Behind an unassuming and windowless door in an all but hidden and nondescript warehouse in Durango lies a portal to the past that leaves those who enter spellbound, if only for an instant, as the immensity and magic of what they see washes over them.
“My favorite part of the job is seeing the excitement of little kids when they walk in for the first time,” said Harris Abernathy, director of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum. “There’s that initial ‘wow’ moment of it all and you see the sparkle in their eyes. Then you see it in the parents. There’s just so much to see and experience.”
Abernathy took over the reigns as director of the museum from Jeff Ellingson, who retired in April after a distinguished career with the railroad that culminated in his ushering the museum into existence – and establishing it as one of the premier railroad museums in the West.
“The museum has something for everyone,” Ellingson said. “People don’t really know what to expect when they walk through that door because it doesn’t look like much from the outside. But then they open that door and just stand there and go ‘Wow!’ I’ve heard it thousands and thousands of times. It’s just magical when you walk in.”
A steam locomotive and tender, a narrow gauge caboose and vintage train cars – one built for the classic movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and another that is said to be haunted – are all accessible for visitors to explore. There is a replica of the first airplane to fly over Durango (the original, like so many of the first automobiles in the area, brought in by rail because the roads were too treacherous for travel).
Then there is the collection of 1,200 toy soldiers spanning from the Revolutionary War to Afghanistan – all hand poured and painted by Korean War veteran Bud Davis, who coached Shaquille O’Neal during his tenure as the head coach of the LSU men’s basketball team.
There are far too many wonders – which include a historic library, antique automobiles, motorcycles, farm tractors and wagons – to name here. Not to mention visitor’s favorite – an 800-square-foot model railroad where several trains crisscross mountains and pass through tunnels as they travel through 1950-era towns detailed down to the last brick. There are cinders along the tracks, a drive-in diner advertising 15-cent hamburgers, a farmer shingling his roof and a drive-in movie theater “Now Open 7 Days” featuring “The Searchers” starring John Wayne.
The 12,000-square-foot museum is home to 5,000 artifacts valued for insurance purposes at nearly $5 million. But that’s not the true value.
“The value of that museum is really not measured in money,” Ellingson said. “It has to do with what it does for people. And that is what is most important to me. And the people who worked really hard, not just me, but so many people including the Harpers, who put their backbones into that place and made it work.”
The railroad and museum is owned by Carol and Al Harper. It was Al who approached Ellingson in 1998 and pulled him off his job restoring and maintaining the railroad’s 19th-century passenger cars and told him to create a museum.
“I was kind of taken aback by that,” Ellingson said. “My background was in interior design and I had been a company artist for years designing logos and T-shirt designs and things like that. So I thought, wow, how fun, I can finally use what I went to school for to design a museum.”
He went to work immediately, transforming what had originally been eight stalls to house locomotives but had become a storage space, into the museum which opened “just barely” on Mother’s Day – May 12, 1998.
“Jeff Ellingson is a good friend and he really made that museum a success,” Harper said. “His heart and soul is in that museum. It’s a reflection of all his dedication. I give him full credit for the success of that museum. We get 110,000 to 120,000 visitors a year. I can’t say enough about him. He’s a great guy.”
Abernathy, who first visited the museum with his parents as a boy, is awed by the legacy now entrusted in his care.
“Where do I even begin?” he said. “Jeff (Ellingson) and Al (Harper), but mostly Jeff created this place and you just can’t give him enough credit. He took an empty space and filled it with world-class exhibits, telling a story that’s quite exceptional.”
Collecting the exhibits was akin to a snowball rolling down hill, Ellingson said. He didn’t have to search them out. “They found me because the railroad is a world-class operation that attracts visitors who saw the museum and said ‘I have something I would like to show here.’” While some of the artifacts were purchased, most arrived via loan and donation.
While Ellingson gets a lot of the credit for the museum, he is quick to pass it on to others. For example, he knew nothing about building the model railroad, which was originally nothing but track built by a local man above his two-car garage. It had to be broken into 13 pieces and then reassembled at the museum where experts then stepped in and worked thousands of hours to build the towns and scenery and record the authentic sound effects that visitors hear today.
“I really want to emphasize that there were so many people that got behind this project and helped in so many ways,” Ellingson said. “And not just employees but also retired people and former railroaders that really grasped onto this idea of telling the story about how the railroad built this area up from nothing. It’s a great story and needs to be told.”
Both Ellingson and Abernathy not only have backgrounds in historic restoration, they are also historians who said the museum serves as a jump-off point for sharing and exchanging stories with visitors.
“The people were my favorite part,” Ellingson said. “You never know who is going to walk through that door. I have met all sorts of people from all walks of life from all over the world. And I have heard amazing stories I never expected. Those pieces, those artifacts in the museum are your props. They just start conversations.”
A few of those unexpected visitors included David Letterman; former President Gerald Ford; actors Kris Kristofferson, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell; Oprah Winfrey and her friend Gayle King; and relatives of General Palmer who founded the railroad in 1880.
Abernathy plans to rearrange some exhibits to take advantage of natural light and open floor space for new elements while also providing better flow through the exhibits. He also wants to make the library more accessible, and incorporate QR codes into exhibits that guests can then scan to bring up videos and maps for deeper access than placards alone can provide.
“I am just thrilled to be here and have the opportunity,” he said. “I feel very fortunate and honored to have been chosen to take on this mantle.”
The museum is free and open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. seven days a week. It is located behind the depot at 479 Main Ave. in Durango.