There are towns, there are small towns, and then there are mountain towns. After you sort through all of them, you’ll find that the best ones are the small mountain towns and of those, the best one is Silverton, Colorado. It is the last great undiscovered year-round working enclave above 9,000 feet. It sits way up in the San Juan Mountains, an hour’s tenuous yet spectacular drive from the nearest airport, and about a century behind the rest of the world. The town was dependent on mining for most of the 147 years since its founding, then seemed destined to wither away after demand for minerals dwindled after WWII. But around 1953 someone thought to bring in tourists instead of hauling out ore and now the town thrives on trainloads of visitors hauled in on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, the same line that once hauled miners up and ore down. For the two or three hours when the tourists from the train are roaming the streets buying T-shirts and refrigerator magnets, it produces as much hustle and bustle as you can get at over 9,000 feet. Then, when the train hauls them away, a wonderful peaceful calm settles over everything and you are back in the 19th century, albeit with WiFi and microwave ovens. Remnants of Silverton’s history live on its stone architecture, Queen Anne cottages, and in the cars, trucks and old mining equipment that still line the streets, mixed in with more modern cars, though not too modern. I spent last week exploring the town and found some good historic, and more common vehicles. Read on to see my favorites.
1941 White Motor Company M2 Half Track
At first, perhaps like you, I thought this was an International Harvester M9 halftrack from WWII, but it’s actually an M2 built by White Motor Company in 1941. All Allied Forces used these during the war. It was most often armed with a half-inch M2 Browning heavy machine gun, but M2s were also used to haul arms and ammunition to the battlefield. This particular one never made it overseas and spent its post-war life in various mining operations in Colorado. Gary Davis, Commander of the local Silverton American Legion Post, said the M2 spent 20 or 30 years working in a mine in Arizona, then one Legion member used it in his mine in the San Juans several more years before donating it to the local post.
“It starts great, it runs good, it’s fully functional,” said Davis. “It’s licensed and insured. Truck stuck in a ditch? We can help!”
And yes, it has a machine gun, a .30-caliber. It now appears regularly in Silverton’s Memorial Day and 4th of July parades. Once, when there were visiting military dignitaries, the American Legion members met them at the train station and transported them around town in the M2. The dignitaries loved it.
1938 Chicago Pneumatic 8 Compressor Assembly
This was sitting in front of Kevin Baldwin’s auto repair shop. His sign proclaims, and he is known locally as, “The Bearded Wonder,” perhaps because of his magnificent, Mosaic facial hair. He fixes everyone’s cars in town and everyone knows him. I asked him about the huge mechanical thing he had sitting in the driveway of the shop. It’s a Chicago Pneumatic 8 Compressor Assembly, he said, used to pump fresh air into mines. He pointed out some details: there’s a small, two-cylinder engine mounted parallel to a huge Caterpillar RD8 straight six. The smaller engine starts the big six. The big six then spins the four compressors that poke out in what looks like an air-cooled V4 configuration. He showed me a video on his camera of the last time he tried to start it. There was a lot of bangity bang-bang, and some smoke out of the top, but that’s as far as it went. Baldwin explained:
“The noise you hear is the two-cylinder pony motor, that’s the starter motor, it’s attached to the big one, and you can see the big one was trying to fire and it was carrying on pretty good but we just could not get it to get enough fuel to where all the cylinders would hit. It was probably hittin’ on three or four but not enough to run.”
Baldwin said once everything’s fired up, the compressor puts out 500 cubic feet of air a minute.
“The whole thing would sit outside a mine and run hoses inside, into the mine. It was portable, too, you could go from mine to mine with it.”
Chicago Pneumatic is still in business and still making compressors.
1963 Willys Jeep Pickup
This one was parked in front of the Silverton Hardware store. The owners of the store own the truck. The next day I saw it parked in front of Baldwin’s garage at 1158 Reese St.
“It’s a farm truck, so it probably doesn’t have a lot of miles on it,” The Bearded Wonder said.
There’s a power takeoff on the back for running various farm machines. Underhood is a Kaiser Tornado overhead cam 230 cubic-inch straight six engine with a Holley two-barrel carburetor on the side.
“It runs well, too. I’m putting new tires on it and just tuning it up. They’re trying to get it ready for the 4th of July parade.”
There’s still time to make it to town for that.
Various International Harvester Trucks and a 4×4 Checker Marathon Taxi Cab
Again, Baldwin illuminated me: “Rich Perino used to do a towing business back in the mining days, in the ’60s and ’70s. He used them to protect his fence from the town because they kept pushing it over in the winter time with snow. Then the historical society put ’em over on their property (where I had seen them). They were running when they turned off. There’s folks who want to get some of them going. There’s one up behind the historical society, the Dodge tow truck.”
Old Dodge Tow Truck
Here’s the Dodge tow truck. Look at those exposed gears, rusty cables and what must be a PTO down in there somewhere sectioning off torque from the engine to raise whatever car was being hauled in for repairs, likely to be fixed by The Bearded Wonder.
The Tram from Sunnyside Mine
Another thing up behind the Silverton Historical Society was a large yellow vehicle on rails. I couldn’t figure out what it was. To my suburban eyeball it seemed too small to be a train locomotive, but I wasn’t thinking like a miner. Mines have low ceilings and narrower walls, thus a need for shorter, skiinier machinery.
“It’s the locomotive from the tram, which is essentially the train that pulls the ore out of the mountain to get it to the smelters and the mill,” said Baldwin. “It’s (powered by) a Caterpillar engine. I think it’s 150 hp. It’s probably a ‘50s engine but I haven’t looked that close at it.”
Jeff Gallegos’ 1964 Ford Galaxy 500
This car has a 390-cubic-inch V8, four-on-the-floor transmission and Positrac rear end.
“It was ordered by Bob Wyman, from the Wyman Hotel,” Gallegos said. “He ordered this car from the factory with this color. That’s not the original paint but it’s the original color, it’s called Navajo Green. The inside’s the same. I’ve redone the rear seats, I still have to do the fronts. Those are new wheels. I put disc brakes on it and the discs wouldn’t fit with the original, 14-inch wheels. It’s an old car but it runs good.”
Gallegos popped the hood. The engine bay looked good, too. There were even original stickers in all the right places.
“I ordered all the old stickers from Dearborn Classics magazine. You can order all the parts and stickers. That’s a new aluminum radiator. I’ve upgraded a few things in it. It’s got electronic ignition. Stock 4-barrel FoMoCo carburetor. It was really high-performance back in the day. This is like top-of-the-line back in ’64. Back then you could go one more grade up if you wanted, to the Galaxie XL. The XL had air-conditioning and stuff like that. Back then they changed things every year.”
Jeff Gallegos’ 1969 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme
Jeff seems to have the two fastest cars in town, though he might never have considered that. I first saw him cruising up Greene Street in this Oldsmobile, but I couldn’t get a photo in time. Luckily, I caught up with him the next day. He likes his muscle cars.
“My stepfather gave me this car,” he said. “He bought it brand-new in Provo, Utah in 1969. This one has a 350-cubic-inch V8. A step up from this model would be the 442. That would have a 455 in it and a four-on-the-floor and a Positrac rear end. The 442 stands for four-barrel, four-speed and Positrac rear end – 442.”
The Stage Coach
Dave Shaw has owned this Latham Coach since 1999. It was built by the Latham Coach Works of Fortuna, Missouri and cost $40,000. The two horses are named Sonny and Cher. It’s been in movies, Shaw said. He would have said which movies but paying customers climbed in and he had to ride off into the sunset. Rides are $7 a head.
Baldwin Locomotive Works K-36
For 140 years the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad was the life blood of Silverton, hauling miners and material up the Animas River Canyon and hauling ore down. As the mines played out in the 1950s the cargo switched to tourists and has been tourists ever since. The railroad remains the crucial link in the economies of both Silverton and Durango. The biggest recent change is the fuel that fires them up. The original locomotives were all coal-fired and steam-powered. That’s what you see in all those laminated placemats and calendars they sell in Silverton. They ran that way for 138 years, with firemen shoveling coal into mighty, promethean fireboxes that turned Animas River water into steam in great, blasting belches. Rail fans and tourists flocked to town to ride them. You could pick one up in Durango and ride it along the narrow gorge of the Animas River all the way into Silverton, black smoke and fiery cinders belching into the blue sky. Then, on June 1, 2018, one of those cinders landed in dry forest and the resulting “416 Fire” burned for 61 days. It cost $25 million to put out and to rehab the forest. So the Durango & Silverton converted its mighty steam locomotives from coal-fired to oil-burners. Old Number 480 here, a 1925 Baldwin Locomotive, has been burning oil to make its steam since May.
ALCO stands for American Locomotive Company. This one was built in 1969 and had been in operation in Alaska for the White Pass & Yukon railroad before being brought to Silverton recently to augment the new coal-free fleet. It’s actually a hybrid drivetrain, with a four-cycle V6 internal combustion engine built by ALCO making 1200 hp. That engine spins a GE-GT581C main generator sending electricity to the six axle-mounted GE 752 traction motors that move the train up the track. The whole thing weighs 136,000 pounds.
The Rail Bus
For smaller hauling jobs, mines would sometimes convert existing road vehicles to rail locomotives. In other parts of the San Juan Mountains there are a few such conversions in museums and on display, each of which is known as a Galloping Goose. This is not a Galloping Goose, but something very similar, if a little smaller. Once again, Kevin Baldwin, The Bearded Wonder, explained the details to me: “It’s a 1915 Cadillac Series 51,” he said. “The Sunnyside Gold Mine put the bus body on it in 1922. It was originally supposed to be an ambulance and then they ended up using it for bringing people down from the mine for union meetings at the Miners’ Hall and various other things that the company did. It has a 314 flathead V8 by Cadillac. It was one of the first years that they put an electric starter on the engine.”
And it still works!
“About five years ago we took it down to Rockwood on the Durango & Silverton (narrow-gauge) lines and it runs good. You have to babysit it but it’s fun.”
1964 Cadillac Sedan de Ville
You wouldn’t necessarily expect to see this car 9,318 feet up in the San Juan mountains, but there it sat, in its original “presidential green” paint and in pretty good shape considering. Before the current owner got it, the car belonged to a “wealthy gentleman from New York” who kept it in Aspen and drove it there during the summers. So this car has had two owners in 57 years. “Oh my gosh it runs like a top,” the current owner said, adding that it was garaged for 12 years before they bought it. “We take it to Ouray (23 miles away) all the time for ice cream.”
The one here was the last of the second generation of Sedans de Ville. Cars from this model year were powered by your choice of 390 c.i. or 429 c.i. V8s, mated to a three- or four-speed automatic. The owner didn’t know which powertrain is in this one but it’s for sale for $12,000. Phone number on the placard is 970 799-1119. Tell ’em Autoweek sent you.
Kawasaki KLR 650
There might be a legal requirement that every mountain town in America has to have several KLR 650s, each one piloted by a helmetless, wild-haired youth who never seems to fall off. The KLR was introduced in 1987 with a 651-cc single-cylinder liquid-cooled four-stroke engine that went thump-thump-thump all over the hill country of America. They seemed to last forever no matter how well you maintained, or didn’t maintain, them. The KLR fell out of production for a few years recently but a new model is back and it costs just $6,699.
1980 Camaro Z/28
Every small town, especially every rural small town, has at least one functioning Z/28. There are often several more being parted out on lawns (though not on the lawns of this town). The guy with the Z/28 was always the alpha male. I wasn’t able to track this owner down so we’ll just assume.
Rock Pirates’ Polaris RZR XP
You can get a four-seater Polaris RZR XP4 from Rock Pirates on Greene St. for $215 for two hours or $420 for a full day. Get the full day and go conquer one of the local passes. In the winter, they switch to renting snowmobiles up at Molas Lake Trail Parking Lot at Mile Marker 65 on Highway 550. You can have fun all year-round! Yee haw!
1970 (?) Ford F-100 Pickup
This and the Chevy C/10 have to be the coolest model-year pickup trucks ever: squared-off, no nonesense, working trucks, not yuppie poseurmobiles. Not sure of the working status of this one. I knocked on the door of the house where it was parked and no one answered. Nothing growing up between the frame rails so I’m going to optimistically assume that it runs. Even if it doesn’t, you can get all the parts you want directly from Ford, right? How much work could it be? Who’s in?
Orton-McCullough Crane Co. Railroad Crane
This was parked on a siding down by the old Silverton Depot. It looked like it had been retired many years ago after a long life of service. The Orton-McCullough Crane Co. made railroad cranes in Huntington, Ind. for over a hundred years. The company traces its roots to 1906, when it was known as the Orton & Steinbrenner Co. of Chicago. It was bought by John F. McCullough in 1972 and renamed the Orton-McCullough Crane Co. It ceased operations in 2012. This one looks like a pretty versatile rig. It could swing around as needed to grab heavy things and then swing back to load them on the other side of the tracks. A plaque inside the cab showed it could lift as much as 26,000 pounds when the outriggers were deployed.
These were featured in movies and TV shows of the Wild West for years, often in comic situations, like Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges and Blazing Saddles. In reality, the handcar was used in railroad construction and maintenance only up until about 1910, when its role was replaced by motorized section cars. Usually handcars were operated by four men, with a single brake pedal for stopping. Accidents were all-too-frequent occurances, especially when encountering unexpected oncoming trains.
One of the many things that separates Silverton from all those wealthy ski towns is its many multi-generation residents, its lack of chain stores… and a dearth of Subarus. I only saw a couple ‘Roos during my week in town and they mostly looked like they belonged to out-of-town visitors. Other mountain towns, particularly those back east or even the wealthier Colorado towns like Telluride, Aspen and Vail, are overrun with the things, and understandably so, as they’re affordable and capable year-round conveyances. This one here is probably not owned by a ski bum since it wasn’t blotted-out with stickers in the back. Though it’s in transition, Silverton still has the feel and ambience of a working town, the last one in America above 9,000 feet.
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