Silverton Railroad and the Animas River

The Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Coal burning locomotive from 1919, and the railroad on which she rolls is a sight to see. I felt humbled by this great machine nearly a century old, but even more so by the manpower and ingenuity needed to navigate and construct a narrow gauge railroad through mountains of the dense San Juan Forest and right on the banks of roaring upper Animas River. The whistle blew and I was brought back to my childhood, when I would blow a wooden train whistle with the exact same sound. As a child I was captivated by all vehicles, but trains stood out as the mightiest of them all. I dreamed of one day riding on an old steam engine with a whistle that echoed through the mountains. Returning to the present, I realize how fortunate I am to be able to fulfill that life dream with great friends on a historic train travelling through one of the most beautiful areas in the Rockies. The whistle blew once again and we set forth at a slow churn, eventually chugging up to a comfortable trot of about 8 mph. The tall train rocked side to side on its narrow tracks while we passed lush green fields and farmland nestled between huge mountain ridges. In the distance you could see the destination in the form of the biggest snow covered mountaintop in sight.

Climbing up the walls of the San Juan National Forest, I look down at a pristine lake about 400 ft below. The train pulls me along as my breath is taken away by the magnificent views around every bend. At one point the train ran so close to the river on the left side that looking over the side it seemed as though we were a steamboat heading upstream, and on the right was bare granite rock face no more than a foot away from the train. I see see powerlines here and there, and think of how hard it was to put them perfectly straight on these steep mountainsides angled at least 45 degrees slope. The will of man to build a railroad through the mountains from Durango to Silverton is no small thing. People could not do this without some burning fire inside and persistent determination to get the job done using mainly manpower over machines.

Of course there are environmental costs to building a railroad next to a river, such as digging into the mountainside to clear way for the train. This causes erosion and decreasing river quality in places like Peru, where the railroad built from Cusco to Machu Picchu left the river a rust red color from scraping the mountain. However, in this river, the walls of granite and other hard rock in the Rocky (hence the name) mountains don’t wear away like some of the soils in the Andes. I bring this up because over this trip, this summer, and essentially the past few years I have been seeing recurring tradeoffs of economic progress at the cost of ecological degradation. Much of my past writing has touched on overfishing, but the effect of earthmoving on habitats is the oldest way we have disrupted ecosystems.

Right now I am using my hand written journal to write about what happened about a month ago, catching up on things if you will. I want to write about my current experience in Miami working on the deepening of the Miami harbor through Hydraulic Cutter Suction Dredging, an extremely destructive process that puts habitat at risk and the measures that have been taken to mediate this impact.However, I will be posting in chronological order so as to not jump around in time.

Speaking of jumping around in time…

There we were, after a spectacular and glorious three hour ride on the train we had made it to the historic silver mining town of Silverton. Walking on mainstreet you Immediately you could imagine what it looked like in the times of the lawless wild west. After exploring the town, some of the gang and I went to a saloon/bar/grill called Grumpy’s where we heard classic ragtime piano being played by an elderly gentleman, obviously not his first rodeo. The bison burger and French onion soup were extraordinary. I would highly recommend. Anyhow after peering into more nooks and crannies of the great American mining town we hoped on a shuttle back to Durango, a ride with scenery just as incredible as those seen on the train ride up. We took a shuttle because we were heading to part of the Animas River just north of Durango where we would raft back into town.

The white water rafting on the Animas river was incredible. We had come at the time of the highest and fastest water year. By the time the water reached where we were about to embark from it had been only 30 hours since it was frozen in the mountains, so naturally, the water was a little too cold for a casual dip. Regardless, after our trip downriver over some exhilarating and somewhat terrifying river waves we were all soaked in freezing cold Animas riverwater, and loving every second of it.

We returned to the beautiful Strater hotel in one piece, exhuasted but ready for the morning when we would head to the infamous Mesa Verde cliff dwellings of the Anasasi People.

To be Continued…

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