Forty years ago, the historic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad faced an uncertain future.
The heyday of hauling gold, silver and other metals from the mines around Silverton to be processed in Durango had long since passed, and while tourism was on the rise, it just wasn’t clear who would lead the railroad into a new era.
“Most people thought the branch wasn’t going to survive and never find a buyer,” said Jeff Johnson, D&SNG general manager.
And then came Charles E. Bradshaw Jr., a Florida businessman with a vision.
“Charles Bradshaw was the right guy at the right time to save this railroad,” said Al Harper, who took over ownership of the D&SNG from Bradshaw in the 1990s. “It was perfect.”
This week marks 40 years since Bradshaw took over the line, which was then part of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, and subsequently renamed the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad first reached Durango in summer 1881 (140 years ago) and arrived in Silverton the next year, as part of a larger network of rail lines across the West.
But after World War II, and as mining around Silverton waned, business for the railroad started to decline, and lines across the West started to disappear. In 1968, the last train ran from Alamosa to Durango, via Chama, New Mexico.
“The railroad was isolated ... and they had to figure out how to sustain the railroad in Durango,” Johnson said. “Durango had to be self-sufficient.”
Jim Mayer was the conductor on that last ride from Chama to Durango on Dec. 6, 1968. Emotions, at the time, were mixed.
“It was an interesting day,” Mayer said. “We really didn’t realize it was the last run until we arrived in Durango. We went into history as the last train to come over those tracks. It was a quiet time.”
In 1964, the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad made an attempt to abandon the route from Durango to Silverton, which was thwarted, in part, by lobbying from community members.
By the 1970s, the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad was seeking a new owner. The railroad company was still running to major cities, but it wasn’t interested in maintaining the Silverton line for antiquity’s sake, Johnson said.
Bradshaw was recognized as a suitor. Over the ensuing years, he explored buying the train, even making incognito trips to Durango and Silverton to get a feel for the communities and the railroad’s place there.
After highways started to be built throughout the West, tourism and vacationing to the region became much more popular, Johnson said. Then, the D&SNG gained some notoriety after appearing in several Westerns.
“In movies and lore, the West was a fun theme,” Johnson said. “It was capturing the imagination of people.”
Bradshaw recognized the potential and wanted to set up the D&SNG as a family-friendly, tourist attraction.
“He made it a wonderful place for families and children, and created a family atmosphere where there’s something for everyone,” Harper said.
Amos Cordova was hand-selected by Bradshaw to help.
“It was almost like starting a new railroad,” Cordova said. “It was quite a challenge and it all fell on Jim (Mayer) and I.”
Cordova started working for the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad in 1950, with stints on the line at Chama and Farmington. In 1961, there was an opening in Durango, and he took it. Though he retired about 20 years ago, he still lives here.
Mayer, for his part, graduated high school in 1963 and tried to get a job at the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. Though he was only 17, he was able to get a job and went on to work in the railroad business for 45 years.
In 1981, the pair was tasked with hiring a new crew for the D&SNG and reenvision its purpose. On March 25, 1981, Mayer said he and Cordova met Bradshaw at the Strater Hotel.
“It was a moment in history,” he said. “We came together and discussed plans.”
At the time, the railroad was running only two trains a day from the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend to early October. Bradshaw wanted to increase runs and the number of trains up to Silverton.
But that all required a lot of work and money for upgrades to infrastructure. Bradshaw, whose family attained its wealth through citrus farms in Florida, was the right man for the job, Johnson said.
“He had a vision for it, and the financial wherewithal, to make it happen,” Johnson said.
Indeed, the D&SNG found new life.
“I think the community was excited,” Cordova said. “They were afraid (before Bradshaw purchased it) they were going to lose the railroad.”
In the mid-1990s, as Bradshaw was approaching his late 60s, he started to look for an heir and found Harper.
“Charlie said, ‘You should buy it,’” Harper said. “I came out here and I fell in love with it.”
Harper, with the financial help of Bradshaw, took over the D&SNG, and he, too, realized even more needed to be done to attract families. So, he started offering events such as the Polar Express and attractions like the train museum.
Now, the D&SNG is a virtually year-round attraction that has become one of the biggest economic draws in Southwest Colorado.
In a normal summer, the D&SNG will take thousands of tourists from Durango to Silverton. With the COVID-19 pandemic, capacity has been limited, but officials hope things soon return to normal.
Jack Llewellyn, director of the Durango Chamber of Commerce, said as the region economically rebounds from the COVID-19 pandemic, the D&SNG will play a critical role as one of the primary economic drivers for the community.
“Having the train operate, and out of the downtown depot, will have a positive impact on all businesses,” he said.
Indeed, Harper, who is the third owner of the railroad, and the only one whose family has lived in Durango, said the D&SNG hitting the 40-year mark is a time of reflection, but also a time to look forward.
As drought continually straps the region, in recent years, the D&SNG has diversified its fleet with more diesel and oil-burning locomotives, which pose less of a fire risk than traditional coal-burning engines.
“We have to be realists, times are changing,” Harper said. “And our goal is to make sure this railroad is here for generations to come. We don’t want anything that could end the life of this great American treasure. That’s our No. 1 goal.”
Railroad service to Silverton (which for the first time in the line’s history was halted last summer because of the pandemic) is expected to resume May 22.