SILVERTON – Over the years, Silverton has weathered many a storm – fires, avalanches, the collapse of mining – but never before has the small mountain town been without the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad for an entire summer.
Until this year.
The train usually ferries hundreds of tourists per day to this mountain town. Many stop for lunch, a drink, ice cream and perhaps a small souvenir. The tourists are the economic lifeblood of this historic mining town, and the train is the heart that pumps them into the community.
Many wondered what would happen to Silverton if the train couldn’t make its three or four runs per day this summer. But as it turns out, Silverton is doing just fine, all things considered. Stores are packed, the sidewalks are crowded, and the backcountry is at capacity.
So what happened?
Tourists are finding their own way to Silverton, locals say, many experiencing cabin fever after sheltering in place during the spring wave of the coronavirus. And what better place to vacation while maintaining social distancing than a remote mountain town tucked away into the San Juan Mountains?
John Harper, general manager of American Heritage Railways, which owns the D&SNG, said the railroad in the past has been shut down for a few days or even weeks at a time, typically if there’s a fire or rains wash out a portion of track.
“But this is the first time to my knowledge the railroad will be unable to operate all the way to Silverton for the season,” Harper said.
The D&SNG first reached Silverton on July 10, 1882, and ever since, the railroad’s arrival has been a welcome sight in the summer months. But several unfortunate forces have resulted in this historic moment.
First, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the D&SNG earlier this year. When regulations were relaxed, the railroad was able to operate at only 50% capacity, making it financially unfeasible to make the full Durango to Silverton trip.
Then, a massive rainstorm in June washed out the D&SNG’s bridge at Elk Creek, about 5 miles south of Silverton, effectively cutting off trains from the mountain hamlet.
D&SNG officials had estimated it could take eight to 16 weeks to repair. To complicate matters, the U.S. Forest Service on July 2 ordered the railroad to stop any repair work, saying plans needed to first be approved by the agency.
As of July 27, the D&SNG has been given the green light to go ahead with repairs, but there’s no telling when the 40 feet or so of track will be up and running again, Harper said.
Though the train is not shepherding thousands of tourists to Silverton this year, walking around town, one would hardly know it.
“We’ve been as packed on some days as if there were a train rush,” said Scott Fetchenheir, a San Juan County commissioner who also owns Fetch’s Mining & Mercantile on Greene Street.
Silverton, about 50 miles north of Durango, is a highly tourist-dependent economy, and the lion’s share of business occurs in the short summer months for the town, which sits at an elevation of 9,318 feet and has a population of about 600 residents.
Most tourists find their way to the mountain town via the D&SNG, which brings an economic jolt of about 187,000 people to town throughout the summer for a few hours in the afternoon before heading back to Durango.
DeAnne Gallegos, director of the Silverton Area Chamber of Commerce, said most business owners were bracing for drastic losses, with some estimates expecting sales down about 50% to 60% from an average summer.
But something unexpected happened. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, people wanting a summer vacation aren’t necessarily flying to popular destinations or traveling to cities.
Instead, people feeling cooped up after months of lockdown want to take to the road, be in the outdoors and see America’s beautiful landscapes. In sum, just about everything Silverton has to offer, Gallegos said.
“Honestly, town is bustling,” she said. “We’re definitely still down, but not as drastic as we anticipated.”
Silverton’s summer, however, needs to be put in perspective, Gallegos said.
Though tourism remains strong, occupancy rates are limiting for restaurants. Available workforce is in short supply, forcing some businesses to stay closed or shorten hours. And the food supply chain is still disrupted for the town.
Austin Lashley, co-owner of Avalanche Brewing Co., said suspended work visas have effectively cut his usual staff of 15 in half, causing remaining employees to work long hours with few days off, if any.
“Staffing is the No. 1 issue we have in Silverton anyway,” he said. “But I’m glad people are here, it’s way busier than I expected. The alternative is pretty grim.”
Fetchenheir, too, said there’s a steady stream of customers in his shop. But even in a typical summer with the D&SNG running, business tends to drop off around mid-August.
“People just want to get out of their house after being locked down,” he said. “But what will happen in September?”
More people are finding Silverton this summer, but it’s not without consequences. James Simino, the Forest Service’s Columbine district ranger, said the backcountry of the San Juan Mountains is taking a beating.
The influx of visitors, many of whom may not be familiar with wilderness ethics, has caused a dramatic increase in reports of trash, human waste, illegal off-roading and illegal camping in the backcountry.
The Forest Service has limited staff to enforce the rules, Simino said, and even so, it would be incredibly difficult to cover the vast public lands that surround Silverton and catch people in the act.
The Forest Service instead tries to educate when it can.
“But some people, no matter what you tell them, are going to do what they are going to do,” Simino said. “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink.”
A volunteer station was set up at the popular Ice Lakes trail, which easily has more than 100 cars parked at the trailhead every day, spilling out onto the county road, said Brent Schoradt, director of the San Juan Mountains Association.
On one popular day, more than 300 cars were counted.
“We’ve been trying to have more of a presence at the trailheads,” Schoradt said.
But Schoradt said the association needs more volunteers to help in the effort.
“People are coming here specifically to visit public lands, and if we don’t step up and do our part to protect them, over the long term, it will have a negative effect,” he said.
In some instances, people aren’t just coming to visit Silverton – they’re making moves for a long-term stay, said Melissa Childs, a real estate agent and owner of Stellar Properties.
“Real estate is blowing up,” Childs said.
Normally, a house for sale would stay on the market for about 300 days before closing, Childs said. This summer, however, the norm is less than 30 days, with many properties closing within a day or two.
“I think COVID is definitely a factor,” she said. “Everyone wants to live in a rural mountainous area.”
People are moving to Silverton from all over – Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma. While many are purchasing second homes, Childs is seeing more families wanting to permanently relocate.
“More people want to be part of our community,” Childs said. “But I call Silverton a filter for the weak, because people can be idealistic of what living here is like. It’s difficult to live here, a snow shovel better fit your hand.”
Despite the massive visitation in Silverton, the county is reporting only two cases. The last person to test positive back in June wasn’t even in town at the time, said Becky Joyce, San Juan County Public Health director.
Joyce said a couple of tourists in town did test positive for COVID-19, and it’s possible other residents had the virus and chose not to go in for testing.
But, Joyce said people wearing masks, not gathering in large numbers and a state order that cuts off alcohol sales at 10 p.m. seems to be working.
“It is alarming the volume of people on our streets ... who are packing into restaurants and places, and I’m just very grateful ... the state came in with the mask order,” she said. “But we’re just holding our breath, honestly. At least I am.”
Silverton took some of the most extreme measures in the state at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, going so far as to shut the town off to outsiders.
But slowly, the town began to open its doors, trying to strike a balance between welcoming tourism and keeping its community safe. Now, while the nostalgic sound of the D&SNG isn’t heard throughout town this summer, the buzz of visitors still is.
“It’s been a huge combination of disasters that’s keeping the train from coming up,” Fetchenheir said. “But we’re doing well.”