Skip to main content

Durango-Silverton Branch of the D&RGW RR

Location: Durango, CO, USA
Date: 1882
Creator(s): Palmer, William Jackson , Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad

The Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Branch of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad extends from the town of Durango to the mining camp of Silverton. Built in 1882 through one of the most rugged mountain areas of the nation, its complexity remains a testament to the role civil engineering played in the development of the western United States. 

The tracks rise up the sheer, steep Animas Canyon, running along a rock ledge just wide enough to carry the train. The line is used today as a tourist attraction, carrying visitors through the picturesque San Juan Mountains.

The 45-mile line was constructed in just over nine months at a cost of $917,303. The first steel rails produced in Colorado were used in construction of this line.


  • Silverton sits at an elevation of 9,300 feet. 
  • The railway's maximum grade is 2.5 percent. In such rugged terrain, this relatively modest project was a significant surveying and construction accomplishment. 
  • The 500 laborers who built the railway were primarily Irish and Chinese immigrants. 
  • Laborers lived in rail cars provided by the D& R Western Railroad, though some chose to make their homes in nearby caves. The average daily pay was $2.25. 


  1. Royem, Robert,  An American Classic: The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad , 1995, Limelight Press. 


The Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Train is one of the last of the narrow gauge railroads, linking the Colorado mining towns of Durango and Silverton and is an example of the important role that civil engineering played in developing the west.
Tags: Era: 1880-1889
Innovation designated by:
Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge railway runs along the Highline.
Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge railway runs along the Highline.
Durango, CO, USA

37.2975, -107.710833

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

Please support America's only magazine of the history of engineering and innovation, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to Invention & Technology.


Stay informed - subscribe to our newsletter.
The subscriber's email address.