A leap into the past on an old time railroad

Engine 482: built in the 1880s and still going strong
Engine 482: built in the 1880s and still going strong

Recently I rode the railroad. Not just any railroad, but the Durango & Silverton RR which is driven by a coal fired steam engine built in the 1880s. Wow, and I thought I was old!

The route follows the Animas river from Durango to Silverton in Colorado through the picturesque Rocky mountains and while almost always very scenic, at times the views are downright sensational: mountain peaks in the distance as the train curves around a bend above the tumbling white water of the Animas river and traversing the ledge of a cliff with just inches to spare above a precipitous drop. To be fair, the first part of the 3 1/2 hour ride, maybe 30-45 minutes is through the flatlands outside of Durango which, while of some interest, does not include the spectacular scenery encountered up canyon. Still the ride is, well, really cool.

Traveling along the Animas River on the Durango & Silverton RR
Traveling along the Animas River

The train never travels very fast. This is a good thing as it allows more time to take in the scenery and to enjoy the chugga-chugga sound of the steam engine, the wooo-wooo-wooo of the whistle and the clickity-clack-down-the-track sounds of the wheels on the rails.

Different fares are available and I rode one of the first class fares in the Silver Vista car which I highly recommend in nice weather, especially if you can get Melissa as your attendant. The Silver Vista car is open on the sides and has a glass roof which provides for terrific views not afforded in other cars. Melissa, who has been with the RR for 9 years as of this writing knows a whole lot about the history of the RR, surrounding areas, and has a wealth of knowledge about the workings of the railroad.

There are great vies to be enjoyed in the Silver Vista car
There are great views to be enjoyed in the Silver Vista car

Her running commentary made the difference between a trip that would have been just about the scenery and one filled with interesting facts about all manner of things. For example, who knew that the train whistle is sending signals in code, or how wide the tracks are

and why they chose narrow gauge for this railroad, or that there was a chase car following the train to watch for forest fires started by the cinders the engine casts off, or a helicopter dropping water on those fires before they spread, or how those fires were dealt with before helicopters, or…, or…, or…, etc? You won’t find out about a whole ton of stuff unless you ride 1st class with an attendant offering up commentary. If you can get into the Silver Vista car with Melissa as your attendant you definitely want to to so. She works 3 days a week for the RR, so plan your trip so as to be on her car if you can. If I understand things correctly, only the first class cars have attendants providing commentary. You also get some freebies such as a plastic coffee travel mug, a tote bag, and complimentary beverages in first class.

Yours truly with 1st rate 1st Class Attendant Melissa
Yours truly with 1st rate 1st Class Attendant Melissa

Oh, and here’s another tip: ask for tickets near the center of the car which is where Melissa stands as I imagine most attendants do. It’s easier to hear when closer to her. Also, from Durango to Silverton more of the views may be on the right side of the train so if you can get seats there… People get up and wander about so wherever you’re seated shouldn’t present a problem and right side or left you’ll have great views.

After the ride I spent some time with Melissa and another attendant Stina. I was curious about what it’s like to do what they do, why they chose to do it; where they are from and why they choose to live in Durango.

1st Class Attendant Stina and me
Yours truly and 1st Class Attendand, Stina

Melissa, besides being a first rate attendant and commentator on the train, is a high school chemistry teacher as well as being the ballet director at a local dance studio, half owner of a professional dance company and a cellist. She’s also a certified pharmacy technician. What I want to know is what CAN’T she do! When I learned of her education and background any preconceived notion I might have had in the back of my mind of her being a small town girl who couldn’t do anything besides her RR gig was forever put to rest.

Born and raised in the Durango area, Melissa spent some time in Eugene Oregon and Boulder Colorado during her education. Boulder was too big for her; she prefers the small town environment of Durango. With her background as she described it to me I was curious how she wound up at the railroad. She said it was in response to an ad in the newspaper for summertime work while she was in school.

When asked what they enjoy most about working for the RR both Melissa and Stina mentioned the scenery and meeting lots of people from all over the world who are excited to be on the train and in a good mood. Stina said she liked feeding off the excitement of the passengers and making them even more excited about the ride by telling them about it.

Stina and Melissa met through their jobs and have become fast friends who enjoy socializing together and talking about their days at work.

Stina was born and raised in Boulder and liked growing up there, but she’s uncertain she sees herself raising her future family there. While having a degree in exercise science she’s trying to decide between becoming a physical therapist and an educator. I didn’t ask their ages but did learn that Stina is somewhat younger than Melissa and both want families in the future. Neither of them should have any trouble attracting a partner as they are both fabulously beautiful, my photos of them not doing either of them justice. I would have married either of them on the spot!




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