A Journey Through Time
Story written by Sara Knight | Photos provided by D&SNG Railroad Museum
As the masses make their way into the train cars, settling into their seats for the breathtaking views and historically significant ride that awaits them, a few others will continue on past the ticket booth. They will go out the back door, pass the waiting train, cross the rail yard and to the roundhouse. Welcome to the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum where a collection of artifacts create a unique portrait, not only of the train, but of its relationship to Durango and Southwest Colorado.
Stepping through the doors of the museum is like taking a step back in time. Rarely as adults do we have the opportunity to walk into a room and be pleasantly overwhelmed, and even transported, by novelty. I can’t begin to describe everything in the museum, but on a cold winter day with a little time to pass, I encourage you to go see for yourself. Maybe you’ll find a few discoveries of your own.
It will take you quite a while just to circumnavigate the full 12,000 square feet of the museum. Every nook, cranny and surface is covered in some little or large piece of history. Where to even begin?
As you walk down the ramp into the large open room, take note of the space itself. The cavernous interior used to make up 8 stalls of a 15-stall roundhouse, or maintenance shed.
The giant structure tragically burned in 1989 and had to be rebuilt. Nearly a decade later, in the late 90’s Al Harper purchased the train through his company, American Heritage Railways, and he had an idea for the space.
“This was just storage over here. We called it the museum, but it really wasn’t,” explained Jeff Ellingson, who has been working for the train for 35 years, and who was tasked with the job of transforming the space into a public venue. “There wasn’t really a blueprint for that. It was just let’s get these engines in here, let’s collect as many artifacts as we can, and let’s make a display.”
The rest of the roundhouse is still a functioning workshop. The wall that separates you from the remaining seven stalls are where the mechanics work away to keep the 137 year-old engines in prime condition for their uphill journey of 5,241 feet through the Animas River gorge all the way to Silverton. Even the engines on display in the museum are rail ready and fit for the journey.
If you’ve walked over and taken a peek into the workshop area, then you may have noticed that – just over your head and all along the wall – hangs an impressive collection of taxidermy animals, all from right here in the four corners region.
Al Harper got the idea after hearing enough train passengers comment that they had thought they would see more wildlife on the ride. Most wild animals, living along the tracks, run for cover at the thundering beast as it comes rumbling down the tracks. This is an opportunity for the passengers to see what all they missed.
Ellingson recalled that they received the entire collection practically overnight. He chuckled a little as he noted that, “it was, in almost every instance, someone’s wife telling her husband to get that hairy thing out of the living room.”
If animals of the living variety are more your speed, then see if you can find the 600-gallon fish tank, filled with a strong current of 49 degree water. In February of 2018, the museum partnered with the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife and a non-profit called Trout Unlimited to welcome a few Rainbow and Cutthroat Trout to the collection.
“The Cutthroat Trout are the indigenous species to the Animas,” Ellingson explained. “They are trying to repopulate these rivers with Cutthroat Trout and trying to get back
to the original species.”
He wants to emphasize the importance of education and how the museum is a foundation for a number of meaningful discussions.
“We wanted to start a conversation with children about the importance of fresh water,” he said. “When you are on the train, and you are just going by the river, you can’t really see what’s in it, and it has a story to tell also.”
Everything in the museum is about the story. Find someone to tell you about the Curtiss Pusher Model D airplane replica suspended in flight from the museum ceiling. Ellingson claims that the replica, built by local artist Dave Clawson to specifications provided by the Smithsonian, would actually fly if anyone tried it.
Not everything in the museum is there by a surprise connection, like the animals and the airplane. There is, of course, a 1,200 square-foot model train set on display nestled in the far south end of the building. It can accommodate eight trains at once and depicts an ever-changing interpretation of a classic 1950’s Southwest Colorado town.
“Kids are kind of intimidated by full-sized steam engines,” Ellingson said. “But they can relate to the smaller stuff a lot better.”
The impact for kids is a huge factor for the museum and for Ellingson. “We have over 75,000 visitors a year that come through the museum and a lot of those are children. That makes me extremely happy. It’s nice that we can share this with them and get them interested in trains. I’ve watched little kids grow up and end up working here. It gives me a sense that we are doing something that’s meaningful.”
If you’ve visited the model train and you’re feeling extra brave, venture west around the back of the miniature town and step up into the old sleeper car. You’ll recognize it as the only piece in the museum that appears not to have been touched by the caring hands of the restoration team. The history of this car could fill a book. In fact, research of the many adventures that this car has seen, museum staff discovered that a murder occurred on the train car. Then, as a result of the murder, a suicide.
“The museum is a collection of memories and stories. The artifacts that are in here really just initiate that story.” – Ellingson said
Ellingson, not generally a believer in the supernatural, shook his head in disbelief as he told me story after story of children reporting that they saw a woman standing in the car, when there was no one there, or of guests taking a photo of the empty car, only to see someone standing in the frame when they looked at the picture later. Maybe if you’re lucky, Kate will reveal herself to you too.
“The museum is a collection of memories and stories,” Ellingson said during our conversation. “The artifacts that are in here really just initiate that story.”
There are innumerable stories hanging on the walls and from the ceiling, and sitting on shelves or tucked away in corners. I have just barely touched the surface here. Whether you’ve ridden the train or not, the museum is free to the public, and it’s guaranteed to have something for everyone. Stop in and let your imagination get lost for a while in all of the history and possibility that awaits.