By Eilene Lyon
With the encouragement of Anabel at The Glasgow Gallivanter and Brandi at Make the Journey Fun, I’ve decided to share bits of my Old West hometown. One project I’d like to undertake, perhaps as a book someday, is a study of Main Avenue buildings and the businesses they’ve housed over the past 140 years that Durango, Colorado, has been in existence.
The first building to profile is a no-brainer. Completed in January 1882, it is one of the oldest in town. That is a spectacular feat of longevity, because it is not built of brick or stone, but wood. And another claim to fame is that it has been in continuous operation for its original purpose through all these years, as a railroad depot. It first served the Denver & Rio Grande (the company that founded Durango) and now the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge.
Historic train stations invite visitors to conjure an age when steam locomotives offered the fastest transportation on the planet. Though uncomfortable by today’s standards, the passenger cars, riding on smooth metal rails, were luxurious compared to the rough, dusty rides provided by stage coaches, wagons, and buggies. In a matter of weeks, rather than months, a passenger could cross the continent. How modern!
Station platforms bustled with passengers decked out in their finest dresses and suits, all wearing bonnets, bowlers, top hats, and Stetsons. They gripped their carpetbags, valises, hatboxes, and umbrellas, with the latest edition of the news tucked under one arm. Steam and smoke billowed from the locomotive stacks, a whiff of sulfur emanating from the burning coal. The conductor shouted, “All aboard!” and the shrieking steam whistle threatened to burst eardrums.
The Durango depot’s survival is amazing when you realize that 1) it has no true foundation, and 2) there are coal-fired engines parked next to it. Just one wayward cinder… And more astonishing when you learn that the nearby roundhouse (where they store and maintain idling locomotives) burned to the ground in 1989. Still, the depot stands.
The address is 479 Main Avenue, but it used to have a second address in the days when it served two separate railroad lines. It is the only building in the 400 block of Main Avenue, originally called First Avenue. From the Sanborn maps, we can see that the street used to extend south from the station, but it no longer does.
Low-rent hotels and saloons in that block serviced the traveling salesmen who arrived on the train. Though the railroad’s principal business was carrying ore from San Juan Mountains mines, it has always carried passengers.
The depot’s interior uses have changed over the years. In the early days, the waiting room occupied the center, with a telegraph office to the south and a baggage room and express office on the north. The central portion has an upper floor and used to be a dwelling, but now serves as business office space.
I spoke with Jeff Ellingson, museum curator, for more information. (Museum entrance is free—I’ll take you there another time.) The clapboard siding, wainscoting, and roofing were replaced over the past five years. Though the exterior paint no longer contains lead, it retains the original color: yellow ocher with a luscious chocolate-brown trim.
Ellingson indicated that the north section of the depot held separate waiting areas for men and women, but I don’t know in what time period. Both ends now house gift shops and a coffee counter. The ticket office, waiting areas, and much-too-small restrooms fill the central section. The building is included in the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Line Historic Landmark on the National Register.
Since it is October, and we’re discussing an old public building, we need to know more about its ghosts. Ellingson says the depot’s spirit denizens are completely benign and rarely encountered. They pull minor mischievous pranks. However, the upstairs offices had a resident cat in the early 2000s, appropriately named Cinders, that bristled at the entrance to the north attic and would not enter that portion of the building. Unless a huge, radioactive rodent occupied the premises, we’ll just go with the ectoplasm theory.1
Perusing old newspapers online turned up a number of depot mentions:
1888: After battling enormous snow drifts in mid-March on Conejos Pass, the train arrived at the Durango depot carrying Sheriff Stoddard of Rice County, Kansas. Stoddard was met at the station by local Sheriff Turner and Stoddard’s quarry: admired Durango resident and accused murderer, A.C. Meyers (also called Myers in the article). Meyers willingly gave himself up for extradition and trial, along with accused accomplice George West, whom they would pick up in Lyons, Kansas, on their way back east.2
1901: During a period of major labor unrest, Cole Lydon, superintendent 4th division of the Denver & Rio Grande, posted a notice at the depot ordering all yard workers to report immediately for duty or be considered terminated by the company.3
1903: A couple miles from the depot, the train heading for Denver the morning of March 16 hit a small boulder that had rolled off a nearby hill and wedged between a crossing plank and the rail. None of the 40 or 50 passengers were notably injured. The engine did not fare so well. “Old railroad men say they never saw a locomotive so badly used except in a head end collision at full speed.”4
1904: “The Durango depot needs a big arc light for the arrival of late trains when the roads are running behind schedule time. Darkness has enthralled several hundred passengers who have arrived over the past few weeks.”5
1905: A scathing article appeared when an entire Rio Grande Southern train tipped over causing an untold number of injuries. The writer, who waited at the depot with other worried people for the ambulances to arrive, blasted all the rail lines coming into Durango as being in “deplorable condition.” He also urged the firing of Superintendent Meldrum for ignoring the injured passengers in favor of the freight.6
1909: Bert O. Clark, a Black man working as the mail clerk on the Silverton line, suffered massive hemorrhaging due to consumption as his train was about to leave the depot on February 27. He soon passed away and the Durango Evening Herald printed a lengthy, laudatory obituary. A portion was republished in the historic Black newspaper, the Iowa State Bystander. His father was a well-known minister in the AME Church in Chicago. Mr. Clark resided at the home of Mrs. Washington at 828 Second Ave. and she tenderly cared for him in his dying days.7
1923: Sheriff Wagner of San Miguel County arrested Durango depot worker J.A. McKinley for stealing ore worth thousands of dollars. McKinley stated he had permission from the depot company to keep what he cleaned out of the cars after unloading. He immediately began replevin proceedings to retrieve the seized ore.8
1924: Durango pioneer Jeff Sease died of an apoplectic stroke at the depot on Christmas Eve as he waited to board a train to Cedar Hill, New Mexico.9 (Might he be one of the depot ghosts?)
One news story threw me for a loop. It said a tornado had picked up the entire depot and tossed it in the river! That is how I learned there is a place named Durango in Iowa.
Feature image: The east (street) side of the Durango depot. I think you’ll agree the landscaping has greatly improved in recent times. (E. Lyon 2021)
- Interview with DSNGRR museum curator Jeff Ellingson on October 14, 2021. ↩
- “Murder and Mystery” The Lyons Republican, April 5, 1888 p. 1, quoting the Rocky Mountain News of March 14, 1888 – Newspapers.com. ↩
- The Durango Democrat, November 9, 1901 p. 4 – Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection. ↩
- The Telluride Journal, March 19, 1903, p. 7 – Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection. ↩
- The Durango Wage Earner, August 18, 1904, p. 3 – Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection. ↩
- The Durango Democrat, September 28, 1905 p. 2 – Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection. ↩
- “Bert O. Clark” Iowa State Bystander, April 2, 1909 p. 1, quoting the Durango Evening Herald – Newspapers.com. ↩
- The Indicator (Pueblo), May 5, 1923 p. 2 – Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection. Replevin is a proceeding to provisionally return seized goods pending the outcome of an action to determine rightful ownership. ↩
- Daily Journal (Telluride), December 30, 1924, p. 1 – Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection. ↩