Durango’s Iconic Train Station - Animas Museum
Durango’s Iconic Train Station
Durango’s historic railroad depot is an iconic symbol of Durango’s rich history as a railroad town. One of the oldest, most significant and best preserved structures in town, it has anchored Durango’s Main Avenue Historic District for over 136 years.
The Denver & Rio Grande Railway founded Durango in 1880 and planned it to be an important terminus along its San Juan extension between Alamosa and Silverton. That vision bore fruit as Durango became the most important rail hub in the Four Corners area, and the passenger depot was at the center of the action. Controversy and delays plagued its construction from the start, however.
The railroad had hired contractor Charles Walker to build all the station houses, section houses and water tanks on the line between Durango and Silverton. His 18-man crew completed the 24 by 200-foot freight depot in August 1881, only days after the arrival of the first train in Durango. This elongated wood-frame building was west of the railroad tracks between what is now 7th and 8th Streets, and it accommodated passenger operations until the passenger depot could be built.
Controversies derailed completion of the passenger depot. For starters, it took railroad officials until mid-August to decide on a site. The ultimate location would be near the south end of First (Main) Street rather than near the freight depot farther north.
Originally planned as a full two-story building 25 by 150 feet, railroad officials halted construction in early September to redraw the plans. Silvertonian J.H. Ernest Waters’ redesign called for a 25 by 105-foot one story building with a central two-story, cross gabled section. Construction resumed in mid-October, but delayed arrival of construction materials postponed completion of the edifice until late January 1882.
Despite a few alterations, the building has changed relatively little since that time. Ground floor windows once reached nearly to the floor, but when bead-board wainscoting was added to the exterior around 1920, the windows were shortened to half their original height. The exterior doorway to the second story was shifted to a new location about that same time.
The original brick chimneys apparently were removed around 1950 but were subsequently rebuilt. Asphalt shingles replaced original wood shingles decades ago, but wood shingles were later restored to the building in a return to authenticity.
The Durango Record initially expressed disappointment in the new depot. It looked good, the newspaper thought, but it wasn’t open much of the time, wasn’t lighted and was poorly heated. It seems people awaiting trains often stood freezing on the platform outside the closed building.
David Day, the Durango Democrat’s famous editor who delighted in hurling barbs at the railroad, groused that the “Durango Rio Grande depot is eligible to membership in the Pioneer association or a pension card in the Cliff Dwellers league. Cock roaches and bed bugs play baseball on the ground floor.”
When the Rio Grande Southern Railroad was completed in 1891 between Durango and Ridgway, its Durango offices shared space in the D&RG depot. Even though the RGS went into receivership less than two years later, it continued to operate out of the Durango depot until cost-cutting measures in the 1930s resulted in the construction of its own facilities just west of Durango.
Meanwhile, the D&RG depot continued to serve railroad management and customers through the decades. Mostly dull times were punctuated by major events and local catastrophes. Hundreds of local men, for example, departed on trains that carried them to the battlefields of the Spanish American, first and second world wars. Big snow years in 1884 and 1916, record floods in 1911 and 1927 and unprecedented wildfires in 2002 caused headaches for railroad management trying to operate a narrow gauge mountain railroad.
In honor of the important role the railroad has played in the development of Southwest Colorado, it was designated a Registered National Historic Landmark in 1967. The next year, the railroad was honored as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. The plaques for these awards hang on one of Durango’s most iconic historic buildings – the depot.
© Robert McDaniel 2018
Photo Caption: D&RGW engine #470 heads train #116, the eastbound San Juan Express, on the main track at the Durango station on August 31, 1938. Photo by R. B. Graham. Courtesy Animas Museum photo archives.