Ride the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad from Durango to Silverton, Colorado in 1965 (Part One)
On August 12, 1965, my father, Dr. L.N. (Duke) McGillis and I arrived in Durango, Colorado. At the time, we were midway through a Grand Circle Tour of the Four Corners region. Early that evening, we saw news reports that much of South Los Angeles was in flames. On our black & white motel TV screen, “The Watts Riots” were playing out live. Each evening, for the next several days, we watched our native Los Angeles represent racial, political and economic unrest in America. The contrast between the TV images and our idyllic sojourn to Durango was obvious.
In 1881, the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad had organized the town of Durango for business, not for pleasure. In fact, Durango, Colorado was named after Durango, Mexico, one thousand miles to the south. In keeping with the exuberance of the times, the company planned a rail link that would one day connect the two Durango towns. As with so many Steam Age plans, that route never came to pass. The southern branch line never extended beyond Farmington, New Mexico, fifty miles to the south. In Durango's heyday, tracks ran south to Farmington, New Mexico, east to Alamosa, and west to Mancos and Dolores, Colorado.
The original purpose of the railroad hub at Durango was to serve the San Juan mining district. For seventy-five years, ore trains, smelting and the transportation of refined metals dominated the Durango economy. Although both gold and silver mining played out by the turn of twentieth century, as late as World War II uranium was still the hot
mineral in town. In several of our 1965 Durango Depot photos, a large white mountain sits in the background. The old American Smelter tailings pile, along with its attendant chimney was still a dangerous reminder of the uranium business in Durango.
Until the early twentieth century, the Rio Grand Railroad and horse trails were the only ways to reach Durango. In fact, the first automobiles to enter Durango did so by train. Ringed by high mountains, watered by a perpetual stream, Durango fits nicely into the green and verdant Animas River Valley. From its beginning, Durango ranked as the dominant commercial and transportation center within the Four Corners region. Despite its strategic location, Durango did experience trouble. In the 1950s, as rail transportation and mining crashed, only the tourist trade kept Durango alive. During the 1960s, the population of Durango slipped from 10,530 to 10,333.
By the time of our 1965 visit, there were three “must see” attractions in and around Durango. Thirty-six miles to the west on U.S. Highway 160 was Mesa Verde National Park. Stretching north, the “The Million Dollar Highway” (U.S. Highway 550) connected Durango and Silverton, Colorado. Third and most interesting to me was the narrow gauge railroad that also linked Durango and Silverton.
Often called simply the “Rio Grande”, the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad (D&RGW) was then a company in transition. By 1968, Durango lost both its eastern and southern rail connections. Only the Durango & Silverton line remained operational. With little ore to transport and the Million Dollar Highway replacing its passenger service, the precursor to today’s Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad struggled to survive.
After visiting Mesa Verde and driving the Million Dollar Highway, there was only one thing left for us to do in Durango. On our third day there, we traveled on the steam train from Durango to Silverton, and then back again. In those days, there was no motor coach alternative. Today, passengers can take the bus from Durango to Silverton and then ride the train back to town. Alternatively, they can ride the train up to Silverton and then return by bus. Stalwarts and diehards ride the train in both directions..
Although we had reservations on the second train that day, we arrived early to see Engine 476 preparing to pull the early train out of the Durango Depot. Pulling a line of mismatched passenger cars, the forty-two-year-old engine continued to serve its original purpose, which was to pull passenger trains. Until DRGW ended its Durango-Alamosa passenger service in 1968, Engine 476 likely served on both the Silverton and Alamosa lines.
In 1923, the Schenectady Locomotive Works built ten 470 Series (or 2-8-2 K-28) for the Rio Grande Western Railroad. With its 2-8-2 wheel-plan, the 470 Series engines had both a lower center of gravity and higher capacity boilers than is possible with older style 2-8 wheel-plans. Sporting a diamond chimney shroud, the locomotive evoked the style of the Orient. Thoroughly modern when constructed, in 1965 Engine 476 looked every bit the “Mikado” that it was.
The class name "Mikado" originates from a group of Japanese type 9700 2-8-2 locomotives, built by Baldwin Locomotive Works for the Nippon Railway of Japan in 1897. The Gilbert and Sullivan opera "The Mikado" had premiered in 1885, so the name was still on the minds of many in America, where the opera achieved great popularity. Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Modern Major-General’s Song”, in “The Pirates of Penzance”, had helped popularize the word “modern”.
With great optimism about the future, the 1920s represented the epitome of modernity in American Life. As soon as the ten new K-28 engines joined the DRGW fleet, those powerful, compact Mikados became the favored engines for short-haul passenger and freight routes throughout the system. In a nod to the nacient Streamline Moderne style, their forward mounted air-brake systems and their Japanese Mikado-style chimneys fit the modernity of their time.
It is sad to say that somewhere along the line; all three of the Durango & Silverton K-28 engines have lost their classic chimney shrouds. In each of their places now stand a vertical pipe and cylindrical black shroud. In the interest of historical integrity, it would be nice to see the D&SRR add historically correct diamond-stack chimney shrouds to all three remaining 470 Series Mikados. As these utilitarian engines approach their hundredth anniversary, the recreation of an authentic historical style should be a priority.
That day in 1965, as we waited for the early section to leave the Durango Depot, there was tension in the air. Upon arrival, we observed a steady stream of black coal smoke emanating from the chimney of Engine No. 476. Before we arrived that morning, the yard crew had attached the engine to the train. When the engineer finally climbed aboard Engine No. 476, we knew that the action was about to begin. With his Nikon F 35-mm film camera ready, my father stood astride the tracks. Standing behind him and to his left, I held my vintage Mamiya 16-mm film camera at the ready. Not wanting to miss the action, we soon walked across West College Drive and then along the tracks. From our new vantage point, we would see the engine coming toward us, almost head-on.
On that day in August 1965, Engine No. 476 appeared historically correct and ready to go. First, the steam powered whistle wailed. As the fireman stoked the firebox, the engineer opened the throttle valve, sending superheated steam into the cylinders, thus driving the pistons and turning the wheels. Another valve sent steam up the blast pipe and out through the chimney. That blast of steam increased the draft across the fire grate. As this powering-up took place, steam and coal smoke shot high into the morning sky. Already “up to steam”, the locomotive soon began to move along the tracks.
In order to capture the scene, my father had positioned himself astride the tracks. Not being as brave as he was, I positioned myself off the tracks, behind him and to his left. In those days, after snapping a picture, the photographer had to advance the film with a thumb-lever. Only after advancing the film could he snap his next picture.
Once the train began to move, it accelerated more rapidly than either of us had expected. To my surprise, my father stood his ground, snapping a photo of the train as it headed straight for him. Somewhere in all of that excitement, he was able to get one more close-up of the approaching engine. For my part, I got one shot of my father astride the tracks and another as he turned and ran. Although he was smiling in my second shot, he also appeared giddy with fear.
To this day, I am not sure how close Engine No. 473 came to my father and me. Being one who has observed the sheer power of a K-28 Mikado steam engine coming toward him on the tracks, I can say that the experience is enough to instill both respect and fear. Once we had calmed down, we sauntered over to the depot. There we boarded our own train, pulled by the venerable K-28 Mikado Engine No. 478.
This Part One of a two-part article. To read Part Two, Click HERE.