When the Rail Ruled

By John Peel

 Summer/Fall 2022

A flight between Durango and Denver now takes about an hour. A passenger car can do it in six or seven. Some can recall a time when the first choice of transportation was a train, and it took nearly a full day.

American civilization pushed westward rapidly in the 19th century, early settlers arriving by mule-drawn wagons, horseback, and even on foot. Rail barons raced to lay a quicker path, spurred by envisioned riches in Colorado and elsewhere.

With great fanfare, the first railroad entered Durango – then a tiny upstart to the more established Animas City to its north – in 1881. This completed what came to be known as the Denver & Rio Grande Western mainline between Denver and Durango. By the summer of 1882, a branch line continued up to Silverton.

Even as late as the 1940s, the preferred travel method for many between Southwest Colorado and the state capitol was still rail. Although vehicles were ubiquitous, they and the roads traveled were not totally reliable.

Let’s do a little time-traveling, learn some history, and, for fun, we’ll hear from a couple of old-timers who took that 450-mile train trip.


General Palmer

As Gen. William Jackson Palmer (1836-1909) grew up in Pennsylvania, he learned everything possible about the railroad business. The life of this peace-minded Quaker and abolitionist was derailed with the start of the Civil War in 1861. As an advance scout for the Union, Palmer was taken captive before a prisoner exchange freed him. Palmer’s bravery and distinguished service gained him the title of brevet brigadier general by war’s end.

Heading west, Palmer scouted a route through Colorado Territory to Denver for the Kansas Pacific Railway. He then convinced others to form the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad and was named president.

The D&RG’s first line headed south from Denver, reaching Colorado Springs, a town founded by Palmer and the railroad, in 1871 (JUST CALLING ATTENTION TO THIS, BECAUSE IT DOESN’T SEEM CLEAR. IT STATES THAT THE TOWN WAS FOUNDED BY PALMER AND THE RAILROAD? CAN WRITER CLARIFY?. The next decade saw an explosion of routes and spurs that connected new and existing settlements and mining camps. These narrow-gauge lines covered the central, southern and western Colorado Rockies, extending into Utah.

So why narrow gauge, whose rails are 3 feet apart? These did not mesh with most pre-existing rails; standard gauge was set 4 feet 8 inches apart.

Jeff Ellingson, curator of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Museum, explained: Palmer had explored Great Britain – the mining country in Wales, and elsewhere – and had seen the advantages of narrow gauge in mountainous communities. The slimmer roadbeds were easier and cheaper to blast out of hillsides, tracks easier to lay along tight curves that followed narrow canyons and hugged steep mountains, and the lighter rails less expensive.

By 1880 the D&RG’s tentacles reached Leadville, Salida and Alamosa. The 200-mile narrow gauge line west of Alamosa followed a challenging route over Cumbres Pass (10,022 feet) along the Colorado-New Mexico border. It arrived in Durango in 1881.


The rails were built with commerce in mind. Ore needed to be taken from mines to smelters, coal transported to towns, and livestock shipped to ranches or slaughterhouses. People were next in importance, but soon the D&RG and other lines began to promote tourism.


The Silver San Juan scenic line of the Rio Grande Southern, completed in 1891 by entrepreneur Otto Mears, headed west from Durango, through Mancos and Dolores, up over Lizard Head Pass, through Ophir, past Telluride, and over the Dallas Divide to Ridgway. From there it connected with an existing line to Montrose, through the Black Canyon to Gunnison, and on to Salida.


Newspaper ads of the 1890s touted this “Around the Circle” trip for the scenery: “This new line brings the tourist within easy ride of the wonderful homes of the Cliff Dwellers.” Mesa Verde would increase in popularity and become a national park in 1906.


Moving people

Narrow gauge tracks began to disappear in the 1930s as mines closed and another means of transporting goods and people emerged: trucks and cars. In his memoir, “Hogan’s Story,” Durango native Mickey Hogan (1929-2019) recalled a 1940 trip to visit a friend in Denver. He was 10, traveling solo.


The narrow gauge left Durango at 8:05 a.m. On the way to Alamosa, the train stopped for coal, water, and new passengers in myriad small towns. Hogan ate dinner in Alamosa, then left town at 8 p.m., boarding a standard gauge train, which had by then replaced the narrow-gauge tracks between Alamosa and Denver. At 5:30 a.m., 21½ hours after departing Durango, he arrived at Denver’s Union Station.


Third-generation railroad man George S. “Mick” Connor was born in Durango in 1932. Connor, who now resides in Arizona, recently self-published a memoir, “The Connor Family Railroad History.”


In 1946, Conner’s mother decided he needed braces, and the nearest orthodontist was in Denver. So, every month through his high school years, Connor boarded the “San Juan Express” to Alamosa.


Connor wrote: “As I boarded the train that first morning there was an assortment of people in the coaches: farmers, cowboys, Indians, young people, old people, train crew, and a mixture of other types. It was a typical crowd for Durango in 1946.


He rode in a regular coach car, which “were quite comfortable, with large double seats, covered in mohair and very soft.” For dinner he’d venture into the “parlor car,” whose three dining tables lined one wall. The first-class Alamosa parlor car, built in 1880, still makes the daily Durango-to-Silverton run.


It was a long trip for an active kid. “One thing I did learn from this experience was patience,” he wrote. “I read a lot, stared out the windows a lot, and daydreamed a ton. I also became very proficient in the game of solitaire.”


Connor began working the Durango-Alamosa line in 1951. Later he became a chemistry teacher at Durango High, with the railroad his summer job. As superintendent of the Durango-to-Silverton line, he was Ellingson’s boss in the mid-1980s. Connor smoked a pipe and was generally a quiet giant. Typical of pre-tourism-oriented railroad men of the day, he was gruff and took no guff. It was dangerous work, and foolhardy kids weren’t appreciated. As Ellingson recalled, “You didn’t want to make him mad.”


The Alamosa-to-Durango line shut down in 1969. Railroad buffs, with help from Colorado and New Mexico state governments, immediately organized to save two pieces of the narrow-gauge line: the Durango & Silverton, and the Cumbres & Toltec, which operates between Antonito, Colorado, and Chama, New Mexico.


Their foresight has allowed us to continue riding this living glimpse into the days of yore.


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