SILVERTON – In a sign of strange times, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad didn’t take passengers Thursday through the San Juan Mountains to the town of Silverton; rather, the locomotive ferried food and medical supplies.
An “essential services train” left the Durango depot about 8:30 a.m. and arrived in Silverton about noon with the supplies. While the train did not carry passengers, members of the Harper family, who own the railroad, were on board to meet with local leaders.
With the train’s arrival, Silverton, which has been closed to outsiders since March because of coronavirus restrictions, announced it was open to visitors.
“Most importantly, this is the train’s version of an F-16 flyover,” said DeAnne Gallegos, director of the Silverton Area Chamber of Commerce. “It’s bringing support and hope and energy into town.”
In March, San Juan County implemented a locals-only policy that prohibited nonessential travel into Silverton, effectively cutting off the mountain hamlet.
After the public health order expired at the end of April, the county adopted Gov. Jared Polis’ “safer at home” policy, which contained a clause that said people could not travel more than 10 miles for recreational purposes.
Silverton’s self-imposed isolation seems to have helped slow the spread of the virus. As of Thursday, San Juan County, which has about 600 residents, had only one confirmed case of the virus and no deaths. Health officials have said, however, the virus is likely more widespread than reported.
Now, Silverton officials cautiously are trying to attract tourists, Gallegos said, still wary that a surge of visitors could overburden the small community.
“But we also understand we are a tourism-based economy, and livelihood is just as important for our little community because that is how we all survive,” she said.
The train ride was meant to boost morale and amplify the message that Silverton is open, Gallegos said.
A crowd gathered at the station for the railroad’s first oil-burning locomotive to arrive. Waiting at a safe distance, nearly everyone wore a face covering, and for those dressed in 1800s attire, the masks didn’t look out of place.
Judy Coleman, a Silverton native, had her daughter make her a mask that matched her outfit. Coleman said the scene was not a normal train welcoming, but people were making the most of it.
“It’s very different,” she said. “But at least it’s something.”
Thursday’s train ride also served other purposes.
Molly Barela, owner of the Golden Block Brewery and a volunteer with the town’s food bank, said the supplies would help restock pantries.
“We’ve been having an inability to get food to our food bank and those in need,” she said.
The D&SNG also has been closed since March and has been looking for a way to follow safety regulations while carrying enough passengers to make a profit. The D&SNG is a significant tourist attraction for both Durango and Silverton.
La Plata County is working on a variance request to jump-start the railroad business, which would allow the D&SNG to operate at 75% capacity, the threshold owner Al Harper said the train needs to remain profitable.
But that amount of crowding might conflict with state guidance of keeping people 6 feet apart. Restaurants, for instance, are allowed to operate at only 50% capacity.
“I have no idea (if it will be approved),” Harper said. “I wish I had answers. It’s a very difficult time and we’re anxious to open.”
Harper’s son, John, who is D&SNG general manager, said the railroad was “taking all the right steps” to reopen by implementing social-distancing measures, taking staff temperatures and issuing a symptom questionnaire.
If the variance is approved, Harper said it would take the D&SNG two weeks to start running trips to Silverton. La Plata County commissioners will vote Tuesday on the variance request, which will then need support from San Juan Basin Public Health, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. Then, it would need ultimate approval from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Gallegos said Silverton supports La Plata County’s efforts, but the community is challenging the D&SNG to get creative.
In 2002, for instance, as the Missionary Ridge Fire burned between Durango and Silverton, the D&SNG ran trips out of Silverton to popular recreation areas like Elk Park.
“All businesses are being challenged to diversify during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Gallegos said. “We’re asking the same of the train: think outside the box and offer rail excursions on both sides of the railroad.”
Several Silverton businesses interviewed Thursday said they are ready for visitors.
While it’s unclear when the D&SNG will be able to run again, outdoor recreation is kicking back up: The San Juan National Forest is set to reopen campgrounds, and San Juan County is preparing to clear backcountry roads.
“We feel a little more comfortable opening up,” said San Juan County Administrator Willy Tookey.
Paul Zimmerman, owner of the Pickle Barrel Restaurant, called the town’s pivot to reopening “the right move.”
“Society as a whole can’t continue on in fear mode and hiding out,” he said. “It’s a virus. It’s scary. But we have to live.”
But after weeks of discouraging outsiders, Zimmerman and Inga McFadden, owner of Coffee Bear Silverton, a coffee shop, said it might be difficult to persuade visitors to return.
“Our reputation has really tanked,” McFadden said. “But I hope we rebuild that slowly, because we are a tourist town.”
Just as big of a mystery, Gallegos said, is when the town will see the D&SNG blow its steam and smoke again.
“Silverton would not exist without that railroad,” she said. “But we don’t know when the next opportunity for the train to run will be.”