By Mark Esper
The San Juan County Historical Society has announced an ambitious plan to rebuild a 2-1/2-mile section of the old Silverton Northern Railroad from the Powerhouse Industrial Park to Howardsville, along what has since become County Road 22.
An informational meeting on the proposal is scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 18, at 7 p.m. at Smedley’s Ice Cream Parlor.
Historical society officials said the idea underlining the proposal is economic development — to develop a locally operated passenger-excursion train based in Silverton.
The historical society owns property at both ends of the proposed line. It is developing the Powerhouse Industrial Park and two years ago it acquired the Little Nations Mill in Howardsville as a donation.
The San Juan County Historical Society is also the owner of the Silverton Standard & the Miner newspaper.
In a press release issued Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 10, historical society member Fritz Klinke, who is also chairman of the San Juan Regional Planning Commission, noted that the concept of rebuilding the historic rail line was included in the draft master plan now being reviewed by Silverton and San Juan County officials.
“The rebuilding of the former Silverton Northern trackage around the engine house in Silverton served as the inspiration for this new project,” Klinke said.
But he noted that the engine house project is completely separate and would not tie into the proposed rail project, except perhaps in a later phase.
Klinke acknowledged that the project would require perhaps millions of dollars to complete and where that funding would come from is a big question.
He said the meeting next week to outline the proposal will be to “just provide information and see what potential problems are. We don’t want to get into debates with anybody.”
Klinke said Silverton’s economy needs a boost that such a short-excursion railroad could provide.
“We’re sliding — not gaining — on the economic front,” Klinke said.
The original Silverton Northern was built by Otto Mears, operating from 1895 to 1942, serving the mines between Silverton and Animas Forks.
Beverly Rich, chairman of the historical society, said the project may seem like a pipe dream at this point, “but it’s amazing how much the historical society has accomplished. You never know until you try.”
Rich said the real potential is in “long-term sustainability for Silverton, because as we know the tourist pool — the demographics — are changing and we need to diversify on our tourism industry.”
Rich said Silverton is “way too dependent” on the existing D&SNRR line from Durango, “even though we love it.”
As far as actually operating the railroad, Rich said that may be too much for the historical society to take on.
“We would just build the infrastructure and then we would hire it out as far as someone to run the thing,” she said.
A railroad based in Silverton would encourage more overnight stays in town, she said.
“It would be affordable for families, and I could even foresee kind of a Bar-D Wrangler-type of deal out at the Little Nations (mill) — entertainment or something like that.”