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D&SNG Railroad keeps local history alive

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad began its service to Silverton on Saturday morning. The train will leave Durango daily at 8:45 a.m., according to the D&SNGR website. A second train will be added May 14 and a third on June 3.

By Robert Galin Herald staff writer

Durango wouldn’t be Durango if the Denver & Rio Grande Railway hadn’t built its line from Durango to Silverton in 1880. That history, and the scenic beauty of the Animas River Valley, are the two main draws that brought passengers Saturday to the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad’s first full Silverton run of the season.

“It’s almost an emotional experience for those who work at the railroad,” said Al Harper, a D&SNG principal owner. “It’s almost like a rebirth.”

While waiting to board Saturday morning, passenger Morris Hanley of Colorado Springs said he brought his 9-year-old grandson, Seth Iovinella, to enjoy the train as he did 12 or 13 years ago.

It’s common for people to become enamoured with the train and return time and again with relatives or friends, several employees and passengers said.

Jim Berdine of Albuquerque was taking the train for the third time. On this trip he brought his sister from Miami who was celebrating her birthday Saturday. Also along was Berdine’s other sister from Indiana, he said.

Berdine and his family also went to the Narrow Gauge Days kickoff event Friday.

“I’m a train nut,” he said.

This year, Berdine also is going to Sacramento to pick up Amtrak’s California Zephyr through the Rockies to Chicago, then back by train to Albuquerque.

The employees also are devoted to the train, with many returning year after year, or even becoming full-timers. In fact, Harper referred to the train staff as a family.

Conductor John Walden may be typical. He started as a part-time summer employee while in school and now is a full-time regular employee. He said he’s had a fascination with steam engines since he was a kid.

This history is important to the train’s popularity. The Denver & Rio Grande line to Silverton was “the highest in technology at one time,” Harper said. It took what had been a 2½-day trip between Durango and Silverton and made it about three hours, he said.

As an owner of a historic train that draws a huge fan base from around the world, Harper rhetorically asked, “How blessed am I, and how lucky am I?”

More than historical interest is at work. The D&SNG has a strong impact on the economy of Durango, and perhaps even more so on Silverton’s economy.

“It really means the town comes back to life,” said Linda Davis, owner of Weathertop Wovens on Green Street in Silverton.

Even though Davis stays open during the winter and has regular customers, “It’s nice when the train comes; it’s nice to see that activity,” she said Saturday a couple of hours before the D&SNG arrived in Silverton.

Similarly, Linda Robie of The Train Store said the D&SNG brings “people (who) are going to come and experience Silverton and Durango” and, more widely, Colorado.

Robie focuses on train art and other train-related items in her store just a block from Weathertop. The art is from H.L. Scott III, who died in December 2012. Some of it is numbered and signed by Scott, she said.

When the train finally arrived in Silverton on Saturday, about 45 minutes late because crews stopped to put out a number of spot fires along the way, passengers were greeted by people in period dress and Silverton’s own brass band.

Silverton Mayor Chris Tookey, who also works at the Silverton Freight Yard Museum at the Silverton Depot, reiterated that the train is important for the town’s economic viability.

Tookey’s husband, Willy, plays the alto horn in the brass band, which has become an institution. But her focus was on the economy and even the museum.

She said the Silverton Depot was built in 1882 and was only meant as a temporary building. The museum has a number of historical displays and even offered pastries and hot drinks Saturday in celebration of the train’s impending arrival.

On a break between “performances,” Willy Tookey reiterated his wife’s comment, saying the D&SNG “is a larger component of our summer economy.”

The band is emblematic of Silverton’s cohesiveness as a community and its desire to draw visitors. It plays every Sunday during the summer – on a street corner, Tookey said, and has been around for more than 35 years.

The band’s founder, Dale “Timberline” Meyers, said he started the band “to give me something to do ... to be a part of the community.”

The first practice sessions were in the town’s gravel pit, but the sound carried and the band has become a Silverton institution.

Band member Gary Miller said the band is “historically correct” because old mining towns often had bands. Now, however, “it’s something not many other communities have,” Miller said.

Once the brass band came into existence, so did other town events such as the Fourth of July parade and merchants wearing period costumes as the band members did, Miller said.

Playing for the passengers on the first Silverton run of the season also is the kickoff to the band’s season.

But the ultimate failure or success of the train will be viewed by the passengers.

Even with the delays caused by the fires, passengers emerging from the train in Silverton lauded the beauty of the scenery and the train staff.

“The waterfalls were just spectacular,” said Kay Dunnegan of Eureka, Calif.

Dunnegan has been a frequent passenger on historic trains in California, Nevada and Chama, N.M., among others, and rode the D&SNG 25 years ago, she said. This time, she said, “It was awesome.”

rgalin@durangoherald.com

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