- The Washington Times - Friday, December 31, 1999

DURANGO, Colo. Steve Jackson graduated from Fort Lewis College 27 years ago hoping to teach physical education. To tide him over through the summer, he took a job as a mechanic for the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. He's been in the roundhouse ever since.

"It turned out to be considerably more than summer work," says Mr. Jackson, chief mechanical officer for what is now the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. He is one of hundreds of employees who will have kept the line first opened in 1882 alive through nearly impossible odds into the 21st century.

"Most of the guys here understand they are working to preserve history. They are doing something more important than just a job," he says.

Today a visitor can fly to this town of 16,000, shop at the Ralph Lauren boutique a block from the depot, buy tickets for the train over the Internet, and even see a live picture of downtown Durango broadcast on the city's Web site. But other than the tools used for repair, the railroad is run the way it was when the century began.

"The book of rules is set up exactly the same way it was in the 1920s," says train master David Schranck, 42.

"We are using the same hand signals, the same whistles, the same rules of the road," and it still takes six tons of coal to make the trip, Mr. Schranck says.

This is one railroad that won't be affected by the year-2000 computer problems that might affect major railroads. It has no computers, except for reservations.

However, marketing director Christie Cohen says the two crossings in Durango do have lights that might be affected if the town has problems. In that case, "we'd send out the conductor and you'd stop the traffic" so the train could continue.

At the peak of the gold rush there were 3,500 miles of narrow-gauge rail snaking through this part of the country.

What's left today is a 45-mile section of track running from Durango along the sheer cliffs of the Animas River to Silverton.

In 1881, Gen. William Jackson Palmer built the Durango-Silverton spur to provide a year-round transport for ore to Silverton a town that gets an average of 200 inches of snow each winter from mines in Irontoga, Gladstone and Eureka.

The task was difficult costing as much as $1,000 a foot to complete in some spots but still it took just nine months from start to finish.

Gen. Palmer feared that if he took longer "his investors from the east would pull their money out saying 'You are crazy'," says Daniel McCall, a 19-year veteran. "And they were; they were nuts."

Even when completed, the railroad has teetered perennially on the abyss of financial disaster. Landslides, avalanches, and floods all conspired. During World War II, long after the rail had switched mostly to passenger service, the railroad had to resist the U.S. Army, which tried to haul its locomotives and rolling stock to Alaska. (The seven engines that did go north were later melted down for scrap.)

Now, the railroad employs 230 seasonal workers and 80 year-round workers, generating $94 million for the local economy, according to the company.

Mr. Jackson's office is half a railroad roundhouse the other half is a museum where his 18-man crew keeps six, soon to be seven, steam-powered locomotives in running order. The machines were built in the 1920s and some of the parts needed for repair, such as wheels, are cast elsewhere. "About everything [else] has to be made here," Mr. Jackson says.

That process is painstaking. From milling massive parts to cutting threads on foot-long bolts, they work from detailed blueprints and an encyclopedic knowledge of their charges.

Working on the steam locomotives is "unique, … They have their own personalities," he says.

You can see the dual pistons pump the side rods muscularly as the engine sighs, chuffs and groans, the fire box roars, and steam belches forth.

"When they are under steam it is almost like they are alive."

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