Wildfires, steam trains, and tension

The following is an augmented and adapted excerpt from River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster by Jonathan P Thompson. 2018, Torrey House Press. Image: Screen capture from Denver & Rio Grande movie, 1952.

If you’ve been following the 416 Fire that has thus far burned through more than 16,000 acres north of Durango, Colorado, you’ve probably been unfortunate enough to have stumbled upon the comments section that follows the news stories. And if you’ve been brave enough to venture into that dimly lit world, then you’ve surely noticed some rather heated exchanges regarding the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad — i.e. The Train — the coal-fired, steam-powered tourist train that drags thousands of people up the Animas River gorge each summer.

These altercations are typically sparked by someone blaming the fire on coal embers emanating from The Train’s smoke stack. That is followed by demands that coal locomotives be replaced by diesel, or that The Train be banned from running altogether during times of high fire danger. (The official cause of the fire remains “unknown,” but the fire did start near the railroad tracks, was first spotted not long after the train had passed, and embers have been known to regularly ignite fires, nearly all of which are extinguished by railroad employees who follow the train for this purpose.)

The rebuttal comment typically goes something like this: “You must be a complete IDIOT! This town is alive because of that steam train! You must be a transplant trust funder to think we don’t need the train.” And from there, the confabulation blows up, burning through all kinds of rhetorical acreage, much of it having nothing to do with The Train’s connection to the 416 Fire, before digressing into even more acerbic remarks.

This verbal conflagration isn’t new, but a long-smoldering blaze that billows up from time to time, particularly when wildfires are involved.

The Denver & Rio Grande rail line reached Durango in 1881, and Silverton the following year, thus opening up a thick artery connecting Durango, rich with coal, timber, cattle, and crops, with the mineral-rich veins around Silverton. The railroad remained Silverton’s primary lifeline connecting it to the outside world through the 1940s, before starting a decline, and then transition from a freight and ore train, to a tourist-carrying one, at which point the roots to today’s train tensions were planted. Screen Shot 2018-06-11 at 5.03.04 PM.png

Passengers stepping off the old steam train in Silverton during the 1950s or ’60s would have been greeted by a gaudy, chaotic scene, part Western movie set, part third-world Medina. A truck kicks up dust on Blair Street, a loudspeaker affixed to the top blaring out advertisements. A giant cowboy cutout juts up from the facade of the Bent Elbow bar and restaurant where a white-hatted guy shoots a black-hatted guy off the balcony, the latter’s dying words a list of the lunch specials at the Bent. Effie Andreatta’s dog runs by, its fur painted—yes, painted—with an advertisement for the San Juan Cafe. And then a scuffle—this one real—as a merchant punches his competitor in the head.

This was Silverton sans mining. The Shenandoah-Dives Mine, the last big operator in the Silverton Caldera, hung on through World War II. But after the war the global market was thrown open, causing metal prices to plummet. In 1953, the Shenandoah-Dives was shuttered for good. The local economy, which was fueled almost entirely by that single mine, sputtered and gasped, ushering in what Silvertonians would come to call the “Black Decade.”

The town clung to life, however, thanks in part to a Hollywood-fueled, global fascination with the Wild West of American mythology. At the time, the historic remnants of the Old West, and thus the natural backdrops for movies about it, were being erased by post-War population and energy booms. Silverton was insulated by its own hard luck; while other towns were getting mid-century architectural makeovers, Silverton’s decades-old streetscapes were falling into disrepair. Meanwhile, the Durango-to-Silverton stretch of railroad, on the brink of being abandoned, was a perfect symbol of those days of yore. It starred alongside the likes of Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck in films such as A Ticket to Tomahawk and Across the Wide Missouri. It switched from hauling ore to carrying sightseers, and almost overnight Silverton morphed from mining town to a facsimile of a Hollywood version of a place that never existed.

Tourism wasn’t new to Silverton. Sightseers had been riding the train to the mining town since the 1880s. Yet catering to the visitors had always been gravy atop the mining money that had built and sustained the community for eight decades. Now the townsfolk were reduced to peddling hamburgers or tchotchkes to a limited crowd of people that got off the train, spent a couple hours walking around, and then left again. It felt undignified and desperate to hawk a false “rinky-dink, rubber tomahawk” version of history, as lifelong Silvertonian and local historical society leader Bev Rich told me. And for what? The pay was lousy, the tourist season only a few months long, and the people’s labor produced nothing.

Mining, on the other hand, provided the metals with which the nation’s vast infrastructure was built, sustained the war efforts, and supplied the raw materials for the booming automobile factories. The industry in Silverton had built a strong middle class, providing enough financial security to encourage families to put down roots, start businesses, and work to improve the community. During World War II, when many of Silverton’s young miners left to Europe or the Pacific, a lot of older Hispanic people came up from the San Luis Valley to take their places, adding to the multi-cultural tapestry that was Silverton. “It was a blue-collar town but an upper-class blue-collar town,” Rich says. “It was a great place to grow up because everyone’s dad worked in the mine and everyone was equal. Mining was the great equalizer. It was racially diverse and it was safe.”

That, it seemed, had vanished, even as much of the rest of the nation was enjoying unprecedented prosperity. Silverton’s population plummeted as miners and their families fled to the uranium mines and gas fields of the surrounding lowlands. Those who remained had little choice but to open businesses selling t-shirts, shot glasses, and hot dogs, desperately hanging on until the good times came back.

No one could have guessed that the same uranium boom that lured miners away from Silverton would indirectly save the town, too, but that’s what happened. In 1959 Standard Uranium Corporation, which was founded a few years earlier by Moab’s uranium magnate Charlie Steen, announced it was getting into the metals mining business and would revive the Sunnyside Mine that had lain dormant for two decades.

The young tourism industry didn’t skitter off and hide at the return of its older economic brother, however. Tourism continued to grow, though the locals accepted it grudgingly. Miners, working underground, looked out for one another. Tourism, on the other hand, was a crassly commercial, dog-eat-dog world that favored tchotchke shops over grocery stores or other businesses that catered to locals. Silverton was torn apart by these conflicting identities in a long-running, Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde struggle.

In July 1963, Terry Marshall wrote a blistering treatise for the Standard on the surreal scene that unfolded every day at “train time.”

“You realize that Silverton, its hardrock mining fortunes dwindling, must rely more and more on the tourist. … But you wonder if the carnival atmosphere must prevail—the loudspeakers, the cheap souvenirs, the cotton candy. … You wonder if there is not something else, something more authentic that will distinguish this small town with its vast mining history, its beautiful scenery, its narrow gauge railroad from the thousands of other small towns in the United States…”

It wasn’t that tourism itself was evil, it’s just that the brand of tourism that Silverton had come to rely on was inauthentic and inaccurate. Silverton had an inferiority complex, falsely believing that its intrinsic assets—its true history, the most spectacular mountain range in the lower forty-eight, its people—were not good enough to draw visitors. Instead, it needed to create some sort of artificial lure. Back then it was the Wild West theme show, these days it’s opening town streets to all-terrain vehicles.

The old businesses that catered to locals, the bakeries, the grocery stores, the insurance agencies, and the hardware stores, gave way to new ones whose sole raison d’etre was to get some of the dollars carried in by the thousand or so people who spilled off the train each day. Naturally, when the train stopped running for the winter, so did the businesses. The merchants boarded up the windows and headed south to wait until the train emerged from hibernation in May. More and more, Silverton was becoming a summer-only town, even with the mine running full bore.

“Today, downtown Silverton is all but dead as a year-round community center, and one has only to look at the names over the boarded-up doors and dark windows on a winter night to know that The Train is the instrument of death,” George Sibley, a longtime western Colorado writer, wrote in the Mountain Gazette in 1975, referring not to the railroad itself but to the new economy it ushered in. “To run a four-month, Train oriented business and go south for the winter has become simply too lucrative—too natural, within the existing, rational system. Among the miners, still the core of what remains of the Silverton community, there is an attitude ranging from bare tolerance to outright disgust toward The Train.”

That same year, someone greased the train tracks at their steepest point, which happened to be quite near where the 416 Fire started this summer. Someone else bombed the Silverton depot, the explosion’s report echoing through town just moments before the train arrived. Neither motive nor culprits were ever found, but it could have had something to do with that same “outright disgust” of which Sibley wrote.

When the Sunnyside Mine above Silverton shut down for good in 1991, marking the death of the mining industry there, the community was left with little else besides The Train to fuel the economy. This dependence only intensified the tensions regarding The Train.

The Train has been a large part of Durango’s identity since the railroad company first founded the town in 1880, but it has played a smaller and smaller role in Durango’s economy. Nevertheless, Durango also has a love-hate relationship with The Train. Coal smoke rises up from the railyard and blankets the south end of town, and a couple of decades ago, as the prolonged drought or new normal set in, it also became clear that the coal locomotives could spark blazes that burned down forests and the local economy. The railroad has taken measures to lessen its impact on air quality, but the smoke hasn’t all gone away. It has put spark arrestors on its locomotive smokestacks, and has a firefighting team follow each train, but the fire danger persists.

It may be a while before we find out what sparked the 416 Fire. Whether it was The Train or something else, the railroad is paying a price. The D&SNGRR has suspended service until at least June 17, but at this point it sure seems like it will be dormant for longer than that, and officials told the Durango Herald that it expects up to 31,000 cancellations as a result. The economies of both Silverton and Durango are taking a hit, and that will just get worse as the fire burns on. On June 12, the 1.8 million-acre San Juan National Forest will be closed to all uses, dealing a huge blow to the outdoor recreation economy. Meanwhile, the steepest price is being paid by those who are forced to evacuate, by the folks who have to breathe the smoke-filled air, and, mostly, by the forests themselves and all the wild inhabitants therein.


This is an augmented and adapted excerpt from River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster by Jonathan P Thompson. 2018, Torrey House Press

BUY THE BOOK: order it from Torrey House Press, pick it up at  Maria’s Bookshop in Durango, find it at Indiebound, or get it from Amazon. Available in Silverton at Fetch’s and the San Juan County Historical Society.

NOW AVAILABLE as an eBook and Kindle edition!



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