The temperature hovers above zero as the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad crew tasked with clearing snow away from the tracks readies for departure. A blue enameled coffeepot heats atop the coal-fired caboose stove, where crew members pause to warm themselves in its glow as they move in and out of the caboose – the fog of their breath illuminated by their battery-powered lanterns.
The scent of cowboy coffee and coal-fire mingle with grease and the varnish of history as the air warms inside the caboose – built in 1881 and rebuilt to add length in Alamosa in 1930. Outside, unshakable icicles hang from the car’s roof and drip from the window awnings like frozen frosting.
With a tug from his gloved hand, engineer Nick Breeden releases a few short blasts from locomotive 481’s steam whistle before engaging the drivers of the iron horse built by Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia in 1925. Six a.m. – time to go – destination Cascade Canyon.
The crew is working ahead of the morning passenger train, referred to by the railroaders as a “revenue train,” to push snow from the recent storm away from the tracks. It’s a small work crew with one key piece of machinery, a flanger car designed for just such a task.
The couplers between cars clap tight as the locomotive pulls out the slack and the steel wheels begin to roll. The crew in the caboose settle into silence. Conductor Sean Frederick sits at a small desk where the only nod to modernity is the CB radio affixed to the paneled wall. Brakeman Sam Burbey and Trainmaster Joe Daily ease back on the padded side-facing bench seats. The two flanger (snowplow) operators, Daniel Frauenhoff and Christopher Tucson, are perched on opposite sides of the car’s elevated cupola, with its 360-degree view.
Only the bellow of the steam whistle and the crossing bells at intersections shatter the predawn peace as the abbreviated train – locomotive and tender, flanger car with its hydraulic snow-pushing wings, and the caboose – rumble through downtown Durango and across the trestle bridge that spans the Animas River, where the commotion causes deer to bolt from their riverside browse.
A fingernail of a moon pinned above the mesa glows brighter with the first hint of light in the cloudless sky. The train climbs just enough to reveal an ephemeral fog nestled in the hardwoods beside the serpentine twists of the Animus before it drops into the flats of the upper valley.
“It’s shaping up to be a good day,” Daily says. It is mid-February and the second call-to-duty for the flanger car to “widen the path” after a heavy snow this winter. Another train without a flanger pushed the snow off the track the day before. The first trip of the season for the flanger was “epic” with 3 feet of snow on the tracks, Daily says.
The first flanger in the West was developed in 1885, according to History Colorado, and was a “leap forward for snow removal” but it still depends on a locomotive snowplow to clear the bulk of the snow in front of the train. The flanger being used by the D&SNG was also built in 1885, then rebuilt in Alamosa in 1930, and finally had air cylinders added in 1985 so it could be controlled by operators in the caboose, Daily says.
The flanger operators move the “wings” in and out while the locomotive engineer controls the vertical positioning to account for gradient, switches and crossings.
“I love the railroad and all the equipment we run, but as far as the flanger – just how old the technology and how well it still works,” Daily says.
Twenty-nine-year-old flanger operator Frauenhoff, who hails from just south of Littleton, summed up operating the “wing valve” that moves the turn-of-the-last-century wings, in modern terms.
“It kind of feels like an old video game, pulling those handles,” he said.
His flanger-operating partner, 35-year-old Durango native Tucson, said if they get anymore big storms this year they’re not going to have anywhere to put the snow. Tucson described the challenges and limits of operating the flanger.
“You just have to really pay attention to what’s ahead of you and know when you bring your wings in they’re going to react slow sometimes,” he said. “And the wings actually, when you push them all the way out, will lock, but in all those rocks you want to have it bent and then if it hits anything, the wing will come in automatically.
“And there is a lot of close clearance, especially on the highline,” Tucson said. “If you have your window too far open, you can catch a tree branch and break a window.”
Flanger operators spend most their time with heads out the windows, which open outward to create a wind screen as they watch the position of their wing in relation to approaching obstacles.
Breeden gives the locomotive a full head of steam across the flat valley, where it reaches its top speed along the route of 20 mph, before the climb into the cliffside cut that winds into the Rockies steep-and-deep San Juan Mountains. Fifteen mph is the overall average speed the train travels but there are places where it slows to 5 mph, Daily says.
The flanger train is clearing the tracks only as far as Cascade Canyon, a 26½-mile, two-hour round-trip with no stops, to allow for the passage of a winter “revenue” passenger train. But the summer run from Durango to Silverton is a 45.4-mile trip with an elevation gain of 2,796 feet. The grade along the route undulates a lot, Daily says, with the steepest section reaching a 4% gradient about 8 miles south of Silverton.
The railroad no longer uses a coal-powered train for the run to Silverton, but when it did, it burned 4 to 5 tons of coal for a round-trip. And it used the better part of its 5,000-gallon-capacity tank of water, which shares space on the tender with the coal, by the time it reached Tank Creek just shy of Cascade Canyon.
D&SNG started the process to transition from coal-powered locomotives to oil-burning late in 2018 or early 2019, Daily said, and the first oil-burning locomotive came out in January 2020. The railroad has been slowly converting the fleet since. The locomotive leading the way today is the last of the railroad’s coal-burners. The oil-burners go through 800 to 1,000 gallons of crankcase (basically used motor oil) on a run to Silverton and back.
Keeping the tracks clear of snow before it builds up is a timely affair, Daily says.
“If you have a lot of snow – if you have a big storm – you want to start before it’s over,” Daily says. “Or at least as soon as it’s over.
If a passenger train attempted to push through track covered in deeper snow, the weight of the train vs the resistance of the snow would be too much for the locomotive and there would be the danger of not knowing what was hidden beneath the snow.
“Another challenge, if there’s a lot of snow on the tracks, is rocks,” Daily says. “We get a lot of rocks that come down and it would be a big problem if the train hit them. You have to be really careful about that,” he says.
Part of the reason the railroad does not operate all the way to Silverton in winter is because the track passes under several dangerous avalanche chutes. But between Durango and Cascade Canyon there is only one small slide the tracks go under and it is not significant enough to cause real danger.
The locomotive slows as it wends its way up and up until the tracks wedge themselves between a towering cliff on one side and a sheer drop to the Animas River far below on the other. This is where the flanger operators earn their keep, as they jockey the wings in-and-out to avoid hitting rock outcroppings, trees, all but invisible boulders under the blanket of snow beside the tracks, and narrow rock-walled cuts that the fully retracted wings miss by inches.
The little train steams on to Rockwood and a brief stop, where 19-year-old brakeman Burbey collects another bucket of coal for the caboose stove, before continuing on to stop at Tank Creek. Fireman Russell Heerdt, 24, who has been in the locomotive shoveling coal into the firebox during the trip to give Breeden, 27, the steam he needs, climbs atop the tender and lowers the spout from the trackside water tank to refill the tender.
It’s not long before Breeden has the locomotive rollicking up the tracks into the big mountains whose peaks are just now glowing orange with the rising sun. Heerdt moves in one easy motion as he scoops coal with a shovel then turns and steps on the pedal that opens the firebox’s furnace door and stokes what’s called the ring of fire. Breeden operates the levers that drive the train, and adjusts the elevation of the flanger wings with his left hand, while his head and right hand spend most their time out the window.
“It’s muscle memory,” Breeden says as his left hand moves deftly between the brass- and silver-handled levers. “This one (his right hand) just sits over here and gets cold.”
The train has a full head of steam as the locomotive “chuffs” its way toward deeper snow when word comes from the caboose to stop and turn around. Breeden, from Maryville Tennessee, who looks as bygone-era authentic as the locomotive he drives, releases an oath that leaves no doubt he’d like to keep going.
“Well, we got the cool part, seeing that sun come up was pretty neat,” Heerdt says to Breeden.
The trip back to the barn is uneventful if you don’t count the most majestic scenery in the West. Given a bit of free time, some of the crew share what brought them to work on what is one of the most heralded trains in the country.
Brakeman Burbey, who has worked on the railroad for a year, got tired of the view from between his horse’s ears, he said.
“Before this I was a horse packer,” he said. “I did that for about 10 years. This is a good job and I get to sleep in my own bed every night.”
Conductor Frederick, 23, hails from Pittsburgh and went to work on the railroad more than four years ago after attending Fort Lewis College, where he competed on the school’s mountain bike team.
“I love coming up the canyon, being outside and seeing this every day,” he said.
Fireman Heerdt, who is also an engineer, grew up in southeast Iowa and used to visit the railroad and Durango with his grandfather. His favorite part of the job is sharing the history with people.
“We maintain a way of life that no one has done regularly since the ’40s, and it’s good to share that with people.”
Trainmaster Daily, 43, grew up near a railroad track in Maryland, and when he was young his dad took him to a tourist railroad that had steam locomotives and he got hooked, he said. He started working for them when he was a teenager. And then one day he got the bug that’s as old as the tale of the West.
“I was 23 and I knew about this railroad and I kind of just wanted to see what was on the other side of the mountain,” he said.