The Silverton Depot bombing, the 416 Fire, and the symbolism of the Train

On a pleasant, late summer’s day in Silverton, Colorado, San Juan County Sheriff Virgil Mason and local business owner Otto Smith sat at one of the outside tables at the Benson Hotel. To temper the harsh, September sunlight, Mason donned his trademark aviator glasses and short-brimmed, felt hat. Smith, under his head of thick, black hair, took long draws off a cigarette between sips of coffee. 

The year was 1975, a tumultuous time for the state, the community, and the nation. Perhaps Virgil and Otto chatted about how tourist numbers were up that summer by quite a bit, or about the fight to remove the billboards blocking the view on the highway south of town, or the move, by Leighton Roberts, to build condominiums in the Jarvis Meadows on the extreme south end of the county, a development that would come to be known as Cascade Village.

Maybe Smith mentioned the recent layoffs at the Idarado mine, or the closing of another big mine in Rico. And perhaps Mason threw in a comment about the breaching of the Sunnyside tailings pond earlier in the summer that sent grey sludge coursing through the entire length of the Animas River, turning it opaque grey for several days, smothering countless trout, and inciting outrage among Durangoans. 

“It’s about train time,” said Mason, looking down-canyon toward the tracks on which the locomotive would pull the the tourist-laden orange cars into town, wondering why he hadn’t heard it yet. “Only a few more days and it will be done for the year.”

But instead of the plaintive locomotive’s whistle, a sharp boom echoed through Baker’s Park. Debris flew like confetti into the deep, blue sky, visible over the rooftops from where Mason sat. He stood and, without saying anything to Smith, lumbered to his patrol car, his ample gut hanging over his belt. He swung open the sedan’s door, flopped down into the driver’s seat, and raced toward the explosion. 

Seconds later, he arrived at the historic, unoccupied Denver & Rio Grande Western train depot. Dust still lingered in the air, pieces of wood littered the ground around the building, and the entire southern end of the building had been blown asunder. The roof on one corner was gone, and it sagged wildly on the rest of the long, narrow structure. A large timber sat on the railroad tracks.

As Mason surveyed the scene, Ron Pense drove up in the city’s front-end loader to see about the commotion. Others showed up, too. And by the time the whistle from the day’s train alit on the late-summer breeze, a dozen people were milling about. Mason ringed the area with police tape to keep evidence intact, while city workers removed the timber from the tracks so the train could pass. 

Although the railroad had donated the depot to the San Juan County Historical Society years earlier, it appeared as if the train was the intended target. The train was late that day. Had it been on time, it would have passed the depot at just about the same moment when the explosives detonated, surely leaving casualties in its wake. Sometime later that day, a nine year old from Silverton surveyed the scene and asked the question on everyone’s mind: ”What’s anyone want to do a thing like that for?”

The question was never answered, the hunt for suspects ebbed, and most observers concluded that the great Silverton Depot Bombing of 1975 was merely a random act of vandalism.

This explanation has never sat well with me. Sure, those were crazy times, and bombings of various sorts weren’t that uncommon. But it seems a little off to think that someone would go through the trouble to acquire explosives, build a bomb, nearly destroy an historic building, and potentially injure train passengers in the process, all just to hear a big boom. That’s not to say that the perpetrators were trying to kill anyone, but they may have been making a statement. And what better way to do so than to target one of the most potent symbols of the region, the Durango and Silverton train.

I got to thinking about the depot bombing — and the symbolism of the train — after the 416 Fire, ignited by embers from the train’s smokestack, burned thousands of acres of north of Durango in June 2018. Critics of the train were livid that the owners had sent the coal-fired locomotives into the forest during a time of extreme fire danger, and defenders of the train were equally livid about the criticism. The reason for such strong feelings is obvious: The train is more than merely another business or tourist attraction. Rather, it is a powerful symbol, with both positive and negative connotations, and it elicits powerful reactions — such as the vitriolic verbal volleying that played out on social media in response to the lawsuits against the railroad relating to the 416 Fire, and maybe even such as the Silverton Depot bombing.

***

I first got interested in the bombing back in the early aughts, when I was the Silverton newspaper guy and had stumbled across articles about it in old copies of the Silverton Standard & the Miner. Curious, I went up to the courthouse and asked Melody, the dispatcher at the sheriff’s office, if she knew anything about it. She cackled her trademark cackle, rolled her office chair back to an old metal filing cabinet, opened a drawer, and whipped out the file from the three-decade-old case that had long gone cold and mostly forgotten. 

It was a thick folder, filled with official reports, scraps of paper with notes jotted on them, newspaper articles on moldering paper. There was no particular order to any of it, and some of the notes lacked context. Flipping through the papers and photos was a bit disorienting, making me feel as if I were a time-traveling detective sent back to the age of disco to solve the case.

As if to drive the sensation home, there was a mysterious bulletin, typewritten (from some sort of teletype, I assume), and issued by the Colorado State Patrol just hours after the explosion: BOL RED/WHT LATE MODEL FORD PU W/ RED/WHT CAMPER SHELL ARIZ UNKN. 2 NEGRO SUBJECTS 1 POSS A FEMALE. SUBJECTS WANTED FOR INVESTIGATION OF A BOMBING IN SILVERTON. 1 TALL NEGRO MALE SEEN FLEEING THE SCENE OF BOMBING JUST 3 MIN BEFORE, WEARING BLU TRENCH COAT AND WHT GLOVES.

It seemed like a promising lead, particularly the description of the vehicle, and gave me, the wanna-be detective, something to work off of. But as I worked my way through the file, I found no other mention of these suspects, of the vehicle, and certainly nothing about a blue trench coat and white gloves. It was almost as if this purported eyewitness account were fabricated from thin air. Aside from this little tidbit, the other items in the file seemed legitimate and enabled me to get a sense of how the investigation unfolded in the hours after the bombing. 

… 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, Mountain Gazette

Mason began his work just moments after the explosion. He immediately called in the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Bob Perkins from the CBI arrived in Silverton less than three hours after the bombing, and agents from the Denver office of the ATF arrived a couple of hours after him, taking charge of the investigation. Undercover agents from the D&RGW — the name of the railroad at the time — joined the search, as well. 

Investigators discovered primer cord and fuses among the debris at the scene, leading them to believe that the bomber had removed the nitroglycerin from eight to ten sticks of dynamite, and put it in a can to make the bomb. Three fuses were attached to the can, each with its own blasting cap, to account for duds. They would have had to light the fuse by hand, and only had about three to four minutes before detonation. 

Also on that first day, Mason received a tip: A psychic from California called Mason’s office and told the dispatcher that she had “seen” the culprits. Three men, she said, one in his thirties and two in their twenties, were responsible for the bombing. The leader, the psychic said, was a “violent, violent man who hated the people of this locale.”

It was about as close to a real motive as investigators would get. 

***

The railroad has been tangled up with the identity of this locale since the early 1880s, when the steel rails first made their way from Alamosa to Chama to Durango to Silverton.

The train opened up a thick artery connecting Durango, rich with coal, timber, cattle and crops, with the mineral-rich veins around Silverton. The miners got access to heavy equipment that would have been almost impossible to haul over the passes with mules, and they could then send their ore by the railcar-load back down to Durango and the new San Juan & New York smelter built along the Animas River’s banks. Potential investors in the mines no longer had to brave sphincter-puckering wagon rides over steep passes to see future prospects. 

In the lower areas, the pair of steel ribbons and the coal-eating, smoke-belching locomotives that rode on them rapidly transformed the entire region’s landscape, cultures, and economy. It enabled the white settlers’ encroachment onto and theft of Indigenous lands, along with the industrialization of the same land. The locomotives sucked up water from rivers and streams, and new coal mines were opened to feed the chugging beasts. Glades of tall, straight, and wise old ponderosas in northern New Mexico were sheared down en masse now that there was an easy way to haul them to market.

Towns and sawmills and cattle-loading chutes popped up along the tracks; subsistence farms and ranches morphed into commercial-sized operations. And in the high country, the mostly entrepreneurial mining trade transformed into an industrial-scale concern, funded by outside capital. The population of Silverton and surrounding towns ballooned into the thousands. The train was a literal lifeline for these communities and their industries. 

… people that don’t like trains have no soul … perhaps more to be pitied than scorned

But it also reaped destruction. The smokestack of a coal locomotive is essentially a big spark dispenser, as anyone knows who has ridden on the open car of the train and had a cinder fly into their eye. The embers spew from the stack and flutter off into the surrounding trees, grass, or even buildings. Sooner or later, a cinder will ignite the grass or wood, and a fire will be born. Over the years countless wildfires sprouted along the D&RGW tracks, some of them causing serious damage. In 1904 a cinder from the locomotive ignited a lumberyard in Silverton, and around the same time another one burned the trestle near Rockwood. The same bridge burned again the following year. In December 1906 — yes, December — sparks from the railroad’s locomotives ignited dry grass along the tracks in the Annimas Valley north of Durango. The inferno spread rapidly, engulfing several pastures and haystacks. Four-hundred tons of hay, several outbuildings, and a couple of barns burned in the blaze, and the hotel at Trimble Hot Springs escaped the flames — barely.

In June 1909, the train going over Lizard Head Pass to Telluride threw off what the Telluride Journal referred to as “showers of live cinders” that lit the snowshed on fire, causing a dramatic blaze. Snowsheds and tunnels and even train-cars frequently burned up thanks to cinders and sparks, sometimes resulting in loss of life. Acres and acres of grassland burned out on the Great Plains in Colorado, Nebraska, and Kansas. Colorado even has a whole set of statutes on the books concerning trains and fires, including this language: “Every railroad company operating its line of road, or any part thereof, within this state shall be liable for all damages by fires that are set out or caused by operating any such line of road, or any part thereof, in this state, whether negligently or otherwise.”

So even by the early 1900s, the train was not only loaded down with ore and freight, but it was also laden with symbolism. 

***

The frustration of the depot bombing investigators was apparent in the musty files. They’d get a solid lead, grab ahold, and follow it, only to see it dissolve.

Investigators determined that dynamite had gone missing from the Silverton City Shops — an indication of just how ubiquitous explosives were back then, and analysis of crime scene evidence showed that the stolen dynamite and fuses may have matched those used in the explosion. A town employee with motive — he had been arrested for stealing property from the D&RGW yard in Grand Junction — was given a polygraph test. But when he passed he was cleared as a suspect.

Durango police indicated in a note to Mason that, shortly after the bombing, “six hippies vacated a house near Durango” (hippies hadn’t been priced out of Durango, yet, and when one moved it apparently aroused suspicion). One of the “hippies” was tracked to Nucla and was subjected to the polygraph. He, too, passed. Three others were also given lie detector tests and all of them passed and taken off the suspect list. A week after the bombing, the Silverton Standard reported that 24 suspects, including a member of the Silverton Town Board, had been cleared. 

By the second week of the investigation, with no real leads or suspects, Mason was getting desperate. He wrote this in a letter to the Silverton Standard: Now, a few words for the sickie who set the bomb at the depot … I personally think you are a creep, besides being a sick person and if I had my way when I catch you, I’d turn you over to the miners and the townspeople. So sickie, with law enforcement breaking their backs to get you and the reward offered for your arrest, look out. Your time is running out, believe me.

Not surprisingly, a “Mike from D.A.’s office” called shortly after the letter was run to chide Mason for writing the screed, noting that it could damage a case against anyone charged for the bombing. 

Other suspects emerged in the months following the bombing. (We have chosen to change the names of the suspects since no charges were ever filed). In October, about a month after the bombing, Henry Theodore Miller became a suspect when he was cited for storing dynamite in his car and for harassing and threatening hunters on national forest land near Bayfield. Miller’s dynamite fuses matched those recovered by investigators at the depot. Miller was arrested for questioning on November 25. The police file contains no record of his interrogation. Charges were never filed.

A few months later, an “FBI Informant” named Patti Mcrae implicated her ex-husband, William Arnold McRae, in the depot bombing. She filed an affidavit the following spring, which included the following: “At the end of Sept, 1975 I received some dynamite and blasting caps from my husband, William McRae … William brought about 37 sticks of dynamite and a bunch of blasting caps to the trailer where I lived. He said he got the explosives from the mine (Buffalo Boy in Silverton). He said that when he took the explosives, Joe Barton, a fella he worked with, was with him … After he left the explosives at the trailer he stayed for a couple of days. He left and went back to Silverton. I’m not sure how he got back. Right around this time the depot in Silverton was blown up … William had recently given up heroin in favor of cocaine …”

It was compelling testimony, but ended up leading nowhere because all the events in it occurred after the bombing. This may explain why William McRae was never even questioned about the crime, let alone arrested or charged for anything.

***

The case file was filled with tidbits like these, and of tales of suspects considered and suspects crossed off the list. It contains very little about potential motives, however. In fact, both investigators and outside observers seemed intent on discounting motive altogether. 

“As one ponders the bombing of the old depot in Silverton last week the senselessness of the act grows. Who was the target? What could possibly be the cause?” My father, Ian Thompson, wrote that in a Durango Herald editorial. “Even if the railroad were the target, the reason for such an act is difficult to discern. The old stream train, a national historical artifact, carries thousands of happy families between Durango and Silverton each summer. Nothing more menacing than backpacks and candybars ride as freight in its occasional baggage cars.”

Thompson concluded that the bombing was senseless vandalism, a conclusion echoed some 30 years later on an online narrow gauge forum by Fritz Klinke, who was president of the San Juan County Historical Society when the bombing took place: “Bored, something to do, wanted to see the explosion — it was never determined that there was an overt act against anyone or the train. Today there would be an immediate jump in conclusion to the terrorist connection, or a political/radical act, but it was generally agreed that it was an act of plain old vandalism.”

Hindsight may be 20/20, but it still baffles me that more serious consideration wasn’t given at the time to a political motive. It was, after all, a tumultuous time politically in the U.S., and people often used explosives to send political messages. The Symbionese Liberation Army had been wreaking havoc, activists bombed the Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Pine Ridge, and the Weather Underground bombed Kennecott Mining Corp’s Salt Lake City office just days prior to the depot bombing. In Durango during that era a 3.2 bar and a motorcycle shop got bombed in separate incidents. The bombings weren’t politically motivated, but they also weren’t motive-less crimes.

Without that train, Durango would just be an isolated college town.

— Duane Smith

Meanwhile, some residents of Silverton saw the train as carrying something far more menacing — at least in a symbolic sense — than backpacks and candybars: The New West economy, and with it, the destruction of the old economy, which had sustained the town for a century. 

After World War II, as highways webbed their way around the West, the railroads struggled, and most lines were abandoned. But the Durango-Silverton line survived thanks to tourism and a Hollywood-fueled, global fascination with the Wild West of American mythology. The train starred in movies such as Rio Grande, Ticket to Tomahawk, and Across the Wide Missouri. It switched from hauling ore to carrying sightseers, from being a functional tool of the extraction economy into a living relic and tourist attraction, a conversion that was finalized when the rails between Durango and Alamosa were abandoned in 1969 and the Silverton Depot was donated to the San Juan County Historical Society, who planned to turn it into a museum.

Stills from Rio Grande, featuring the Durango and Silverton train.

Even though mining continued, Silverton began to morph into a tourist attraction, a phenomenon fueled by the horde of train passengers — nearly 100,000 in 1975 — dumped into town every summer’s day. Townsfolk who had once enjoyed the trappings of a strong, stable mining economy 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 version of history. The pay was lousy, the tourist season only a few months long, and the people’s labor produced nothing. The train’s growing economic dominance spurred the rise of summer-only, train passenger-oriented businesses, and the fall of locals-oriented year-round businesses such as grocery stores and insurance agents.

“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,” wrote George Sibley in the November 1975 edition of Mountain Gazette. “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.”

Silverton Town Board members in 1975 complained about the air pollution caused by the train’s engines, and about the garbage strewn about in the streets after the train left each day. Meanwhile, down in Durango, residents of the then predominantly Latino South Side were blanketed nightly with coal smoke, since the locomotives’ boilers were kept hot around-the-clock in the railyard. Residents sacrificed health and comfort for a train whose sole purpose was to deliver tourists to chintzy rubber-tomahawk shops like cattle to the slaughter. The train was also, as always, prone to starting fires in forests that were becoming more and more valued for recreational opportunities. 

Only three days before the depot bombing, a rock was intentionally rolled onto a D&RGW pop car near Hermosa, injuring its driver. And the last train of the season, traveling from Durango just days after the bombing, was delayed because someone greased the tracks near Shalona, as if preparing it for one of those cheesy Western train robberies. Over the course of just several days, the train was targeted three times, and yet observers and investigators alike seemed unwilling to see any sort of political motive. 

***

Finding a motive behind the 416 Fire of 2018 was a bit more straightforward, even if it took federal officials an entire year before they announced the cause — a cinder from the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge train. There was no direct motive, of course. It was an accident. But the roots of the accident easily can be traced back to the profit motive — mingled with a hefty dose of hubris. 

After all, why else would the railroad continue to send its cinder-spewing coal locomotives to Silverton during the spring of 2018, which followed one of the driest, warmest winters on record? The forest was a tinder box. Already that season the train had started nearly fifty fires along the tracks, all of which they’d suppressed before they became unmanageable. The luck was bound to run out. 

It had before. The 1989 Fourth of July Fire in the Animas Canyon about ten miles downstream from Silverton burned fifty acres before it was doused. It was the 226th fire started by the train that year, alone. Others that grew large enough to warrant names include: the 1994 Mitchell Lakes Fire, the 1997 West Needles Fire, the 2002 Schaaf II Fire, and the Goblin Fire, which in 2012 burned about 1,000 acres in the West Needles.

And on the morning of June 1, 2018, after one of the trains had passed by on the way up the Shalona grade — the same segment of tracks that had been greased many years before — a blaze broke out along the tracks. The relatively inexperienced right of way crew on duty — the veteran crew had been laid off earlier that year — couldn’t contain the flames. The helicopter that normally followed the train didn’t arrive. 

A stiff breeze whipped the flames into a fury and the conflagration raced up the hillside through the bitterly dry grass. The fire went on to char nearly 54,000 acres of forest. Hermosa Mountain, at times, looked like an erupting volcano, with billows of smoke and flame spewing into the clear blue sky. The region was blanketed by lung-searing smoke, forcing people indoors and even out of town. Highway 550 was shut down, causing severe economic harm throughout Silverton. The vegetation that tethered the earth was lost, making slopes vulnerable to catastrophic erosion. And when the rains came and helped douse the flames, it sent rivers of mud and rock and timber down the mountainsides and into homes and businesses.

And so, in the summer of 2018, the train became burdened with yet more symbolism, that of destructive greed. Critics demanded that the railroad be held to account. Property owners who were in the path of the flames or the debris flows filed a lawsuit against the railroad. And a year after the flames erupted the federal government finally laid the blame for the fire on the train, and filed a lawsuit of its own seeking reimbursement for suppression costs. 

The reaction on social media and in the newspaper comment sections was swift and ugly. The most vehement defenders of the railroad, train trolls, insisted that the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, and the feds, and even the newspaper reporters who wrote about the lawsuits, posed an existential threat to the railroad — and therefore the entire regional economy. Durango will be a “ghost town” without the train, one commenter said. Historian Duane Smith told the Denver Post: “Without that train, Durango would just be an isolated college town.” 

Other comments were less measured: “Kalif@ckedupia!” “Idiot!” “… people that don’t like trains have no soul…perhaps more to be pitied than scorned…” “… maybe you should find a different place to live.” Some train trolls even demanded a list of the lawsuits’ plaintiffs so they could seek retribution. 

That the railroad is one of the region’s big economic engines is undeniable. That Durango or even Silverton would dry up and disappear without it is simply untrue. Some people come to Durango because of the train, yes. But many, many others ride the train because it’s in Durango, which has a bounty of other assets that draw people. If the train left, property values would not, unfortunately, plummet to a level of affordability. Silverton would have some adjusting to do, for sure, because the train is a big part of the tourist economy. But as the attitudes of the ‘70s show, that type of economy isn’t universally desired. 

This summer the train never made it to Silverton, first due to COVID-19 and then thanks to a bridge getting washed out along the way — and Silverton did just fine.

I suspect even the train trolls understand that Durango’s economy would survive the train’s absence. But maybe Durango’s identity — for better or worse — would not. After all, the train is a symbol of Durango, its history, and what it is as a community.

And that’s why train trolls are so … trollish. And that, too, may just be the reason someone blew up the Silverton Train Depot in September 1975. 

***

I was just a week away from my fifth birthday when someone bombed the Silverton Depot, but I must confess that I don’t remember hearing about it at the time. It’s odd, because like all Durango kids, I was enamored with the train: the hulking locomotive, the lonely whistle, the distinctive yellow orange cars, the steel tracks, and the creosote-smell ties that got gooey and sticky on hot days. I relished in the feel of the nickels and pennies after the train flattened the into shiny disks, the concentration required to balance on one rail as if it were the high beam, counting the rails as we walked along the tracks from fishing spot to fishing spot. 

Back then there was a chain of dilapidated old freight and ore and cattle cars lined up along the tracks adjacent to what is now called Narrow Gauge Avenue. My friends and I used to climb around on those old rail cars, and I vividly remember the soft and menacing look of the giant splinters I would get in my fingers and palms.

About fifteen years ago, the railroad decided to remove the old train cars. I’m sure it made a lot of folks happy since it opened up some new parking spaces and removed what some might have considered blight. I, however, was bummed. I saw them as a symbol of a Durango of old, a Durango that was a little rougher, a lot more working class, and a heck of a lot less glitzy. The cars represented, in other words, the Durango of my childhood, and getting rid of them was confirmation that the Durango of old was no more, and all I have left of it is memories, memories that often involve, in one way or another, that steam-belching locomotive and the long row of cars strung out behind it:

… the precise feel that day in mid-summer when I put my ear to the track behind the fish hatchery to see if a train was coming, and when it wasn’t how we set out across the bridge, our eyes glued to the ties so as not to step into the void in-between, and the sickening sound of the whistle behind us, and knowing we’d never across in time. And the way my brother guided us over the edge, down to the top of the stone pillar, and how we huddled there laughing in fear as, below us, the cold rushing water of the Animas River flowed by, and above us the locomotive and cars and the clacking and the hissing and the clacking and hissing. 

###

Jonathan P. Thompson is the author of Behind the Slickrock Curtain: A Project Petrichor Environmental Thriller (Lost Souls Press, 2020) and River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster (Torrey House Press, 2018).

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