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Silverton Branch Facts
Silverton, CO is a small town high in the San Juan mountains (just over 9300 feet!) that started its existence in 1860 with Charles Baker's discovery of gold in the area. However, it wasn't until the 1873 treaty with the local Native American tribe, the Utes, opened the whole area to settlement. Even then, being in the high mountains without any easy route to market, large-scale mining wasn't yet practical. However, a wagon road in opened in 1879 provided some access, and prospectors quickly realized the potential held by the area - not in the gold originally sought by Baker, but primarily in silver, hence the town's name.
Eager to tap this revenue, the Rio Grande built the San Juan Extension with the Silverton Branch - 45 miles of track - being the final leg from the mainline at Durango to the mines at Silverton. Started in October of 1881, the line was completed in a short 9 months. This is really quite incredible, considering the rockwork that needed to be done in order to pass through the lower Animas River canyon (along what today is called the High Line). Parts of this construction cost nearly $1000/foot, a notable sum when railroad cars were a few hundred each and a new locomotive was only around $4500. By early July 1882, the line was complete, and mining in the area boomed. At one point, over forty mines operated in the hills above town, shipping both their products and their supplies over the Rio Grande and three small feeder railroads that connected Silverton to the mines. Thousands of tons of ore flowed south from Silverton to the American Smelting and Refining smelter at Durango, located south across the river from the roundhouse. Supplies for the mines and miners flowed north by the trainload. Those supplies coming in, and the refined metals going out both flowed over the San Juan Extension to reach the rest of the US railroad network. Business was good, at least for a while.
By 1890, under pressure from mining interests and debtors seeking an inflationary panacea to their problems, the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was signed into law, which obligated the government to buy 281,250 pounds of silver every month at market rates, and established that currency could be redeemed for either gold or silver (the US was taken off a bimetal gold/silver standard in 1875). Instantly silver doubled in value with the new demand coming online and consuming nearly the entire silver output for the country. It didn't stay at that price, though, but continued to drop as silver production continued to increase. Because of this, in the end the plan backfired because the dropping silver prices instilling fear with investors, particularly foreign ones, that the value of a dollar would drop significantly due to the greater percentage of less-valuable silver backing the currency than gold. This eventually lead to the Silver Panic of 1893. Pointing to the Sherman Act and silver as the primary cause, President Grover Cleveland and the Congress immediately immediately repealed the act in mid-1893. The silver mining industry crashed, having overextended itself during the three boom years and now being stuck with the price of silver plummeting back to below its pre-1890 levels. This event marked the end of the silver booms across the American West, and with it much of the mining traffic from Silverton.
By 1895, metal prices had started to rebound, and many of the mines at Silverton had found gold ore in sufficient quantities to remain viable. In 1897, some half of the output of Silverton's mines was gold, with the rest being lead, zinc, silver and copper. The big boom started with a huge gold strike at the Sunnyside Mine in 1899, and subsequent nearby strikes. While actually somewhat north of Silverton, the town was the established base for commerce in the area and still at the head of the only link to the outside world - the D&RG. After 1910, though, many of the mines played out or were closed due to environmental problems (flooding, washouts, mudslides, avalanches, etc.) Before World War I, there was a brief increase in zinc mining, but even this lasted only a short time. The Silverton Branch's glory years for freight traffic were quickly fading.
As time went on and the mining activities decreased, agriculture and timber became the dominant commodities. These, however, largely did not move over the Silverton Branch. In 1905, the Farmington Branch was constructed south from Durango to the ranching and farming areas around its namesake Farmington, NM. The Pagosa Branch was responsible for much of the lumber that moved over the route. The Silverton Branch, once the moneymaker of the route, was slowly slipping towards insignificance. By the 1940s, World War II brought a little relief to most of the San Juan Extension from a temporary increase in mining - not for silver or gold this time, but for copper, zinc, and uranium. The Silverton Branch was considered for scrap by the US Government, seeking materials for rehabilitating the White Pass & Yukon as part of the war effort.1 While this requisition was apparently successfully challenged and ore traffic resumed to virtually non-existent levels, civilian abandonment of the Durango-Silverton segment became a real possibility.
By 1951, the whole of the San Juan Extension was in danger as well, with traffic down to a trickle, replaced largely by new highways into the region. Even the Rio Grande was shifting freight traffic from the narrow gauge to Rio Grande Motorways, its rubber-tired subsidiary. On 1-Feb-1951, passenger service on the line from Alamosa to Durango ended with the demise of the line's through passenger service, the San Juan. In 1952, Durango's other railroad connection to the outside world, the Rio Grande Southern (running up the west side of the San Juans to Ridgway and the D&RGW connection), was scrapped. Finally, the D&RGW asked the ICC for permission to abandon the Silverton Branch in 1961. The response in 1962, however, didn't go the railroad's way - the ICC demanded that the Grande continue service on the branch.
Through the 1960s, the regular train between Durango and Silverton, appropriately enough called The Silverton, was on the rebound. Through a general rise in tourism after WWII (made possible in part by the very highways killing the narrow gauge), the dedicated promotional efforts of a few individuals (most notably D&RGW conductor Alva Lyons), some small amount of marketing by the D&RGW, and its appearance in several Hollywood movies, tourist ridership on the Silverton train began to rebound, in stark contrast to the rest of the narrow gauge system.
The link to the outside world was severed in September of 1970, as the abandonment of the San Juan Extension got underway. Scrapping started at Chama and working west on 20-Sep-1970, and by a year later, nearly the entire line was gone. The Silverton Branch continued on, though, operating as the last isolated corner of Rio Grande narrow gauge.
On 25-Mar-1881, the Grande did finally manage to rid itself of the narrow gauge - not through abandonment, but via a $2.2 million sale to Charles Bradshaw, Jr. of Orlando, Florida. Bradshaw's company rebranded the line to the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, and immediately started working to grow the line's passenger base. One of the first improvements was the strengthening of a few bridges to handle the increased weight of K-36s, a change from the K-27s that had been running the line for years. This would allow them to run longer and heavier trains to Silverton, hauling more passengers.
After being built into a tremendous success of an operation, the line was sold again in 1998 to American Heritage Railways, under the control of Allen Harper. That relationship continues today. For those interested in riding the line, see the official Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad website.
1 "The Month", Trains, July 1942 p50.
Silverton Branch Timetable (Narrow Gauge 1881-Present)