The Power Of Live Steam


Most tourist railroads run pretty much on the level because most railroads always sought the flattest possible routes. Hauling a train up or down steep grades was a slow and costly business; hence construction engineers took pains to avoid head-on confrontations with hills. They would build around them or maybe even through them on occasion with cuts or tunnels. However, when it is necessary to build a railroad across the mountains, it’s mighty tough to avoid those killer grades. Slopes might be terrible for operating costs, but they make for some pretty exciting railroading. We tend to discount descriptions of scenery as being “breathtaking” or “spectacular” as so much advertising hyperbole, but in the case of the Durango & Silverton Narrow-Gauge Railroad, the flack artist may be understating it for once. The deep river gorges, the rocky peaks, and the mountain vistas make this forty-five-mile trip one of the most truly scenic in the world. The railroad was established in 1881 by the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad to service the precious metal mines in Silverton, Colorado, about four hundred and fifty miles south of Denver. This is sparsely settled country, with no cities and only a few towns. The trains thread their way along the Animas River through the San Juan National Forest, traversing largely unspoiled territory during most of the trip.


This is not your usual forty-five-minute tourist-railroad sampler. Be prepared for a ninety-mile roundtrip that consumes nine hours with a two-and-a-quarter-hour-long layover in Silverton. And be ready for a little shortness of breath, unless you are extremely fit, for Silverton’s elevation is 9,288 feet. It can also be chilly up in the mountains even in the summer. You’d be well advised to reserve ahead during the peak tourist season, June to August; it would be very upsetting to find your way down to out-of-the-way Durango only to learn that the trains were fully booked.

The Durango & Silverton Narrow-Gauge Railroad is a historic line that offers the best in the way of a scenic ride. The rolling stock, however, does not measure up to what can be found on some other tourist lines. The locomotives are massive, squat, and, to my eye at least, most unattractive beasts. Some are aptly named mud hens. These efficient and dependable, if not visually appealing, engines date from the 1920s. The cars are a mix of the old and new; a few were built in the 1870s and 188&s, but they have been so frequently remodeled and updated over the years that, save for the exterior profile, they have lost all sense of antiquity. A number of modern steel replicas, together with some open-air excursion-style cars, make up the passenger fleet. I was put off by the bus-style seating in evidence during the time of my visit, but this may have been changed by the new owners of the Silverton line, who have shown a commendable interest in presenting the railroad in its proper historical perspective. Many thanks for retiring the fake diamond smoke stacks and the orange-and-silver paint schemes, but—please—get rid of those bus seats as soon as possible.

Mountain railroading is hardly a Western phenomenon. The Baltimore & Ohio, which opened its main trunk in 1853, is usually considered the first major mountain railroad in the world. We will be riding now on a far more modern Eastern mountain line that was never intended for any passenger service. Like most mountain lines, the Cass Scenic Railroad is located in a remote area, far from the madding crowd but also far from any sizable city.

Near the Virginia-West Virginia state line, about eighty miles northeast of Roanoke, is the tiny sawmill town of Cass, West Virginia. When the lumber company came to the region in 1900, everyone understood that it built this industrial railroad to bring the logs down from the mountains to the mill. No one ever visited the place except representatives of the millowners or relatives of the impoverished folk who lived and worked in the company town. It was a grimy and isolated place. For decades no one thought about passengers or tourists or flatlanders of any description; but since 1963 Cass and its mountain-climbing switchback railroad have been redeveloped for the tourist. Who would have dreamed that all those city people would pay real money to ride up and back to Whittaker Station (four miles) or Bald Knob (eleven miles)?

History is never planned, it just happens, and so it was with this obscure logging railroad. Backwoods railroads were temporary affairs that were put down, taken up, and moved around as the timber was harvested. Most of the nation’s old-growth forest had been cut generations before the Greenbrier, Cheat & Elk River Railroad was laid up the steep slope of Cheat Mountain. Primeval trees survived mainly in such remote places, and the new line brought red spruce logs down to the sawmill in Cass, where most were sliced up into construction lumber and shipped out over the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway. As more and more logs were pulled out of the mountain groves, the railroad grew into a 172-mile network, which was very large for a logging line. The look-alike company houses—all two-story frame structures—gave shelter to upward of two thousand inhabitants. (Today it is possible to rent one of these for an overnight stay.)