Durango, and a Head of Steam

by wandering freditor / Jun 14, 2009 / 0 comments


By Winfred Peppinck

Forget Tombstone. More than any other town in the Wild West, Durango, still conjures up an image of lawmen and outlaws, Ten-gallon hats and cowboys, saloons and honky-tonks, timber towns and steam engines. Yes, Durango Colorado, is still “just as it was then”, although now decidedly more comfortable, respectable and lawful. Brown-walled by the rocky San Juan mountains, Durango harks back to a time in the 1880’s when there really was gold in them thar hills and it served as a regional frontier town, Only now, the gold being extracted is from the many tourists who come to look at how it was ‘in yesteryear’, although in winter, the ski and snowboard set have a different slant on ‘goin’ down the mine’.

We slip easily into Durango on Highway 160 which follows the Old Spanish trail from Los Angeles to Santa Fe in New Mexico. Nice and early too because the train leaves the wooden clapboard Rockwood Station at 8.15am so we hurry in to the old ticket office and buy our tickets. The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway is now a tourist icon, largely run by volunteers who dress in period costume and fill our journey with interesting tales. In the 1880s the line was an engineering marvel, running deep into the mountains to bring back the gold and silver from the many mines in the area, a climb from 7000 feet at Durango up to 10,000 feet at Silverton.  Old 498 is there waiting for us, chuffing softly with a wisp of grey smoke, black and powerful, but hardly sinister, a big black arrow-head fender at the front and a little tennis-player peak on its big Cyclops headlamp. And in the cabin, you’d swear it was Casey, cap and all.


Winfred Peppinck - Durango, CO



It is a little chilly, but then it always is in the mountains says an old timer, and he advises us to sit on the right side for the best views. We have chosen to sit in the open ‘gondola’ car and we are warned, “You folks will be chewing a lot of smoke and soot, so we hope yer not wearin’ yer Sunday best! And wear yer sunnies now, y’all hear” but hey, that is why we want to sit there. All the recall of the age of steam comes instantly back with that first whiff of coal smoke. Soot and cinders, come on down. Of course, for lesser nostalgia buffs, there are enclosed gondola cars, and one of the costumed travellers tells us in a stage whisper, “You can always duck up to the period dining car and if you buy the special railway souvenir mug, you can get bottomless refills, and stay there to drink it”. Trust the old timers to know all the tricks.

With a warning whistle we sit up in our side facing seats so that the scenery glides by like a big Imax screen. At a gentle 30 kph we leave Durango with its Victorian buildings, museums, pubs and saloons, and head for the hills, smoke cascading over us like a veil. For a while it is flat, through lush pastures and by pretty lakes, but ahead of us, snow-covered peaks loom and we enter a steep valley with fir trees on both sides, a valley of no return. Beside us now the grey whitecaps of the Rio de las Animas Perdidas, the River of the Lost Souls, flows coldly.


Winfred Peppinck - Silverton Scenery

Silverton Scenery



There is work to be done and suddenly Old 478 choo-choos more deeply, and thick black smoke pours over our carriages as we climb. Silently I cock my fingers and thumb, cowboy style. This is ambush territory. The scenery goes from pleasant to spectacular as we claw our way up the river valley. We travel besides overhangs and deadly drops, through gulches where outlaws might leap, the line hugging the edge of cliffs like a pin-tuck, the Animas River now way below with waterfalls of melted snows cascading into the depths. Old 478 labours but does not wilt, encouraged no doubt by the ooohs and aaahs of the passengers, the clicking of cameras. She’s been here before, many times, and her stack puffs peacock proud as she snakes through the canyons, upward, ever upward, even though it is now at walking pace. And then, three hours later, we pull up in the main street of Silverton. No platform, no station, no buffers; Old 478 just parks in Main Street, and we all just step down.

As an old frontier mining town, Silverton has a real Wild West feel. Mountains look down on a town of 300 people, with timbered shops of a bygone era, a wide main street to turn the wagons and stage-coach, and of course the inevitable boardwalk. Just like in the movies! We walk past the Shady Lady Saloon and have a snack at Natalias, once one of a string of thriving brothels which dotted the town. At the Grand Imperial hotel, a balding man in a striped waistcoat plays a honk-tonk piano, his sleeves held up with armbands, and at the bar a prunish-faced man pulls a jar of brownish beer. We are transported back to the 1880s even if there is no table of gamblers and a petticoated saloon singer, but if the Marshal were to walk in and ask for a whisky, we wouldn’t be at all surprised.


Winfred Peppinck - Silverton Street

Silverton Street


Rather than take the train back, we take the bus over the “Million Dollar Highway”, a snaking, scary, switch-back road over two mountain passes at 11,000 feet. Some say that the construction of the highway cost a million dollars a mile and others say the Highway is laid over the millions of dollars of gold and silver bearing earth fill. But everyone agrees that it is a mighty frightening drive with sheer drops of thousands of feet on one side, and absolutely no barrier railing so that in winter time it is easy for the snow ploughs to push everything into the valleys far, far below. And down below, you can just make out the old stage-coach route which ran from Silverton to Durango and imagine the sweating horses and the nervous reinsman, one hand constantly on the brake lever.  We are much relieved when we drop back down into Durango after a splendid day, and like cowpokes after a day on the trail, we find our bunkhouse and put our feet up.

Durango is a wonderful base from which to explore a fascinating region. Ghost-towns and old mines abound, for even from the comfort of your car, the Wild West is never far away. Near Silverton is Ouray, the “Switzerland of America”, another town of Victorian splendour, and the views on the drive there, are really breathtaking. And not far from Ouray is Telluride where no less than Butch Cassidy robbed his first bank. Also within striking distance is the World Heritage listed Mesa Verde National Park with its old Native American cliff dwellings beneath massive rock overhangs. No time to see the Grand Canyon, well the nearby Black Canyon is a reasonable substitute, while the Bar D Chuck Wagon  puts on a Wild West show that will have you humming the theme song from Bonanza all the way home. And come in winter, there is skiing and snow-shoe trekking, a sled-dog ranch and ice climbing adventures. Durango, Colorado really does have it all, a past, and a pretty good future too.


Winfred Peppinck is the Wandering Freditor for Wandering Educators