A Durango businessmans nomination of an early-day railroad water tower as a La Plata County historic treasure won approval recently from county commissioners. But Don Stoddard faces a daunting challenge to restore the aging structure.
The tower and a railroad trestle sit on Stoddards 13 landlocked acres at Bondad. One contiguous landowner refuses to grant access and the other requires written permission, Stoddard said.
The land 100 feet wide and slightly more than a mile long fronts the Animas and Florida rivers.
Stoddards campaign, which has cost him years of effort and thousands of dollars, involves a Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad branch line that ran from Chama, N.M., through Durango to Farmington starting in the early 1920s.
Three years after the line outlived its usefulness in 1968, anything that wasnt removed by the railroad had been cannibalized by scrap dealers and memorabilia buffs.
The only property that escaped treasure hunters was the water tower that Stoddard nominated for the La Plata County Historic Register. Also on the property are a trestle, pump station and powder magazines. The county Historic Preservation Review Commission recommended inclusion of the tower on the historic register.
Two more winters like the last one, and they wont make it, Stoddard said of the tower and trestle. I thought they might not make it through last winter.
The water tower, built of wooden staves ringed with steel bands, is round with a conical, wood-shingle roof and is about 25 feet tall. It is similar to one in Chama, which has a capacity of 50,000 gallons and is typical of D&RG water towers.
Age and weather have taken a toll. The steel bands have broken and fallen, the wood is disintegrating and a tower ladder is losing its grip.
Andrew Gulliford, a professor of Southwest Studies and history at Fort Lewis College and a member of the La Plata County Historic Preservation Commission, hopes more people follow Stoddards example.
Our historic preservation efforts are Durango-centric, Gulliford said. We dont have the same momentum in the county. I applaud Stoddards pride and diligence.
While Stoddards property is landlocked, its accessible by canoe or kayak, Gulliford said.
Technical and financial support are available to landowners through the State Historical Fund. The fund generates $33 million a year through gambling taxes, but most of it is spent on the Front Range.
Construction of the Durango-to-Farmington section of the railroad was a pre-emptive move against an incursion by the Santa Fe Railroad into the coal fields of northern New Mexico and Southwest Colorado a move that never materialized, said Duane Smith, a history professor at Fort Lewis College and a columnist for The Durango Herald.
The Durango-Farmington line was dubbed the Red Apple Flyer after one of its early cargos. Smith said. The line later profited from the oil boom of the 1950s that saw heavy equipment moved by rail.
When the line was abandoned, the railroad removed the tracks and offered the 13 landlocked acres with the water tower to neighboring landowners for $1,300. When there were no takers, the land was sold and went through several owners before Stoddards father bought the land to preserve a piece of history.
With the aid of an attorney, Stoddard spent six years buying up liens on the property.
With La Plata County commissioners recognition of the towers historic value in hand, Stoddard said, he will pursue a similar listing on the state historic register.
Susan Collins, state archaeologist at the Colorado State Historical Society, said historic registers at national, state or local levels are independent processes. One doesnt follow or depend on another, she said.
Collins said she has exchanged e-mails with Stoddard.
It appears that the water tower is a listing of interest to La Plata County, Collins said.
If Stoddard nominates his property for the state historic register, a staff report would go to a review board, and a favorable recommendation there would send it to the state historical society board for consideration, Collins said.
State recognition would lend power of persuasion but no legal weight to Stoddards effort to gain access to the tower for repairs, Collins said.
A La Plata County Planning Department report said the water tank is eligible for national historic recognition because of its association with the D&RG, the dominant railroad in Southwest Colorado. The tank played an important role in keeping trains rolling, the report said.