Slowly but surely, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is digging out of the onslaught of snow and avalanches to clear the tracks for the first ride to Silverton in May.
Jeff Johnson, general manager of the D&SNG, said clearing the tracks of snow is a laborious task the railroad’s crews tackle every spring. But this year, consistent, heavy snow in the high country has made it all the more daunting.
“We’re finding slips in places that don’t usually run,” Johnson said. “It’s been a lot more effort and cost just to keep the tracks open, and not even just because of avalanches; there’s the amount of snow that’s fallen.”
The D&SNG’s route from Durango to Silverton doesn’t encounter true avalanche danger until it reaches Cascade Canyon, about 26 miles north of the train station in Durango. From there, north to Silverton, about eight to 10 avalanche paths have the potential of reaching the railroad tracks.
As a result, the D&SNG surveys every year from a helicopter to see if avalanches should be triggered with dynamite to avoid potential future risk. Photographs and video recently went viral after the D&SNG crews triggered one avalanche that covered the Animas River.
The train is scheduled to begin full service on May 4 from Durango to Silverton.
Jim Donovan, San Juan County’s director for the Office of Emergency Management, said that particular avalanche was near Needleton and put 60 feet of debris on the tracks. He said there is not a concern at this time the avalanche would cause a dam of the Animas River.
“That was definitely the biggest one for the mission,” said Donovan, who helped advise D&SNG on avalanche danger. “And it’s one that normally is not as much of a concern.”
Donovan, who is also director of the Silverton Avalanche School, said D&SNG crews are regularly trained how to work in avalanche areas when clearing snow off the tracks. He said the risk of avalanches is something the D&SNG should continue to be concerned about, especially in late spring.
“The train really does have this great history in the area,” he said. “And avalanches have been a hazard that has always been here since people have lived in the mountains.”
Indeed, the D&SNG has a long history battling the elements to make the trip from Durango to Silverton since the line was completed in 1882.
Jonathan Thompson, a local journalist and author of “River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed behind the Gold King Mine Disaster,” chronicled many of these feats in an article he wrote for the Silverton Mountain Journal.
“Nearly every winter saw at least one avalanche-caused blockade during which the train could not reach Silverton,” Thomson wrote. “Sometimes they only lasted a few hours while tens or even hundreds of men cleared the tracks. But there were times when Silverton was cut off from the world for days, weeks, and, in one case, three months.”
Silverton, for example, was without the train, its main lifeline for food and supplies, for 73 days in 1884. Thompson said the stranded people of Silverton resorted to killing and eating milk cows as food ran short.
In March 1906, avalanches had buried the train tracks in 50-foot piles of snow from at least 15 slides, Thompson said. It took a team of 200 men 33 days to clear a path from Needleton to Elk Park.
A particularly stormy winter in 1931-32 closed both the roads and the railroad from February to the end of April. Thompson said one D&SNG train crashed near Rockwood trying to make it to Silverton.
D&SNG’s Johnson said the railroad ran up to Silverton year-round from 1882 until 1951, when highways became an easier way to reach the high mountain town. Back in the old days, it was a constant battle with the elements, he said. Crews would even dig out tunnels so the train could pass through.
But these days, clearing the tracks has become a little more sophisticated. A team of two dozers and one excavator typically work on a daily basis to move snow.
Every year is different, Johnson said. Last year, which saw little snow, trains were mostly able to make the trek up without any removal work. This year, however, crews started about three weeks ago. Johnson said it could take up to six weeks to dig out the tracks.
And it’s not uncommon the tracks themselves have been damaged and have to be repaired. Johnson expects that to be the case this year, especially with snowpack at nearly 160 percent of historic normal averages.
“What’s going on this year is not unprecedented,” he said. “It’s just been a while since we’ve seen it.”