Railroads of the San Juan Skyway
As new mining claims were discovered in the 1870s and the population of the San Juans mushroomed, so did the need for an economical, year-round transportation system. Most of the ore from mines discovered was not yet shipped out by the mid-1870s. Miners in the area were excited by mining prospects but frustrated by rugged mountains that prevented getting ore out. Mules and burros were not the solution for transportation. The support system for these reliable creatures was too expensive. Freight wagons traveling over passable wagon roads were needed, but the San Juans were so steep and rugged that building good wagon roads was too expensive and no public funds were available for construction. Transportation costs for bulky ore remained too high. The road situation in the 1870s was so bad that shippers actually delayed ore shipments until winter months when snow and ice covered bad roads and they could replace wagon wheels with runners to make freight transport easier.
The solution became toll roads that could be built fast to return quick profits that paid for the substantial investments. Toll roads in Colorado had a very limited history going back to the 1860s, but it took an uneducated foreigner, and visionary, Otto Mears to develop almost 400 miles of San Juan roads – and also several railroads. Mears’ life and his toll road career are worthy of a novel. Not only did he build toll roads where no one else dared, he moved into the freight business, opened general merchandise stores, invested in mines, railroads and other businesses in the San Juans.
The Denver and Rio Grande (D&RG) was pushing its way west as Mears was building his toll roads. The D&RG built a narrow-gauge route from Denver in 1870, making its way to the Animas Valley and establishing the city of Durango in 1881, and then making its way up the Animus River to Silverton in 1882. The D&RG would later build a route from Salida to Montrose and then south to where it established the town of Ridgway (named after D&RG superintendent Robert M. Ridgway) and reached the mining town of Ouray in 1887. It is fair to say that, because of the railroad, for almost 40 years the Million Dollar Highway from Ouray ended in Silverton and the train became the southern portion of the highway.
For decades the little narrow-gauge (three feet between the rails) Durango-Silverton train did its job really well carrying ore and provisions. Deep snows were an inevitable problem at times and periodic avalanches and slides periodically closed the route. But the D&RG seems to have had a charmed life. Each time the train’s existence was in jeopardy, something occurred to save its life, including WWII when the U.S. government made sure that the railroad continued to operate. During these precarious periods, it was the Durango to Silverton train that produced more revenue for D&RG than any other part of its system.
The mineral-rich mining areas of the San Juans were extremely inviting in the 1880s. When the D&RG reached Animus Valley, it spurred growth. Durango and Animas City grew along with the railroad. Freight was carried from the end of the railroad, at the time in Canon City, using Mears toll road to Ouray. On July 13, 1882, D&RGs first train puffed its way into Silverton. The town thought that it finally had conquered its transportation problems. Freight rates fell dramatically. Silverton’s economy boomed. Silverton had become the only rail route out of the San Juans. Passengers could go all the way to Denver (a 30-hour trip) without changing trains. The D&RG used the bed of the wagon toll road through Animus Canyon, virtually eliminating wagon traffic to the new town of Durango. The D&RG bypassed Ouray even though the town had been promised rail service. When a major new gold mine was discovered in the Red Mountains, Silverton lobbied to get the D&RG to connect the town and Red Mountain. But D&RG didn’t cooperate and, even worse, the people of Ouray hired Otto Mears to help build a road six miles through Uncompahgre to Ironton. Building this road is another amazing chapter in Mears’ career.
D&RG’s refusal to build a railroad from Silverton to Red Mountain was not the difficulty of the terrain but that they were focusing on developing lines to Utah and New Mexico. But thanks to Otto Mears very lucrative toll roads, much of the ore from Red Mountain mining district was going to Silverton simply because of the D&RG train in the town and it could be shipped from there at much lower rates. The presence of the railroad in Silverton also attracted lots of investors. By the early 1890s, in addition to transporting huge amounts of ore, the Million Dollar Highway connected to the railroad had become a year-round tourist attraction.
Mears envisioned a railroad route heading west of Durango, then north following Lost Creek and the Dolores River, accessing the mining community of Rico, then over Lizard Head Pass, following the San Miguel River, up to the Dallas Divide and then into the town of Ridgway. So in 1889, he incorporated the Rio Grande Southern (RGS) and construction began from both Ridgway and Durango. By the end of 1890, before the line was completed, the RGS was already servicing mining companies in Telluride and west of Durango. Completed in December 1891, the RGS became a very profitable company but only for a year and a half, however, as the Silver Panic of 1893 resulted in most of the mines that the railroad serviced closing overnight. and the railroad lost most of its traffic. The RGS never recovered, and Mears lost control of the railroad.
By 1887 the D&RG was building a branch to Ouray and no doubt Mears was waiting for its completion. By 1887 Mears already had built four toll roads to Silverton: over Cinnamon Pass, Engineer Pass and Stony Pass. None were passable in winter. Only the road that Mears built from Animus Forks to Silverton was easy to use. It later became the roadbed for the Silverton Northern Railroad. At the time, there was no wagon road of any kind from Silverton to Durango. The State of Colorado started funding construction of such a road in 1893. By the time it would be finished, in the early 1900s, automobiles were on the nation’s road. The road from Silverton to Durango was in poor condition. Floods in 1909 and again in 1911 destroyed much of the road and also flooding of the Animus River wrecked D&RG tracks. Silverton residents began to regret their dependence on trains for access to Durango. Once again, Mears was called on to replace the tracks and salvage the railroad.
By 1910, the D&RG also was seeing a decline in passengers as automobiles became more popular. Mears’ dream became a road from Durango to Grand Junction and even Durango to Denver. Most citizens were still using the D&RG for transporting freight. Major floods between 1900 and 1920 had been very costly for railroads along the Durango-Silverton routes. During WWI the U.S. Government took over the D&RGW RaiIroad and ran it. After WW I ended, there were frantic efforts to build new roads in the San Juans. In 1918 work started to upgrade sections of the Million Dollar Highway. Steep cliffs and grades made construction slow. But the greatest impediment to progress was the 1918 influenza epidemic that hit Silverton and the San Juans really hard.
In the early 1920s San Juan communities recovering from the flu and the decline of mining desperately needed and sought tourist business. The D&RG Railroad was in financial trouble and reorganized into the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad (D&RGW) in 1920. By the 1940s the decline in freight activity was hitting throughout narrow-gauge railroading. Maintenance lagged due to lack of finances. The D&RGW shifted its focus to standard-gauge railroading. Narrow gauge neglect continued into the 1950s but tourists were arriving in increasing numbers. Rail fans were discovering rail between Durango and Silverton and freight service continued. Even Hollywood discovered the Silverton branch of the railroad that became the setting for several movies, including the memorable Denver and Rio Grande and Around the World in Eighty Days.
Even as passenger service was improving between Durango and Silverton, the 1950s were taking a heavy toll on the Rio Grande. Its once vast narrow-gauge realm was hurting even as tourism became an industry and passengers flocked to trains out of Durango. In the 1960s narrow gauge engines still steamed along the Animus but the D&RG had abandoned its tracks from Antonito to Durango. This separated the 45-mile stretch from Durango to Silverton. The freight boom was drying up. Rio Grande lines were abandoned. The line running up the Animus that became The Silverton suffered but rail fans in record numbers continued to support it with travel to Durango. However the D&RG wanted to get out of the tourist business.
In October1980, The Silverton made its last run under D&RGW ownership bringing to a close an era that began 110 years earlier with its narrow-gauge railroad from Denver to Colorado Springs. The Durango to Silverton route was sold to Charles Bradshaw and the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (D&SNG) was formed. Bradshaw brought new life to the ailing railroad. The right-of-way and equipment were upgraded. In 1997 Bradshaw sold the D&SNG to First American Railways, Inc., located in Hollywood, Florida. Then in 1998 the railroad was sold again to American Heritage Railways that moved their headquarters from Coral Gables, Florida to Durango. Improvements of the railroad have continued with an even greater focus on preserving history. The D&SNGRR has two museums, one each in Durango and Silverton. The railway is a federally designated National Historic Landmark and also is designated by the American Society of Civil Engineers as a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.