Discovering a Piece of History in the Durango Train’s Water Stops

By Margaret Hedderman

 Summer/Fall 2022

Between the summers of 1881 and 1882, employees of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad forged north into the San Juan Mountains, laying 45 miles of tracks and infrastructure along the Animas River. The majority of these men had been brought up from Denver, but before that their origins were as varied as any who colonized the West—immigrants and Civil War veterans among them. Traces of their efforts are still visible today not only in the 3 ft narrow-gauge railroad, but also in the support and supply structures along the way.


According to Jeff Ellingson, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (D&SNGRR) Museum curator, the carpenters and engineers who installed the infrastructure along the railroad were known as the “Bridge Gang.” They built section houses, bridges, and water tanks.


“The guys that laid the rails, they’re maintenance guys—gandy dancers—they were usually kind of separate from the bridge gangs,” Ellingson said.


Prior to the 1970s, passengers traveling to and from Silverton on the D&SNGRR would have made numerous stops for water to replenish the steam engine. Early steam engines needed to stop every seven to ten miles. Today, the locomotives are more efficient and the train needs only stop twice – once at Needleton and once at Tank Creek.


“Today when you ride the train, we have a 7,500-gallon steel tank where locomotives get water,” Ellingson said. “Before the 1970s there used to be a 55,000-gallon wooden tank.”


The Tank Creek water stop would have resembled the wooden tank visible from US-550 in Hermosa. Now, when passengers stop at the Tank Creek water stop, they’ll see a large black cylinder perched on a rocky ledge. Water cascades down the pink Baker’s Bridge granite, collecting in little pools where fish will occasionally congregate.  


Ellingson said that Tank Creek typically supplies enough water for the train throughout most of the early summer. When August rolls around, and three to four trains are passing through the mountains a day, railroad employees will pump additional water from the Animas River. There is also a small dam upstream that helps capture water.


“Sometimes beavers get in and we’ve got to unclog stuff;” a typical hazard of the trade, according Ellingson.


Once upon a time, when a steam engine stopped to “get a drink,” it would have presented train robbers a prime opportunity for an ambush. Today, however, railroad passengers can sit back, relax, and take their own drink of mountain air.


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