaks of the Needles Mountains, which we did in 2008.
We arrived in Silverton in time for lunch at the Grand Imperial Hotel, built in 1882, infused with turn of the century history from Silverton’s colorful era as a mining boom town, visited by Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp and Lillian Russell, whose portrait is on the wall. We sat at the bar in Grumpy’s Saloon, the best seats in the house in front of the magnificent, breathtaking oak bar, listening to live piano playing music and singer. If the elevation in Silverton, 9,308′, does not take your breath away then the Grand Imperial Hotel certainly will. It was time to board the Knight Sky car for the trip back to Durango at 2:30pm, the car was heated when we took our seats as it was snowing in Silverton when we arrived and quite cold. The trip back was cozy and warm, enjoying the majestic snow-capped peaks of the San Juan Mountains and the swift flowing Animas River for the last time. If you love trains, especially driven by old steam engines, then this is an experience that you will never forget.