SILVERTON, Colo. (CBS4)– You hear it before you see it. The iconic screaming horn on the Silverton News, Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad’s steam-powered locomotive comes blaring into the small mountain town of Silverton daily.
The train brings a cargo of tourists with money to spend into town every day about 11:30 a.m.
“It’s the real McCoy,” train fan Duke Breitenbach told CBS4 Wednesday, as he photographed the train’s arrival into town.
The railroad still in operation 136 years later, represents history and the mining past that made this corner of the state thrive.
The Old West town is alive and well, the mining long replaced with tourism dollars helping the 700 or so year-round residents able to make a living.
“It impacts us all in some way or another,” said DeAnne Gallegos, Executive Director at Silverton Area Chamber of Commerce.
That’s why news of a major lawsuit filed against the train’s owner has everyone talking about what would happen if the train doesn’t survive this legal challenge.
The federal government announced it is suing the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Company and its owner and operator for damages related to the 416 Fire.
The fire started on June 1, 2018, and burned actively for approximately 61 days. Approximately 54,000 acres burned, mostly on San Juan National Forest land.
The lawsuit alleges that the fire was ignited by burning particles emitted from an exhaust stack on a coal-burning steam engine locomotive.
“The United States asserts that because the fire was caused by the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Company and American Heritage Railways, Inc., they should be held liable under federal and Colorado law for all the damages incurred by the United States as a result of the fire, including the costs of fire suppression and the costs to rehabilitate the public lands damaged by the fire,” officials stated on Tuesday.
Officials said the federal government incurred approximately $25 million in suppression costs and other damages, including rehabilitation costs, which are still to be fully determined.
“This fire caused significant damage, cost taxpayers millions of dollars, and put lives at risk. We owe it to taxpayers to bring this action on their behalf,” said U.S. Attorney Jason Dunn.
In Silverton, the fire impacted last summer’s busy tourism season, but so far things are back on track this season, for now.
Even though the railroad has insurance and has hired legal teams to represent them in court against this latest lawsuit, as well as another filed on behalf of residents impacted by the fire and subsequent mudslides, many remain concerned about the future of the train.
So what would happen if the train stops? In Silverton, many business owners tell us it would bankrupt them.
“If it wasn’t for the train, I think Durango and Silverton would just go away” Breitenbach said.
Many believe losing this train means losing the heartbeat of Southwestern Colorado.
The DSNGG spokesman told CBS4, “We are fighting hard to keep the tradition alive for another 100 plus years. We have weathered challenges in the past and managed to keep the train tradition alive and well.”
The fate of the old railroad once again remains uncertain. For now, it’s on the tracks.
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