Three narrow gauge railroads connected Silverton to the northern San Juan Mountains Mining District
[The Montrose Mirror | November 27, 2023 | By Kate Burke]
Silverton, San Juan County – gateway to San Juan Mining District
Silverton boomed in the 1800s. By 1885, the town had around 1,200 residents. Although never as rich or famous as towns like Leadville and Aspen, Silverton and San Juan County became one of the most important areas in the Western Colorado mining regions.
The mines were diversified. Most importantly, they had gold. The silver crash of 1893 dealt a heavy economic blow to silver mine camps, but with gold…Silverton prospered. San Juan County surpassed $1,000,000 in gold production for the first time in 1898 and by 1905 had over 3,000 residents.
Gold was discovered in Baker’s Park in the 1860s, and in Arrastra Gulch (location of the Silver Lake and Iowa mines) in the early 1870s, but the area didn’t boom until the 1880s. Development was aided by the Denver & Rio Grande railroad, which arrived in Silverton from Durango in 1882. The Gold King vein was discovered in 1887. Two of the largest producers were the Sunnyside Mine near Eureka and the Gold King at Gladstone. The San Juan Mountains mining district was a major producer into the 1950s and produced gold and silver placers in the 1930s. Of over 11,000 mines recorded in Colorado by the USGS (in 1968), 5,000 are listed as gold producers.
Probably the most amazing factor of this era is the speed in which mines, towns, and railroads were completed. A mining camp or town could spring up (or disappear) in months, a city could be built in a year, and railroads, which required mind-boggling engineering feats to conquer the rugged terrain, could be completed in less than two years.
Silverton was incorporated in 1874. It is one of the highest towns in the United States, at 9,318 feet elevation, and located in San Juan County, the highest county in the United States. Most of the surrounding peaks are over 13,000 feet, and 7 of Colorado’s “fourteeners” are within 15 miles. Silverton has endured, when many mining camps did not. The railroad gave it access, and with many buildings constructed of brick and stone (rather than timber), it never had a major fire. Much of the town, which now depends on tourism, remains as it was in the 1880s.
Four Narrow Gauge railroads – access to the mines
Colorado’s mining districts were booming by the late 1800s, but their astounding success is due the narrow-gauge railroads that served them, bringing in people and supplies and taking out ore for smelter processing. In 1882, the Denver & Rio Grande arrived from Durango. Over the next few years, Otto Mears, “Pathfinder of the San Juans,” built and operated three short-line, narrow gauge railroads connecting Silverton to the San Juan Mountain Mining Districts to the north.
#1. The Silverton Railroad (SRR)
Mears completed the Silverton Railroad (SRR), founded in 1887, in just over a year. The train steamed over Red Mountain Pass and traveled a nearly impassable 21.5-mile route between Silverton (San Juan County) and Albany in Ouray County. Three engineering feats—the Chattanooga Loop, Red Mountain Wye, and Corkscrew Turntable—conquered seemingly impossible odds (7% grades, 30-degree curves, and passes over 11,000 feet) so the trains could supply the mines, smelters, and mining communities. At its peak, and In less than 8 square miles, the Red Mountain District had over 3,000 people and 40 mines! Mears had intended to continue the line, with a cog railroad, all the way to the town of Ouray, but due to the difficult terrain and the Silver Panic of 1893, the line never made it past Albany. [Related Story]
The Silverton Railroad (also known as the Red Mountain Train) was constructed along the route of one of Mears’ toll roads that he had previously built. His toll stop at Bear Creek also sold whisky and cigars. Although the train never made it to Ouray, the wagon road continued to serve mines and travelers as an extension of the never-completed rail route to Ouray. (That route between Ouray and Durango is now our knuckle-biting but incredibly scenic Million Dollar Highway. The old Denver and Rio Grande became the new Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad. That line is still operation today as the Durango & Silverton NG RR tourist train.)
#2. The Silverton Northern Railroad (SNRR)
The mainline of the Silverton (Red Mountain) Railroad ran northwest out of the town of Silverton to serve the Red Mountain mining district. As mining activity continued to increase in the area north of Silverton, Mears decided to build a railway towards the northeast of town to serve the mines along the upper Animas River. The Sunnyside Mine, a huge producer (still being worked over a century later) had been discovered. Most of the mine workers lived in nearby Eureka.
Mears built the Silverton Northern in 1889 to serve the mills and mines near Howardsville and Eureka. Originally only two miles long, the line was soon extended to Animas Forks and the Gold Prince. A branch was added up Cunningham Gulch to Green Mountain mine. making the total system of 13.8 miles long.
At over 11,000 feet elevation, Animas Forks, was one of the highest mining camps in North America. (The town closed in winter, when it could get as much as 23 feet of snow in one storm!) The route was projected to run on to Mineral Point (Ouray County) and then to Lake City (Hindsdale County) via Henson Creek including a proposed three-quarter-mile tunnel through the mountains. However, for much the same reasons (terrain, weather, falling markets) that the Silverton Railroad stopped at Albany, Animas Forks, reached in 1896, was the end of the Silverton Northern line.
Arrastra Gulch, the Silverton Lake Complex (on the SNRR)
A key point on the line was the Silver Lake Mine and Mill, with its own two power plants, blacksmith, carpentry, and machine shops, miners’ boarding house, and the Waldheim Mansion. The complex was in the Animas Mining District just north of Silverton and jointly run by co-owners, Lena and Ed Stoiber. Lena Stoiber, (also known as the “Bonanza Queen” of Silverton, “Captain Jack,” or “Jack Pants”) to the miners who worked for her, is a fascinating story in herself; we will soon cover it). become one of the most advanced centers of mining technology in Colorado.
The SNRR managed to survive bad weather and fluctuating metals markets for years. The main line was cut back from Animas Forks to Eureka in the late 1930s. Finally, in 1942, while the mines were idle and US involvement in World War II was increasing, the remaining SN equipment was requisitioned by the US Army for use on the White Pass and Yukon Route during construction of the Alaska Highway. The rails were torn up for scrap. The San Juan County Historical Society is planning on rebuilding the section between Silverton and Howardsville.
#3. The Silverton Gladstone and Northerly Railroad (SG&N)
As prospectors continued digging for gold in the mountains north of Silverton, numerous claims were established in the Gladstone area, midway between Red Mountain and Eureka. A wagon road was constructed to carry ore down to Silverton. Mining was still infrequent because title to the area had not been obtained from the Ute Indians.
But when the D&RG arrived from Durango in 1882, the entire San Juan Triangle (Ouray-Silverton-Telluride) saw increased mining activity. Gladstone was already booming following two large strikes: the Ben Franklin Mine and the Sampson mine. By 1895, Gladstone had a general store, a sawmill and 100 year-round residents. But, the town and surrounding mines, especially the high-producing Gold King, were still only accessible by wagon road and mule trail.
Another rail line was needed. Otto Mears was approached to build it, but he had moved east and was then president of both The Mack Truck Company and The Chesapeake Short Line Railroad. His Silverton Train, having suffered from the Silver Crisis, was in receivership. Mears had no interest in another Colorado railroad. He said, “No.”
The Gold King decided to build their own railroad. The Rocky Mountain Construction Company was given the contract to build it. The SNRR and SRR provided construction trains and crews at the rate of $10.00 per day. The complete cost of construction including locomotives and rolling stock was $230,000.00. The new line was completed and chartered on July 2, 1899 by the Gold King Mining Co. to haul ore from the mines on Cement Creek to the Silverton smelters. It was 7.5 miles long and had a half mile of spurs.
By 1908, the mine was in trouble. The region had entered a slump that would last until a short revival during WWI. The Gold King finally closed (due to litigation and strikes) in 1909.
Mears now had control of all three of the Silverton lines.
Mears, who had moved to Silverton in 1904, got back on board, and leased the mine…and the SG&N railroad in 1910. Five years later it was absorbed by his Silverton Northern—they were already sharing stock and crews—and it became known as the Gladstone Branch. In 1916, Mears purchased it outright in a tax sale.
Mears took some of the SNRR equipment to the “Teft” spur on the Silverton branch of the D&RG. He built a sawmill there that produced ties and timbers for the local mines. The equipment was still at this location until 1974.
Severe floods in 1910-11 caused extensive damage to all three of his railroads. The total cost to repair them was over $25,000. The SG&N remained closed until the spring of 1912. During that time, the Gold King brought its ore to Silverton by wagon.
Evaluating the situation, Mears had decided to move to California and turn over local control of his properties to his son-in-law James Pitcher. All assets of the SGNRR were transferred to the SNRR and it became the Gladstone Branch of the SNRR.
Pitcher did a good job, but rail service kept declining, and he had trouble making the mortgage payments. The railroad limped along for three more years. Finally on July 10, 1915, the owners lost the railroad to foreclosure.
Mears stepped in again and purchased the property for $14,600.00 at a tax sale. (Not a bad price, when the line originally cost $230,000.00.) During WWI, the mine saw a resurgence because it produced zinc, needed for shell casings.
The end of a colorful era in Colorado’s mining history
After WWI, Mears’ three little lines never fully recovered. The Silverton Railroad was abandoned in 1922. The Gold King closed for good, and the Gladstone branch was never used again. In 1938, all equipment was transferred to the SNRR. The last of the Silverton railroads, The Silverton Northern, went down on August 7, 1942, ending a very colorful era in Colorado’s history.
Only one narrow gauge line continues between Silverton and Durango today, the old D&RG line now functioning as a tourist train, the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Train. The ride is still unspoiled though, as you pass through incredible scenery and become immersed in nostalgic history of the exciting era of mining for ore in the San Juan Mountains and traveling by narrow gauge steam trains.
References and Resources
Crum, Josie Moore. (1960) Rails Among the Peaks Three Little Lines-Silverton Railroad; Gladstone and Northerly Railroad, Silverton Northern Railroad. The Railway and Locomotive Historical Society.
Fielder, John and Noel, Thomas; Colorado, 1870-2000, Revisited: The History Behind the Images, John Fielder Publishing, 2001.
Nossaman, Allen. (1989). Many More Mountains. VOL. 1: Silverton’s Roots. Sundance Publications. ISBN 9780913582572
Nossaman, Allen. (1993). Many More Mountains. VOL 2: Ruts Into Silverton. Sundance Publications. ISBN 10: 0913582573
Nossaman, Allen. (1998). Many More Mountains. VOL 3: Rails Into Silverton. Sundance Publications. ISBN 9780913582640
Osterwald, Doris B. (2001). Cinders & Smoke: A Mile by Mile Guide for the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Western Guideways. p. 80. ISBN 9780931788802.
Sloan, Robert E., and Carl A. Skowronski (1975). The Rainbow Route: An Illustrated History. Denver: Sundance Limited. ISBN 0913582123.
Stone, Wilbur Fiske (1918). History of Colorado. S.J. Clarke. Retrieved 20 April 2009. Silverton Railroad.
Strong, William K. (1988). The Remarkable Railroad Passes of Otto Mears. Silverton, Colorado: San Juan County Book Company. ISBN 0-9608000-6-9.
Wilkins, Tivis E. (Tiv) (1974). Colorado Railroads: Chronological Development. Boulder, Colorado: Pruett Publishing Company. ISBN 0-87108-073-7.
Magazine & Newspaper Articles
“Hardrock History, A Tale of Booms & Busts.” By Scott Fetchenhier, Silverton Magazine (2010). San Juan Publishing Group, Inc.
“Otto Mears, Pathfinder of the San Juans” by Beverly Rich. Silverton Magazine (2010).
“Silverton’s 4 Railroads” by Beverly Rich. Silverton Magazine (2010). San Juan Publishing.
“The Narrow Gauge Circle: A thousand miles by rail through the Rocky Mountains!” https://www.narrowgauge.org/
Website written, maintained, and hosted by Mark L.Evans.
“Silverton Gladstone Northerly” Durango Hearld.
Silverton Northern Reconstruction, Silverton Northern History, Photo Gallery
Otto Mears Passes, San Juan County Historical Society.
Silverton Northern Railroad, San Juan County Historical Society.
Legends of America
Uncover Colorado, Ghost towns
Western History Collection, Denver Public Library
Western Mining History