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Al Harper: ‘Every crisis makes you better’

Train owner says railroad has long history of overcoming disasters

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad’s struggle with fire and flooding in June and July was not its first bout with nature for a line that traces its origins to 1881.

The roundhouse was destroyed in a blaze on Feb. 10, 1989, with all the engines inside. By spring 1990, all the locomotives, their wooden cabins restored, were up and running – pulling trains up 5,241 feet over two mountain passes to Silverton.

During the Missionary Ridge Fire in June 2002, the train lost 40 days of service, two fewer than the 42 days lost to the 416 Fire, which started June 1. The railroad was also forced to suspend service from Durango after flooding in July washed out tracks north of Hermosa. Shortened trips from Rockwood to Silverton were offered until the tracks were repaired.

“Any time you’re starting and building a railroad into the wilderness, you’re going to have problems, and the problems were extensive – how do you say it: earth, wind and fire,” said Al Harper, owner of the D&SNG.

“That’s what happens in the wilderness, and when you are trying to build a complicated facility like a railroad track with bridges and all, where you don’t have all the materials and supplies you normally would have, it’s a very tough project.”

The 416 Fire

The complexity of running a railroad through a wilderness was all too apparent this drought-stricken summer.

The cause of the 416 Fire remains under investigation by the U.S. Forest Service. But witness accounts that the fire started along the railroad tracks right after a morning train passed have led many to finger the historic train as the prime suspect in igniting the blaze.

Al Chione, who spotted the initial flames, had his wife call Meadowridge subdivision neighbor Cres Fleming, who frequently walks the track looking to prevent trouble from the coal-fired locomotives’ hot cinders. Fleming uses an old insecticide spray truck converted into a brush truck to spray water to help douse spot fires.

But by the time Fleming reached the blaze, which started about 10 miles north of Durango, he reported it was already 35 feet up the hill.

Harper has acknowledged the possibility a D&SNG train could have started the 416 Fire, now Colorado’s sixth largest wildfire at 54,129 acres, and he has said the railroad would take full responsibility if it is proved to have started the fire. But, he has asked for patience as the investigation proceeds.

In September, a civil lawsuit was filed naming D&SNG, its parent company American Heritage Railways Inc. and Harper as defendants.

Harper this week declined to discuss legal issues surrounding the 416 Fire, saying it is a matter of litigation.

The lawsuit seeks to cover all damages and losses incurred by the plaintiffs resulting from the 416 Fire, smoke from the fire and subsequent flooding and mudslides. It also seeks to force the railroad to augment its own firefighting capabilities.

Railroad vs. nature

The battle to defeat nature, and the costs that would be required to build and operate a railroad from Durango to Silverton, were recognized from the start, in 1879, when Gen. William Jackson Palmer, a Civil War general, began plans for a line to service the then-thriving mining industry.

“General Palmer spent a lot of time raising money and convincing people it was a good idea to build a railroad. And, in fact, when he first built it, he didn’t allow any pictures to be taken because he was afraid that his investors would see how difficult and how costly it was, and they might not keep investing,” Harper said.

Duane Smith, retired Fort Lewis College history professor and an expert on Southwest Colorado history, said a flood on Sept. 9, 1970, when 4 inches of rain fell over a swath of region and washed away 13 miles of track, was thought at the time to be the death knell for what was then the Denver & Rio Grande Western.

Duane Smith

“I was there, it took ties and track. It was all gone. There was nothing left,” he said. “It got started up the valley, where it got a good head start. I was living in the north part of Durango, and you could hear it roaring, and it just came.”

Harper concurs: The 1970 flood may have been the toughest blow the line has taken.

By the ’70s, the mining industry around Silverton had died and the line had no freight business to sustain it. The shift to a historical line supported by ticket-paying tourists was only in its infancy.

“It was all tourism, and the question was: Where was the money going to come from? I don’t know how the Denver & Rio Grande actually funded that repair, but it was gigantic. I mean that, it was gigantic,” Harper said.

Smith and Harper consider themselves old timers, but neither was around for the worst flood in the region, the deluge of Oct. 5, 1911, when more than 300 miles of track for various railroads in San Juan and La Plata counties serving the mining industry were washed away.

Total infrastructure damage from the flood was then estimated at $25,000, more than $664,000 in today’s dollars.

The Animas River was running at 25,000 cubic feet per second in Durango. The average for that gauge on Oct. 5 is 441 cfs.

‘Some people don’t like the train’

No matter how bleak the outlook, the ability to finance repairs after bouts with nature has so far pulled the line through to continue its 137 years of Durango to Silverton runs.

A question that remains after the 416 Fire is whether legal challenges might be able to snuff out a line that has somehow always found a way to find financing to carry it to a better day no matter the setbacks.

Smith said, to his chagrin, many Durangoans would just as soon be done with the train, but he thinks that would be a mistake.

“They don’t like the smoke, they don’t like the noise, they don’t want all the tourists – some people don’t like the train. They want a nice little town and only the wealthy could live here,” he said.

The reason Durango exists, Smith said, was Palmer and his plans for the town to host his mine-servicing railroad.

“The fact of the matter is,” Smith said, “if the railroad wasn’t here, I’m not sure Fort Lewis College would be here. I’m not sure the Herald would be here.”

Engine of tourism

Executive Director of the Durango Area Tourism Office Frank Lockwood said while it is never wise to put all your tourism eggs in one basket, the loss of the train would be a huge blow.

In 2017, Lockwood said about 1 million tourists visited La Plata County, and about 200,000 of them rode the train.

“Any time you cut 20 percent of your draw, that’s going to be a real hit,” he said.

Lockwood said the railroad’s advertising also increases awareness of the region, and that benefits everyone. The D&SNG is also the biggest cooperative advertiser with DATO, sharing marketing costs touting the region’s attractions.


For his part, Harper is committed to making $7 million in renovations to the historic line to recover from the 416 Fire and to reduce the chance embers from the train can cause future fires.

He is spending just under $5 million for two diesel locomotives and another $1 million on an oil-burning conversion of the No. 483 locomotive in an effort to reduce fire risk.

He’s spending another $1 million on track improvements.

In the next 30 days, Harper expects delivery of a rented oil-burning steam engine so crews can begin training on its use.

Once the railroad assesses how the oil-burning conversion of Engine No. 483 works out, Harper said, he could convert one or two more coal-fired locomotives to burn oil.

“It’s always earth, wind, fire and floods. The only difference is the magnitude of the disaster,” Harper said. “The fire and floods have always been here. And we’re adapting. We learn from every one. Every crisis makes you better. It’s not how you fall; it’s how you get up.”


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