It’s not every day that a history buff can relive the era that fascinates them most. That is, unless you’re a Victorian narrator on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
“This is the best job I’ve ever had,” said Carrie Foisel, who has worked in theater productions, retail stores and, most probably the most laborious, raised four sons.
“It’s wonderful. History is a passion of mine. It makes life a lot richer when you know where you came from.”
History as a passion is a common thread for the seven narrators for the railroad, who dress in Victorian clothing as they ride the rails. Al Harper, owner of the D&SNG, said the program started about five years ago.
“For years, people wanted us to have microphones and do tours of the train,” he said. “But I always felt like that modern convenience aboard the train detracted from the original 1882 experience.
“Then one day we got the idea,” he continued. “Why don’t we take a couple cars and put actors on board and have them assume a character and tell their story and point out the attractions as the train goes up the track?”
Narrators are a sort of self-run operation, Foisel said. They pick their own characters, do their own research, create their own costumes, and are encouraged to add their own flare to the performance.
Foisel, 58, has participated every year since the program began, and has a bag of characters she can choose from, such as Victoria Day, whose husband ran the Durango Democrat while she tended to the ranch, and Olga Little, who used a burro to haul supplies to miners. Her favorite portrayal, her great-grandmother Grace Cotton, hits a little closer to home.
“I have a lot of the local history I can recite in my sleep,” she said. “I always tell people our history is short compared to Europe, but we don’t have to embellish it. A lot of colorful things did happen.”
Indeed, Alan Sabo, who portrays Durango’s first marshal, Robert Dyer, has a few on the tip of his tongue. Sabo, 70, even wears cologne that was popular in the late 1880s.
“You spend enough time on Google and you can find almost anything,” he joked.
Sabo said Dyer moved down to ranch the Animas Valley after trying his hand at mining, and was asked to become marshal in 1881. After getting shot at the Cabinet Salon, Dyer quit, sold his property and opened Durango’s first bowling alley.
Stories like these give color to the rider’s experience, Gay Kiene said. Her own character, Caroline Romney, moved to Durango when she was 40 as a widow, and started Durango’s first newspaper.
“It’s living history,” said Kiene, 69. “It was the wild, wild West. And I think it enhances the fact they know about the history of the train and community.”
And, the job offers a good opportunity for retirees, Ray Mayer said. A Durango resident since the mid-1980s, Mayer, 77, started narrating after he retired from a career in law enforcement.
“He’s such a neat person,” said Mayer, speaking of his character, Gen. William Jackson Palmer. “He was founder and builder of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. He built it all the way to Silverton – 500 miles of track.”
Durango, like most outpost Western towns, was influenced in every way by the Victorian age, including food, dress and morals, said local historian Duane Smith. The style lasted until the 1920s, he said.
“The younger generation and the Roaring ’20s was a reaction to their parents and morals, and pretty much ended the ‘Victorian’ age of Durango,” Smith said. “And then WWII happened, which brought forth modern America.”
Yet the train captures that unique time when Durango and Silverton were in their so-called formative years, Foisel said.
“People can remember history better when they can see and touch it,” she said. “I like to think you can understand history better if you can put yourself in a mindset where you pretend that you’re there, and that’s what the narration provides these travelers.”