[Montrose Mirror | October 30, 2023 | By Kate Burke]
Three narrow gauge railroads steamed north from Silverton in the 1800s: The Silverton Railroad to Mining districts near Red Mountain Pass, 1887; The Silverton Northerly to Animas Forks, 1888; The Silverton Gladstone and Northerly Railroad (SN’s Gladstone branch), 1889.
All were built by Otto Mears to serve the booming mining districts that surrounded the town. Having earlier established regional freighting services, Mears, an entrepreneurial Russian immigrant with business dealings in the area, constructed more than 450 miles of toll roads, then built four railway lines to serve the San Juan Mountains mining districts. He became known as the Pathfinder of the San Juans.
The Silverton Railroad
Mears’ first railroad, The Silverton Railroad, connected Silverton (in San Juan County) to Albany (6 miles south of Ouray) via the 11,111 ft Red Mountain Pass. Three little locomotives (two 2-8-0 Baldwins and one Lima Shay) pulled their trains on 3’ wide “narrow gauge” rails. Limited to just two cars in the most difficult terrain, the trains, sometimes making multiple stops per day, supplied the more than 40 mines in the (appx) 8-square-mile Red Mountain Mining District and over 3,000 people who lived and worked there.
On a map, the proposed 21.5 mile route seemed simple. But a map is flat. The mountainous terrain it depicted, with steep grades, and nearly inaccessible in some places, was not. Meanwhile, the mines were booming. Demand for their output was voracious. The need for speed was absolute.
Figuring out how to build a railroad through the mining districts called for clever engineering feats. Securing the necessary real estate and finding solutions to circumnavigate the geological conundrums within it fell to Charles Wingate Gibbs, the railroads’ chief locating engineer. Gibbs devised three innovative solutions to what at first seemed insurmountable odds. What goes up has to come down, and how do you do that where there is no place to turn a train around?
With no need for pesky permits, lengthy, contentious government meetings, and politically motivated approvals, The Silverton Railroad was quickly incorporated, began construction in 1887, and was completed in just a little over one year! Can you imagine trying to accomplish that today?
Gibbs’ engineering ingenuity conquered three major obstacles: a 5% grade horseshoe loop at Chattanooga, 7 miles north of Silverton; limited level space and hard rock at Red Mountain Town midpoint on the line; a switchback at the Corkscrew Gulch near Guston in Ouray County, where there was no place to accommodate either.
The Chattanooga Loop
Gibbs’ 1st engineering feat was The Chattanooga Loop. He designed a 550-foot rise in the line over a quarter-mile straight-line distance by a detour from Mineral Creek up Mill Creek gulch, within a 30-degree (194-foot radius) curve looping 200 degrees at the end, and returning to Mineral Creek, all on a 5-percent grade.
Highway 550 (sans guardrails) follows that route today. Locals and freight-hauling truckers know it and treat it with respect. Tourists marvel at it and call it breathtakingly amazing.
Red Mountain Wye
Gibbs’ 2nd engineering feat was the Red Mountain Wye. Midpoint on the line, Red Mountain Town served the high-producing National Belle on the “knob” above town and other nearby mines. Now a ghost town, it was situated between two steep sloping hillsides, and the rocky ground was too hard for excavation.
Gibbs’ solution was a wye to turn the trains. Wyes are common on railroads, but this one was unique. The arms of the wye were only 150 feet long. Thus, they could accommodate only a locomotive and two cars.
He placed the station house on the only remaining flat area, in the center of the wye. It was constructed on pilings above two converging streams. A wooden walkway to the outhouse was on one tail of the wye. Imagine a woman in long skirts and and petticoats, feet encased in little leather ankle boots, hurriedly answering a nature call, traipsing that narrow walkway in deep snow and ice without falling into the creek below.
Gibbs’ 3rd engineering feat was the Corkscrew Turntable. His solution there was a covered turntable on the main track at the head of Corkscrew Gulch (where there was no room for either a balloon loop or a wye). Gibbs placed the turntable at the junction of the lower and upper arms of the switchback.
This allowed the locomotive to work downgrade of ore cars for safety and efficiency. The 50-foot turntable was big enough only for the locomotive, and the cars were fed through by gravity in both directions. The turntable was covered with a snowshed to allow operations as deep into winter as possible.
The Corkscrew Gulch Turntable is presumed to be the only turntable ever constructed on the main line of a U.S. railroad. Almost nothing is left today, but the location is popular with hikers and railfans hoping to see and photograph remnants of the district’s rich mining heritage.
The Silverton Railroad was also known as the Red Mountain Train and the “Rainbow Route.” The latter term was coined by Mears’ friend, David F. Day, publisher of the Solid Muldoon in Ouray. The first locomotive to run on the line was designated #101, the Ouray.
Today, the Rainbow Route is also part of the Million Dollar Highway between Silverton and Ouray, which now includes the steepest, and most difficult, part of the road between Ironton and Ouray, which Mears’ railroad never conquered. It’s a white-knuckle ride with steep drop-offs and prone to rockslides and avalanche. Some locals still refuse to drive it, and tourists and truckers have been known to turn around at Bear Creek and look for another route south.
Kate Burke’s History Series includes regional, live ppt presentations and stories in the Montrose Mirror and on her websites. Read more of this story, including tales about the towns and resources the author used at https://kathrynrburke.com/silverton-railroad
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
“Corkscrew Gulch Turntable, 1899” Durango Herald. Staff article.
“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.
“The Silverton Train” by James Burke, Silverton Magazine (2010) San Juan Publishing
Legends of America
Uncover Colorado, Ghost towns
Western History Collection, Denver Public Library
Western Mining History