The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is heading into a year of expansion with the reopening of the Grand Imperial Hotel, a new general manager and a fresh event to replace Railfest.
D&SNG owner Al Harper also bought the Mt. Rainier Railroad and Logging Museum in Washington on Feb. 1, and he plans to make it profitable once again. This is Harper’s third railroad.
The Mt. Rainier railroad was formerly a nonprofit, and its primary donor asked Harper to buy the train to continue his legacy and make it self-sustaining, Harper said.
“It’s another American treasure,” Harper said.
Harper sent some D&SNG employees to Washington to set up programs and train and hire new employees. The Easter train was sold out this year because of their efforts, he said.
“We’re really excited about the future for Mt. Rainier,” he said.
As part of the expansion, John Harper was promoted to general manager of the railroad in Durango. Former general manager, Paul Schranck, is now the senior vice president of operations over all three railroads, Al Harper said.
John Harper has worked under Schranck’s tutelage for six years. But he started working for the railroad as a teenager, and he has experience in all the Durango railroad departments.
“I’ve been around railroads my entire life, so this business is in my blood, like second nature to me, and a deep passion of mine,” John Harper said in a statement.
He also worked for the D&SNG’s sister companies, Rail Events Inc. and the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in North Carolina, which are all owned by American Heritage Railways. Mt. Rainier is owned separately by Al Harper, said Christian Robbins, a spokesman for the railroad.
John Harper will answer directly to his parents, Al and Carol Harper.
His brother, Jim Harper, as the president of American Heritage Railway Hotels, is overseeing the remodel of the Grand Imperial Hotel in Silverton.
A company controlled by Al Harper bought the Grand Imperial Hotel last year for $1.6 million; the grand opening is scheduled for May 7.
Visitors will be able to book a trip on the train and a night at the hotel for a vacation that invokes life in the 1880s.
The Grand Imperial on Greene Street will not be a plush replication of the Strater Hotel – instead it will reflect its history.
“We were a frontier miners’ hotel with a lot of ruffians,” Al Harper said.
The D&SNG will work with organizers in Silverton who host the Hardrockers Holiday to put on the Railrockers at the same time in August, instead of Railfest.
Vintage trains, such as the Galloping Goose and a wood-burning train, were showcased during Railfest in August.
The Hardrockers Holiday was a day off for miners to take a break and hold competitions related to their trade, such as using a steel rod and sledge hammer to drill a hole in the rock, said Robbins. The Hardrockers Holidays have continued on and off since.
The traditional events will continue, and the train will run special trains during the event.
“That’s what the train has always been doing, is keeping history alive,” Al Harper said.
Railrockers will be longer than Hardrockers, and the event trains will include murder mystery performances on board, a champagne brunch train and sunset cocktail train. An 1895 locomotive, the No. 315 brought back to Durango in 2010, will also provide short trips during Railrockers.