By Elizabeth Philbrick
As you glance along the rail line bisecting the Animas Valley you may notice a curiosity of sorts: hundreds of unassuming apple and pear trees, the remnants of extensive orchards. Trees that better resemble shrubs, dotted with fruits that cause your mouth to both flood with saliva, and simultaneously tighten your cheeks. These are the historic fruits of the Old West.
When the Durango to Silverton stretch of the Rio Grande Railroads was completed in 1882, its primary goal was to service the over 4,000 mining claims in and around Silverton. In the few short years after the train’s arrival, the population of Silverton doubled, and with it a need to support this growing population. Trains would come down the mountain filled with silver and gold ore, but on their way up they brought miners and their supplies.
Because the mining towns of Silverton, Rico, Telluride and the like exist at an elevation inhospitable to farming, these miners would load up their packs with fruit from the highest elevations possible, many in the Animas Valley. Settlements like Hermosa were soon inundated with underground fruit cellars where miners would load up with fruits and hard ciders before trudging along Hermosa Creek toward Rico. Fresh fruit in the Animas was not a luxury. It was, in fact, quite abundant.
As the mining populations continued to boom, so did the supporting towns. In 1905, a 48-mile extension of the railway was added south of Durango, primarily to transport the abundant fruit crop of San Juan County. The Farmington Branch, as it was originally called, was quickly renamed the Red Apple Flyer, and was known for transporting 27,000 lbs. of fruit twice weekly. That fruit would make its way from New Mexico to Denver by way of Durango.
Because apple seeds are genetically different than the apple they come from, this transportation led to hundreds of new apple varieties. Every time a miner threw a core along a streamside, or a bushel of apples fell from the train, a new type of apple appeared. To this day, La Plata and Montezuma Counties alone account for over 600 named varieties of apples; with hundreds more lining the trails and creeksides of the San Juan Mountains.
While the Red Apple Flyer may no longer exist, the echo of its past is all around us. 130- to 180-year-old trees, still in their original rows, can be seen all across our region. If you happen to find one on a path, feel free to reach up and enjoy a bite of history.