By Fritz Klinke
On to Howardsville!
Rebuilding a portion of Silverton Northern Railroad is a major project currently being under taken by the San Juan County Historical Society. This railroad was a narrow gauge line that connected Silverton with the mining towns of Howardsville, Eureka and Animas Forks. The original railroad was about 17 miles in length, but this project involves rebuilding a very scenic portion of 2.5 miles alongside the Animas River, from a point 2.5 miles from Silverton to the former town of Howardsville.
A Silverton Northern committee has been working on the initial work needed to rebuild the Silverton Northern. In the summer of 2013, the Society successfully negotiated a 99-year lease with the San Juan County commissioners for use of the historic right-of-way between what is called the powerhouse through the Animas River canyon all the way to Howardsville. The first expenditure from the committee was for the $99 lease. The Society has the enthusiastic support of the county commissioners for this project.
Plans call for laying an initial section of track at the power house site starting in June of 2014. Several hundred feet of track are planned that will be built to Federal Railroad Administration standards. This track will be laid on the main line grade of the Silverton Northern that was abandoned in 1942.
The primary objective of the Silverton Northern project is to provide additional economic stimulus to the tourist based economy of the town of Silverton and San Juan County and to reestablish a significant historic part of our history. The rebuilt Silverton Northern will be a key element of a heritage based economic development program for the county that will place emphasis on promoting the several significant heritage attractions in the county that already exist.
The 1991 closure of mining in San Juan County caused a dramatic shift in the economy of Silverton and the county. Since that time, the community has struggled to maintain its viability with a reliance on tourism as the base industry. This was accompanied by a decline in population and a downward shift in incomes. All segments of the community including the public sectors of the school and local government as well as volunteer services have had to cope with a drastically reduced ability to furnish essential services.
The Master Plan of San Juan County and the Town of Silverton has identified the development of a coordinated heritage tourism program as a key economic development tool. The Society has identified the rebuilt Silverton Northern as a key element in promoting Silverton as a destination for extended visits for visitors by offering a number of quality and well done non-amusement park type historic heritage attractions. The Society has held to high standards of accurate historic preservation in all of its projects.
The Society intends that the rebuilt Silverton Northern will lease the facilities to a private operator. Preliminary estimates show that 8 jobs would be created to operate the railroad, but more importantly, by serving as the key attraction, the railroad would bring significant business for the Silverton sector of hotels, restaurants, gift stores, and service operations.
The Society already owns a portion of the right-of-way needed to rebuild the railroad at the power house industrial park site. This area will provide for parking and facilities need for rail operations, and it will utilize the original route of the Silverton Northern through this site.