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RyPN Editorials July 15, 2001
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Durango & Silverton Narrow-Gauge Railroad

The Durango and Silverton has long been recognized as one of America's most professional and successful tourist railroad operations. In recent years, however, the D&S has revamped its image. In a nod to the heritage tourism segment of the recreational travel market, the D&S has rebranded itself as an authentic museum of Rocky Mountain narrow-gauge railroading as well as a nostalgic train ride.

Underscoring the D&S's new heritage-oriented message are two major new facilities: a large and well-appointed history museum in the south wing of the new 1991 Durango Roundhouse (opened in 1998), and a freight train museum in the reacquired and refurbished D&RGW Silverton depot (opened in May 1999). Admission to both museums is included in the price of a train ticket, or can be purchased separately. During a recent swing through Colorado I had the opportunity to visit both institutions, as well as ride the Silverton train. I came away with a lot of good impressions, but also some nagging questions.

Panoramic view of the D&S Durango Museum; Erik Ledbetter

The Durango Roundhouse Museum is the keystone of the D&S's renewed heritage identity. In 1989, a devastating fire leveled the original 1882 D&RG Durango roundhouse. With remarkable fortitude, the D&S management immediately set about rebuilding. Plans were drawn up for new roundhouse which would roughly follow the form of the old structure, but also provide for a modern, two-story machine shop wing and a large new 8-stall storage section to the south. The architects and fabricators did a simply superb job. The new structure incorporates into its fabric the surviving south exterior wall of the original building (now an internal curtain wall separating the working roundhouse to the north from the storage section to the south) as well as the rear wall of the southernmost three original bays (now located in the midsection of the rebuilt facility). The brickwork and ornamentation of the new construction compliment the surviving 1882 fašades without slavishly echoing them. The overall proportions are consonant with those of the old building while still allowing for improved clearances and work spaces. Wooden bay doors and roof beams give the entire structure an old-fashioned feel, and granite trim elements add grace notes.

RGS 42 is front and center; Erik Ledbetter

For preservationists, the highlight of the new roundhouse is that new 8-stall southern wing. In the mid-1990s the D&S made a strategic decision to convert this facility--conceived of as covered storage for out-of-service equipment--into a full-scale museum. Visitors are now invited to pass through the 1882 depot and cross the departure yard on foot to enter the Museum through a back door. As they enter the Roundhouse visitors are greeted by a panoply of Colorado slim-gauge rolling stock. Dominating the scene is Rio Grande Southern Consolidation 42, now gleaming in a new coat of black paint with the white RGS mountain herald on the tender. The tracks behind her display as fine a collection of restored narrow-gauge stock as can be found anywhere: the "Butch Cassidy" baggage car (adapted from a 6600-series steel flatcar for "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"; now serving as the museum theater); the business car "Nomad" (former D&RGW B-3); K-28 engine 476 (sans tender); an assortment of classic velocipedes, track cars and speeders, including the unique Silverton Northern "Casey Jones" rail bus; and the thoroughly atmospheric D&RGW long caboose 0505.

Velocipede and the Casey Jones Railbus; Erik Ledbetter

A pristine Fairmont speeder; Erik Ledbetter

Surrounding the cars and locomotives is a wide-ranging collection of tools, furniture, photographs, paper ephemera, and general odds and ends. Two displays which particularly caught my eye were the casting mold for a narrow-gauge coach seat bracket, displayed alongside a finished casting, and an interesting series of cabinets displaying the personal railroadiana collection of a retired SP railroader and railfan. This memorabilia display was an especially interesting and unconventional idea-showcasing one man's collection to illustrate the passion which trains inspire and the diversity of the memorabilia still out there to be found.

Cab access makes for happy patrons; Erik Ledbetter

Some other elements of the Museum made it a very kid- and family-friendly experience. At the front side of the museum a set of roundhouse doors are open, leading to a fenced outdoor viewing area where visitors can watch the working power take a spin on the turntable every morning and evening. Back inside, the cabs of the two steam engines are open for enjoyment and imagination; a walkway alongside the Nomad gives visitors a good look at the Victorian splendor of a private car, and the caboose 0505 was open for visitors, who were welcome to explore its interior spaces and poke in all its nooks and crannies. I watched two children of about 12 and 14 discover how to unfold the conductor's hideaway working desk; their delight in figuring out the "secret desk" was more genuine than any number of multimedia displays could have inspired. Sure, this comes at the cost of some additional potential wear and tear on the caboose, but crummies are tough and the learning experience seems worth the price.

Finally, the D&S management has made a nice decision in their staffing policy. The Museum is manned by a single attendant, who greets visitors at the door and offers to answer questions. The duty attendant is supported in this task by a very creditable library of standard print works on the narrow gauge: if a visitor has a question, reference material to look up the answer is available right at hand.

All of this said, however, I was left with some misgivings as well as good impressions. The quality of the placards identifying the artifacts was not up to the expert restoration work and craftsmanship of the Durango shop team--slight misinterpretations were common, and the occasional outright error undermined confidence in the information presented. This problem extended beyond the museum placards to the D&S's other print material: a passage in the Railroad's official magazine, "All Aboard!" identifies Dan Markoff's 4-4-0 Eureka as a sister engine to "the Jupiter--famous for its role at Promontory Point, Utah, and the Golden Spike ceremony--[which] is on display at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC." As astute readers will know, there is a "Jupiter" in the Smithsonian which is close kin to Dan's engine, but neither of these locomotives have much in common with the Golden Spike engines except their wheel arrangement.

Another cause for concern is an occasional shift in focus between education and commerce. On one wall of the roundhouse, a display of modern photos of the D&S takes up a good deal of exhibit space. While the images are technically and artistically accomplished, they are an essentially commercial project-all the prints are priced for sale. It's difficult for the casual visitor to tell what's historic and what's contemporary-what's an artifact and what's a souvenir.

Finally, there's a critical missing element in the entire experience: the D&S museum doesn't tell a story--it has no narrative thread running through it. Though the roundhouse is packed with beautifully restored stock and with dozens of rare artifacts and archival treasures, the materials are displayed more or less wherever they look good. Much care has gone into the aesthetic effect--things are not placed at random--but it's a decorator's rather than an educator's sensibility which is at work. The result is something more akin to a nineteenth-century "cabinet of curiosities"--a display of narrow-gauge wonders--than a teaching institution. Given all the great stories that could be told using these artifacts and this site, this is a major omission.

The new Silverton Depot and Freight Yard Museum presents a similar frustrating mix of real achievement and unfulfilled promise. When Charles Bradshaw purchased the D&S from the Rio Grande in 1981 the original Silverton Depot was not included in the deal, as the D&RGW had long since donated the building to the San Juan Historical Society. In 1985 the railroad acquired the building from the historical society, and in 1999 it reopened the depot and yard area to the public as a museum of freight railroading on the D&RGW. Surrounding the depot on the former Silverton house tracks is a large assortment of D&RGW rolling stock, including stock cars, box cars and a veritable fleet of drop-bottom gons. Heading up one of the strings of cars is K-37 2-8-2 No. 493. The former freight section of the depot has been refurbished as museum space, housing primarily a large and eclectic assortment of historic photographs and a few other artifacts.

It's a genuine pleasure to see passengers and ticket agents interacting again in the waiting room of the Silverton depot, just as they have since 1888. And the idea of displaying representative freight equipment and using the Silverton yards to interpret narrow-gauge freight railroading is creative and commendable. Unfortunately, in its current incarnation the Silverton facility falls short of its full promise. The stock in the yards is displayed without any interpretive signage to identify the cars and explain their function (though enormous do-not-climb signs help spoil the illusion of a working yard for photographers). Most of the cars (and the 493 for that matter) are in poor cosmetic condition. While the photo collection in the depot building is absorbing to the knowledgeable viewer, it too suffers from poor captioning and an unclear mix of contemporary and historic views. Though the concept here--freight operations--lends itself to a clear interpretive focus, once again a strong narrative remains the missing element.

And so we come to the key question: is the Durango & Silverton a museum? In its own eyes, the answer is an unequivocal yes--the word itself now appears in the line's official corporate moniker and logo, and there is substantive achievement to back the claim. Yet in my view, the answer is more appropriately "maybe" or perhaps "someday." My tour through the D&S's two purpose-built museum facilities left me with a nagging sense that however well it "gets" tourist railroading and steam operations, the D&S still has a ways to go before it "gets" the museum trade.

I think the problem is differing understandings of what a "Museum" is. To the casual visitor, and perhaps to the D&S management, the defining characteristic of a museum is its "stuff." It's the presence of a collection of related things--paintings, seashells, fossils, railroad cars, what have you--that make an institution a Museum. However, over the last 50 years or so museum professionals have evolved a more challenging view. Collections are still important, and custodianship of artifacts is a first priority, but in the end the presence and care of stuff is simply a precondition. The real test of a museum's mettle is what it does with those collections: a real museum makes use them to teach the public, and it researches them to generate new knowledge. It's against these two more demanding tests that the D&S falls short. The two new D&S Museums offer artifacts but not coherent stories. Moreover, occasional inaccuracy of the information which is presented bespeaks the lack of an ongoing research program and responsible curatorial staff.

In offering this judgment, I'm not looking to knock the D&S. As a tourist railroad, the Durango & Silverton has nothing to apologize for: it's one of the industry's few big-time success stories. Expert marketing of the line has generated tremendous brand awareness among tourists and casual travelers. Four trains a day are not enough to meet all the demand in the high season, and the Durango station agents must often turn away walk-up patrons seeking same-day tickets. Revenues from those sold-out trains have been plowed back into the property in the form of ballast, heavier rail, new and rebuilt rolling stock, and a whole series of steam locomotive overhauls and resurrections. As a result, the Silverton Branch under D&S custodianship is probably in better physical condition today than at any time in its entire 130-year history.

Intensive steam operations are their own kind of genuine preservation--No 480s's grates get a cleaning at Silverton; Erik Ledbetter

There's also something very solid going on here in pure preservation terms. I'd make the argument that precisely because of its commercial success, the D&S today embodies more of the living spirit of a real steam-railroad terminal than all our East Broad Tops, Steamtowns and Strasburgs put together. Think about it: the D&S roundhouse crew routinely fields four 2-8-2s a day, all summer long. That means that on any given summer day, Durango sends more steam engines out onto the road than any other single originating terminal in all of North America. Moreover, those engines go out not simply to enlighten or educate, but to earn money. They are motive power for a real, live, profit-making private enterprise--just as their builders intended.

So the D&S is many things: a nostalgic train ride, a superb custodian of the physical plant of the Silverton Branch, and perhaps the last authentic steam terminal in the United States. However, commendable though they are, these qualities alone do not a museum make.

Is the problem the line's for-profit status? I don't think so. Yes, nonprofit organization offers certain legal protections to the artifacts and the collection, and these are not to be taken lightly. Yet in an era in which the Smithsonian Institution itself is contemplating selling not just the naming rights to buildings, but also the content and creative control of exhibitions to the highest bidder, the line between nonprofit and for-profit is increasingly blurry. And as several of our readers recently pointed out in a vigorous debate over Steamtown NHS on the RyPN Interchange, public money and public control come with their own problems and issues. There is no one right way.

Besides, in the case in point, let's not kid ourselves: the D&S if for-profit in name only. If money were the sole object, former D&S owner Mr. Charles Bradshaw and current owner Mr. Allen Harper could find many easier ways to make a return on invested capital. I have no inside knowledge here, but I doubt that in its 30 year history one penny has ever come out of the D&S which wasn't immediately reinvested in the property. These guys aren't in it to make shareholder dividends or capital gains; they're in it because they love railroading.

No, I see no reason why the D&S could not become a new model for organizing railway preservation: the for-profit museum. The collections and the physical plant are all in place. The restoration skills of the shop staff are superb. All that's needed is a deeper commitment to the teaching and research responsibilities that come with being a true museum. Ideally, the D&S would hire a curator with professional training to operate the two museums. It would give that person a budget to redesign and overhaul the exhibits and displays to give them a stronger interpretive focus. Finally, the road would be wise to clearly separate daily use rolling stock from heritage stock or artifacts, and establish formal policies for the long-term care and conservation of the latter. A few physical plant and program improvements would also help: perhaps docent-led tours of the Durango freight yards, and a Steamtown-style catwalk to give visitors a taste of the sights and sounds of the working side of the roundhouse.

Is the D&S interested in growing in this direction? I don't know. In the three years since his purchase of the line, Mr. Allen Harper has already done much to make the D&S a more welcoming destination for true students of railroad history. Access to the station and roundhouse area is vastly improved, and the gun-toting security guards who used to stand watch over the yard throat are gone, replaced by friendly flag-people. Subtle changes have been made to give the operating stock a more correct historic appearance-the C&S-style bear-trap spark arrestors have already thankfully been banished from the operating engines. The new annual Railfests create a welcome annual occasion for focusing on the line's history and heritage.

However, the initiatives undertaken to date for the most part pay for themselves by creating new attractions or improving the public's impression of the property. Taking the D&S Museums to the next level will require investments which offer no immediate return in the form of increased revenue. After all, improved displays are unlikely to create any spectacular increase in admission-paying visitors, and a professional curator--though essential to a serious museum--could be viewed as dead weight on the payroll of a tourist railroad. How will the story unfold? I don't know, but I'll be watching with interest, and so should you.

One of North American's premier steam train rides--No. 486 in the Animas Valley; Erik Ledbetter

In the mean time, by all means go to Durango. The Silverton train is one of the great steam railway journeys this continent has to offer. The Durango roundhouse museum is chock full of treasures, even if the interpretation of them is not all it could be. And the best way of encouraging the D&S to grow in a heritage direction is to go, enjoy, and tell everyone you see there how much the new openness and history-mindedness mean to you. With a nudge in the right direction, the D&S can yet become an institution where the teaching as as strong as the scenery which has made the line famous.