Back in time
Effort afoot to save historic Denver and Rio Grande Western byway

Back in time

Once a lifeline for communities between Durango and Chama, there's little left of the D&RGW save for pockets of abandoned tracks, old steel bridges and decrepit buildings. However, a group called Tracks Across Borders is working to preserve the legacy of the rail line that connected Southwest Colorado and northern New Mexico./ Courtesy photo

Jonathan Romeo - 03/16/2023

Once upon a time – but not that long ago – nearly all of the major hubs in the Four Corners were connected by railway. Now, one nonprofit group seeks to preserve one of the most storied lines – the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad.

The group, Tracks Across Borders, was formed in the mid-2010s to preserve the legacy of the rail line that connected Southwest Colorado and northern New Mexico, which is also considered the nation’s largest narrow-gauge railroad system at over 1,000 miles.

Once a lifeline for dispersed communities along the route from Durango to Chama, there’s little left of the D&RGW save for pockets of abandoned tracks, old steel bridges, decrepit buildings and other related infrastructure in disuse.

But it’s these relics – as well as the landscape itself – that Tracks Across Borders is intent on not only preserving but also bringing to the forefront of the region’s history. In recent years, the nonprofit received official byway status for the 128-mile route in both Colorado and New Mexico.

“I’m always amazed about the history that has gotten lost,” Scott Gibbs, president of the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad, a historic route that runs from Chama to Antonito, said. “But it wasn’t too long ago that the only transportation connection was through railroads.”

The D&RGW came on line in 1887, connecting Colorado’s Front Range to Chama, Durango, Silverton and other towns in the San Juan Mountains, with other branches reaching Farmington and Pagosa Springs.

In its heyday, a number of communities sprung up along the line, including Allison, Arboles, Dulce, Ignacio, Juanita, Monero, as well as across two Native American tribes, the Jicarilla Apache and Southern Ute. These settlements were known for agriculture, mining and timber.

“The byway has a lot of history that goes well beyond the railroad itself,” John Porco, executive director of the Tracks Across Borders Byway Commission, said. “But the railroad was obviously the spark plug that encouraged settlement of the region.”

In the 1940s, however, roads in the region, particularly in the mountains, were improved and started to become the main source of travel and transportation of goods. As a result, freight and passenger traffic dramatically fell off. On top of that, railroads were upgraded from narrow gauges, leaving the D&RGW a thing of the past.

The D&RGW hung on for a few more years, though. But in 1968, the line was officially approved for decommission. In the ensuing years, most of the track was pulled up and towns abandoned, (though many communities continue to this day).

And while the once grand rail connections of the West were decommissioned, some sections of the old line survived, too, as tourist trains, such as the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad and the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.

Over time, the memory of the D&RGW faded into the past, Porco said. But as encroaching development continues to gobble up swaths of the old route, momentum started to grow to preserve its legacy in some way, resulting in Tracks Across Borders.

“Whenever people lose interest, there’s a risk of losing an important part of history,” Porco said. “A number of people were instrumental in getting this pulled together.”

The scenic and historic byway program is administered by the transportation departments in each state. In Colorado, the program was established in 1989 and now boasts 26 designated scenic and historic byways across the state, comprising nearly 2,600 miles of roadway.

“CDOT recognizes the importance of these designated scenic and historic routes, especially to the local communities and regions,” Lisa Schwantes, spokeswoman for CDOT, said. “Each byway provides a sense of place unique to the area.”

For the Tracks Across Borders Scenic and Historic Byway, one of the major goals is to preserve what’s left of the railroad infrastructure, including the track, steel bridges and old buildings, whenever possible.

At the now-ghost town of Juanita, just on the Colorado side of the border, some ruins remain from when the D&RGW built a section house, bunkhouse, tool house and small station. The site also includes a 1925 church and historic cemetery.

Further west, in the unincorporated town of Allison, several historic buildings, including a grange and church, not only still stand, but are in active use. Amid the increasing threat of development in the area, it’s even more important to increase preservation efforts, Gibbs said.

“Development is rapidly taking over,” said Gibbs, who also serves on the Tracks Across Borders board. “There’s a piece of understanding our history and where we came from.”

But it’s not just the railroad and Western settlement that Tracks Across Borders seeks to preserve and highlight. There’s also a deep recognition that Native American tribes inhabited these lands long before the railroad, Sean Valdez, heritage specialist with the Jicarilla Cultural Affairs Office, said.

“It does a great job of connecting the past to the present, allowing people to understand how development and progress influenced the area, and how our ancestors had to adapt to the changing times,” he said.

Valdez added that the effort keeps the stories and lessons of past generations alive. Members of the Jicarilla Apache tribe even recorded stories to be archived and shared as part of the Tracks Across Border initiative.

“A lot of our history, like family stories, have been left out of the historical texts,” Valdez said. “There’s no text book or accurate full picture of what life was like around the train, unless you’re actually able to visit it and meet people.”

And therein lies one of the true missions of Tracks Across Borders – to have the public come out and visit the route firsthand. Porco said increased visitation would not only bring awareness to the historical significance of the byway, but also an economic boost to towns along it.

Driven as a straight shot, the trip from Durango to Chama is about two hours. Tracks Across Borders, however, has installed several historical signs along the route for people to stop and read. Plus, there’s a map that can be found on the nonprofit’s website that provides historical information for travelers.

But perhaps the biggest game changer, Porco said, is a new, interactive app people can download on their phones for free and follow in real time as they drive the byway. The app, available in Google and Apple stores through the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad, features more than 30 stops.

“It’s a chance to go back in time before there was a lot of development in the area,” he said. “It really feels like you’re stepping back in time.”