When they say it's addictive, Bill Colley, Mike Nichols and Steve Otten aren't talking about habit-forming substances
They are Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad engineers, the guys responsible for guiding the 286,000-pound
locomotive/tender combinations that pull tourist-laden passenger cars between the two points.
No other work is as satisfying, each man said here Tuesday while checking air brakes and cab gauges in their
locomotives in preparation for returning to Durango.
Colley, Nichols and Otten are among eight year-round Durango train employees. They work the winter runs to the
Cascade Wye from late November to early May and the family-oriented Polar Express program at Christmas. "But we still
shovel coal sometimes," Colley said.
Colley, 51, had John Wayne as a neighbor during his formative years in California and briefly thought he'd like to be
a cowboy. But his abiding dream was to grip a Johnson bar, the gear-selection lever on a locomotive.
"My grandfather gave me a train, an American Flyer, when I was a child," Colley said. "I was hooked."
Colley's dream job materialized when he was hired to operate the steam locomotive that circles Disneyland. He stayed
10 years before moving to Durango in 1981, when former D&SNG owner Charles Bradshaw was reorganizing and renaming
the Durango & Rio Grande Western line. Because he was one of the early hires, Colley is the engineer with the
"I've been with the railroad for 22 years, the last 15 as an engineer," Colley said. "I worked as a carman then an
engine (night) watchman and a firemen for six seasons.
"Diesel engines are OK," Colley said. "But the history, the romance and glamour of the steam engine is what I like."
Nichols, 61, can say he comes from a railroad family - a grandfather was an engineer on the Rock Island Railroad, and
his father did the same job for the Southern Pacific Railroad. Nichols worked as a fireman on Southern Pacific
diesels for 23 years in California.
"When I was small, my dad would take me down to the roundhouse on paydays, which was twice a month, and boost me up
into the locomotive," Nichols said. "I was in awe, and I think that's where my interest in railroads started."
At one time, Nichols thought of becoming a forest ranger, and he worked briefly for the U.S. Postal Service. But the
call of the rails was too strong.
By the mid-1980s, Nichols and his wife were looking to get out of California. Nichols, who had visited Durango years
before, talked with his wife, and she loved the idea. He landed a job with the Durango train in 1994.
While with the Southern Pacific, Nichols participated in a three-week engineer training course on a locomotive
"It was a crash course," Nichols said. "But you really learn on the job. You learn by doing."
Otten, 54, also comes from a railroad family. His grandfather was a railroad telegraph operator in French, N.M., and
his father was a carman in Alamosa.
"I've done a lot of things," Otten said. "I didn't set out to be a railroad man, but it just worked out that way."
Otten did many jobs in oil fields before he applied for a summer job with the D&SNG in 1988.
"I was tired of being on call 24 hours a day," Otten said of his oil field jobs.
Since 1988, he's become a jack of all trades - conductor, welder, mechanic, dispatcher, track hand and engineer since
Otten oversees locomotive engineers and firemen, makes schedules and is in charge of training.
"I love railroading because I use a piece of machinery that you won't find anywhere else," Otten said. "Outdoor
beauty doesn't get any better than the Animas Canyon, and as a conductor, I get to talk to people from around the