August 1994: We watched former Denver & Rio Grande Western Caboose 0540 slowly disappeared among the tall ponderosa pines. When the train was gone, the only sound we could hear was the friendly rush of the nearby Animas River. Then it struck us how alone we were in this sometimes all too crowded world. For five days and four nights, my wife, our son and I would call home a converted, narrow gauge boxcar parked here at the tail of Cascade Wye.
With white flags in place, our special train is ready to leave the Durnago yard.
When I suggested this trip to my wife, I really didn't anticipate her approval. But to my surprise, she immediately picked up the phone and booked us. We had enjoyed camping before but never so remotely. We didn't have to bring everything in on our backs though; our camp was well provisioned, comfortable and wonderfully isolated. The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad's Railcamp car contained all the necessities: kitchen, dinette, four bunks, shower and toilet. We had battery power for lights, propane for cooking, heating and hot water. Water, ice, kitchen utensils, towels and bedding were supplied by the D&S.
Approaching the Highline, a unique view from the copola.
The Animas River Canyon is on the south slope of southwestern Colorado's spectacular San Juan Mountains--about halfway between Durango and Silverton. From our shady spot, the river is about 100 feet to the west, and the D&Sís mainline is about a quarter mile to the east. Canyon walls rise high immediately beyond river and tracks. There are no roads in this canyon.
The rive was way below.
Perhaps best of all, we arrived on our own private train, powered by former D&RGW locomotive No. 476. The engine appropriately carried white flags high on the smokebox to indicate an extra train. Operated by a crew of three, our special consisted of just locomotive, caboose and our camp car.
We made one stop at Tank Creek for a little water.
We rode the caboose with Arnie Pardo, who was in charge of the Railcamp car. We chatted about the railroad and Railcamp over doughnuts and coffee Arnie had thoughtfully provided. He told us, several times, that if there was anything we needed during our five-day stay at Cascade Wye, we could use the railroad-provided two-way radio to let him know. Although it was never necessary to call for assistance, it was reassuring to know we could.
Spotting our car at the end of the wye.
The view of High Line is always spectacular, but we enjoyed it especially from the caboose's cupola. From this vantage, we looked out over the caboose roof and watched as our engine nosed into one curve after another. Wheel flanges screamed and the river roared almost 400 feet directly below us.
The Denver & Rio Grande built the Silverton branch in 1882 to tap rich passenger and freight traffic from the San Juan mining region. At that time, trains operated all the way from Denver over rails a mere three feet apart. Pullman service was even provided at one time. Now the D&S, the line is one of two remnants of this once vast narrow-gauge network still narrow gauge and still operating today.
Author and family feeling at home.
The scene of a miniature train high on a rocky ledge high above the river was immortalized early on by noted pioneer photographer William Henry Jackson, and the scene hasn't changed much since. Hundreds of thousands of riders are thrilled each year as they ride the ledge aboard the far famed Silverton Train.
One of my favorite locations for photographing regular trains was the vintage, wrought-iron bridge where the railroad crosses the river. That is Locomotive 481 with a section of the Silverton returning to Durango.
Our train stopped once at Cascade Tank to refill the tender and again beyond the north switch of Cascade Wye. Arnie threw the turnout and waved a backup signal to the engineer.
Engine 482 also bound for Durango.
We rode the back platform as our train backed slowly away from the main line to the edge of the swiftly flowing Animas. There the track turned northward into a shady grove of ponderosa pines and ended. The camp car's brakes were set, wheels blocked, steps put down, and the car was opened up for our use. A gas barbecue was removed from inside, placed on a picnic table, and before we knew it, engine, caboose and crew were gone.
A morning shot of 476 on its way to Silverton.
It seemed lonely at first, but for a railfan, what place could be better? Up to eight narrow-gauge steam trains passed each day. During the just past peak of the season, one more train had turned here in the early evening. The D&S is a busy railroad.
Observation car Alamosa at the end of the train.
There were plenty of good places to set up a camera for train shots, and nobody got in the way of a good picture. A favorite nearby location was the vintage, wrought-iron bridge where the railroad crosses the river. Further upstream, the trail is on the east side of the Animas, and the track is on the west allowing for some good early morning shots.
A morning train from up the trail to the north.
But it certainly wasn't necessary to be a rail fan to enjoy Railcamp. Upstream from our camping spot, a footbridge crossed the river. The bridge was for a trail dropping down the west side of the canyon from near the Purgatory ski area, crossing water and track and then heading upstream along the east bank. From the cliff on the trail toward Purgatory, we watched distant trains steaming up the canyon.
Engine 480 passing the Cascade Canyon sign.
One day we walked up this trail, shooting train pictures, exploring and eating wild raspberries. The next day, we flagged a train for a ride into Silverton. The railroad follows the river up the narrow and remote canyon, gaining elevation all the way. We sat back, enjoyed the scenery and spotted a mother bear with two cubs on a cliff above the train.
On the trail to Purgatory, the author's son listed badly toward the cliff.
Silverton is an attractive, historic old mining town nestled between high mountains. It has many interesting Victorian era buildings, plenty of places to eat and many interesting shops. Long ago, three small narrow gauge short lines operated to mines and mining towns north of here. But Silvertonís mining boom had essentially ended with the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893.
This boiler at Tefft spur is the remains of Silverton Gladstone & Northerly Engine 32. the Gold King.
We had lunch, stopped for ice cream, bought a few additional groceries and boarded our train for the return to Cascade Wye.
Setting the turnout for the wye. Engine 480 is coming for us.
The next day, we hiked up the precipitous trail toward Purgatory. For part of the hike, the trail hugs the cliff side with Little Cascade Creek way below. Son, Jason, listed perceptibly toward the cliff. We stopped at a pleasant meadow along the creek for a picnic lunch with fresh raspberries available for desert. Soon after, we were thoroughly soaked by a small thunderstorm.
Riding the wye on the way to pick us up.
There was plenty of time to explore the area around the camp, which included the banks of the Animas, Little Cascade Creek as it flows into the bigger river and the old logging operation at Tefft. Whichever way you go, there are beautiful vistas and something different to see.
Engine 480 making the coupling.
It was with mixed emotions that we greeted the crew for our return to Durango. We didn't want to leave but there was that ride in caboose 0540 still to come.
Unfortunately this service is not currently being offered by the Durango & Silverton nor in answer to my inquiry, do they have any current plans to revise it. Perhaps one day, they will consider offering it again.Contact the D&S
Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
479 Main Ave., Durango, Colo. 81301
Reservations: (970) 247-2733
General Information: (970) 247-2733
Toll Free: (877) 872-4607
Administration: (970) 259-0274
Web site: http://www.durangotrain.com