DURANGO, COLO. — Almost mournful, but with a certain underlying glee, the long, deep horn that reverberates through the town signals the unofficial start of summer as the first train full of passengers begins its journey northward.
The vintage Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (durangotrain.com) is a rolling show with vistas of majestic mountains – the San Juans freshly powdered with a late-spring snow – and deep, straight-down views of the rushing cascades in the Animas River.
It passes train groupies, many of whom race the train from crossing to crossing, giving friendly waves to the riders before the locomotive disappears into the backcountry.
It clings to cliffs on the same track bed that was originally prepared in the early 1880s for the delivery of silver ore from the isolated mining camp of Silverton to the bustling burg of Durango.
The three-plus-hour, 45-mile one-way excursion rumbles past bubbling waterfalls, rickety old mines and spots made famous in the movies.
“That’s where Butch and Sundance jumped off the cliff,” one passenger exclaims, pointing to a particularly nasty drop while referring to the iconic scene in the movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
The clickety-clack miles pass quickly with strolling entertainers delivering stories, lore and history.
Ray Mayer, a retired Los Angeles-area sheriff’s deputy, has been serving as train founder Gen. Palmer for seven years now.
“I’ve always loved Western history,” he said. “I loved the stories of Silverton, Durango and the train, because there are so many of them. This is the greatest retirement job in the world. I love it.”
Although never an actor before, Mayer said he appreciates his role.
“I study my character, Gen. Palmer,” he said. “I know what he was like. I know his little ins and outs, and I try to act that out. My scripts cover 14 straight hours of talking. I can’t say there is one (story) more favorite than the other. I like them all. There is so much here. I have barely told you folks an inkling. There is an incredible amount of history and stories.”
One story centers on the ghost of Kate, a teenager who was smuggled onto the train by her lover. Another rider grew jealous of the couple, and a fight ensued, leaving her lover dead. Distraught over the outcome, she supposedly later killed herself, although some would dispute that part of the story. Her coach has since been retired and is on display in the free Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum at the southern terminus in Durango.
Passengers disembarking at railroad’s northern terminus in Silverton are greeted by bands and folks decked out in period garb. A quick bite at the recently restored and remodeled Grand Imperial Hotel, or even a beverage at the long wooden bar, complete with an ivory tickler in the corner, brings to mind the Old West.
Likewise, the Strater Hotel (strater.com) in Durango is a period stop that’s a living piece of history.
The Louis L’Amour suite was the birthplace of many of the author’s “Sackett” series of Western novels, Strater owner Rod Barker said.
The suite was above the Diamond Belle Saloon, and the nighttime entertainment served as a L’Amour muse.
“In the evening, you could hear the piano underneath, and it would kind of inspire him,” Barker said. “He wrote on that very table, most of those books. It was a really a fun thing. He had an Underwood typewriter and two fingers, and he was very fast that way.”
Will Rogers, actor and soldier Audie Murphy, Presidents Gerald Ford and John F. Kennedy and members of the Grateful Dead are among the other luminaries who have stayed at the Strater, Barker said.
In keeping with the Old West theme that runs rampant in the area, the Bookcase and Barber (bookcaseandbarber.com) is an entertaining, old-fashioned speakeasy. Inside the barbershop is a wall of books. Repeat the correct code phrase – which changes daily and can be found with a little bit of research – and a doorman flicks a hidden switch on the bookcase, which then swings out to reveal a rollicking, Prohibition-era gin joint complete with specialty drinks, many linked to famous authors.