The photos are from a couple of trips on this famous narrow gauge railway, which runs from Durango to the old mining town of Silverton, 9,300 feet up in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.
Originally, the line had a southern connection at Durango with the Denver and Rio Grande line, founded in 1870 to connect Denver and Mexico by rail.
The terminus at Silverton connected with three branch lines bringing in supplies and shipping ore out from the remote mining towns in the upper Animas river valley and surrounding areas, but the prosperity of these places was linked to the market for silver and falling prices meant that the industry gradually declined over the years; although the last mine endured until the 1990’s.
This really was the Wild West, the town was so tough that semi-official ‘vigilantes’ were responsible for upholding the law and the legendary gunslinger Bat Masterson was brought in from Dodge City to get things back under control.
The resilience of the miners was legendary; only people with robust constitutions could survive and they had to be fairly desperate for the elusive ‘lucky strike; because the difficulties of living and working in this high altitude environment are extreme.
Winter is from September to May, with around forty feet of snow and very low temperatures for more than six months; even with ‘global warming’ the frost-free growing season only lasts fourteen days, the one reliable vegetable crop being brussels sprouts!
The town is surrounded by four big mountains, (Sultan Mountain is the highest, at 13,336 feet), and some of the higher mines were at altitudes of more than twelve thousand feet – miners working some of the smaller claims lived in rickety shacks built directly over the shaft entrances, literally out of bed and down the mine.
Nowadays, Silverton has a winter population of 370 people, but back in the mining boom around 5,000 people were in permanent residence, with several thousands of itinerants living in tents and squatting in old mine workings and the like.
The remoteness of the town meant that it was the focal point for ‘action’ for miners with money to spend, thus producing an extensive saloon and brothel area centred on ‘the notorious Blair Street’. Many of the brothels and one-roomed ‘cribs’ used by the prostitutes are still in existence, now used as shops or small houses. This part of town had a wild reputation until the closing of the last working mine, and local people are still nostalgic about the frontier atmosphere of the town in those days.
The sequence of photos follows the train trip fairly closely, leaving Durango and following the fertile river plain of the Rio de los Animas Perdidos (or in English, the River of Lost Souls, usually abbreviated to ‘Animas’), then climbing on an average 4-5% grade through the Animas gorge all the way to Silverton. En route, the line passes through truly magnificent scenery, with beautiful alpine meadows and groves of shimmering aspen trees, jagged mountains with lots of snow, the ruins of old mine buildings – and always with the foaming and turbulent river.