(click on any photo to enlarge it)
Like many towns in the Rocky Mountains, Silverton, Colorado, got its start in the gold- and silver-mining boom of the 1870s. Mine bosses advertised in overseas newspapers to get workers, and ore was extracted at a frenzied pace; the town was gathering place, supply source, and entertainment headquarters. It was a rugged life for those determined enough to persevere through the brutal winters and in the perilous workplaces. Even the mules weren’t safe, as evidenced by the headstone pictured to the right.
An 18:1 ratio of males to females attracted women desperate for income, as the law looked the other way regarding prostitution. After all, prostitutes had to pay a fine of $5 each month to the city’s coffers and, with as many as 117 of them working in 1883, that steady revenue certainly helped balance the budget. They lived on the wrong side of the tracks and frequented the dance halls, saloons, and bordellos on that notorious east side of town.
In the quiet morning light, the town cemetery beckoned us to explore. Scattered beyond the imposing granite monuments of railroad tycoons and city fathers, a small collection of simple headstones marked where a few of these too-used bodies lay. The markers, softened today by dappled shadows, appear to have been purchased by the local historical or cemetery society.
I paused on the hillside, grateful that someone felt their lives and deaths were worth remembering, wondering whether most died alone in their anguish and despair, shaking my head at the pure calamity of it all. This is not the place for a tirade against the indescribable evil of the sex trade, which degrades and demeans women and children and destroys every shred of self-esteem and worth. The ongoing battle to free these prisoners belongs to all of us. Let me simply say that my heart was overwhelmed by these few tragic epitaphs describing women of Silverton. May they rest in peace.
Lots o’ coal to fuel it!
Engine 481 preparing to pull out of the rail yard.
Engineers still wear bib overalls.
I wanted his autograph.
We were the penultimate car on the train, giving great views on curves such as this.
The Animas River flows alongside for the journey.
Chris enjoying the open-air glass-roofed “Silver Vista.”
Engine pulling hard up a steep grade.
Backdrop: San Juan Mountains. In another two weeks, the aspens will be turning…
Had to stop twice at water tanks to refill. This is accomplished by pulling down the long fill-arm and letting water pour into the tender.
They wear black to keep the soot from showing. Sure look like they’re having fun!
Perhaps he has the best job of all.
The sights, sounds, and smells of an old steam train take us back to a kinder and gentler era, helping us briefly forget recent news of chemical weapons, gang-rapes, and nuclear pollution. Who doesn’t love the harmonious whistle, blown in coded combinations of long and short? The clickety-clack of wheel on track, the swaying cars, the passing scenery?
Passengers milled happily about the Durango, Colorado, railroad station, awaiting the boarding call. At the ticket booth for the narrow-gauge railway trip up into the San Juan mountains, I learned that the only car available was the first-class Silver Vista. I don’t remember ever buying first-class anything in my life, but this was a glass-roofed open-air car, built from blueprints of the original destroyed in a suspicious fire sixty years ago. It was, we would later discover, the favorite car of all the railroad workers. I got two tickets.
Forty-five miles and three-and-a-half glorious hours later, Chris and I stepped off onto the packed dirt roads of the well-worn 19th-century mining town of Silverton, population 500-ish. It’s endearingly ragged, quintessentially western; I suspect the only thing keeping it alive in the 21st century is the narrow-gauge railroad and the 175,000 riders who drop in each year.
What’s a little soot on your face, in exchange for a ride up 3,000 feet and back a century or so?
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