The Corner Bench Chronicles: Story III

How Florida Saved Durango

Florida claims at least three of America’s ‘-est’s’: warmest, flattest, and deadliest. Warm, balmy climate means fantastic orange juice. What do flat and deadly contribute to the United States? Perspective. We should be grateful to live in Durango, a town that boasts some of the highest mountains in the country and bike-friendliness. Little did I know I have a couple of Floridians to thank for contributing to the tourism dollars that help keep Durango afloat.  

Besides the Orange Juice…

Florida is so flat that its’ highest natural point, Britton Hill, is the lowest high point of the 50 states. Resting at 345-feet above sea level, Britton Hill sits lower than most Miami skyscrapers. The lowest point of 16 other states are still higher than Britton HIll, and, if you stacked 15 Britton Hills like flapjacks from the bottom of Grand Canyon to the top, they’d barely reach the rim. Other ‘hills’ exist in Florida, but they’re trash heaps covered with grass seed and turned into the hiking trails Floridians train on so they can take guided trekking trips across Grand Canyon.

One would think such flatness would equate to safe passage for pedestrians, considering drivers can see for miles. Not true: Florida is the deadliest state for cyclists. In 2008, Florida had 125 bicyclists fatalities, the most in the United States. Poor roads and population-growth issues are to blame, but some people, for reasons unknown, are just rude. Once, a mean individual took liberties to remove my bike off the rack on the back of my car while I was dining at a Cuban restaurant in Miami. Nothing hurts your feelings more than someone stealing your bicycle, let me tell you.

One More Thing 

This will be my only post regarding Florida, so I have to explain why I had my car even close to a Cuban restaurant in Miami.

In 2009, I followed a cowboy named Johnny Jack, Jr., from a ranch in Montana to West Palm Beach, where we lived in the back of a feed store with some mice and worked as vet technicians at the world-renowned Palm Beach Equine Clinic. I held heavy metal plates behind Olympic-gold-medal-bound horse hooves while Triple J took x-rays. Two weeks into the job, I witnessed my first surgical horse castration and decided that was it for me. No more horses. No more cowboys. No more Florida.

The feed store porch and the only photo I have from my time in Florida

The feed store porch and the only photo I have from my time in Florida

And so I moved west to guide trekking trips across Grand Canyon.

Crash-Course in Railroad History 

In 1880, Animas City was the largest town in the Animas Valley. It was located around 32nd Street and North Main Avenue, an ideal location for the Denver & Rio Grande (D&RG) Railway to establish a destination on its’ new line that was supposed to connect Denver to El Paso.  One of William Jackson Palmer’s savviest railway business partners, Dr. William Bell, came to the simple folk of Animas City and said “mo’ money, mo’ problems?” and these farming families who enjoyed picnics and a quaint existence, said “no way, Doc.” Dr. Bell shrugged off the stubborn naysayers and went 30-blocks down-river, putting up shop where the depot sits now – at Main Avenue and 2nd Street – and – boom – Colorado had a Durango.

For about a decade, the D&RG successfully transported goods and people 45.5 miles to Silverton, which sits 3,000-feet higher than Durango, and brought silver and gold down from the profitable mines nestled in the San Juan Mountains. But one day the price of silver crashed and the railroad turned into a roller-coaster business of economic booms and hardships. A hundred years later, the railroad was settling into its’ existence as a dusty relic and destination for narrow-gauge hobbyists.

And then came a citrus grower from Florida. Mr. Charles Bradshaw bought the railroad, named it the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge (D&SNG) and, after pouring his heart and wallet into the operation, turned the struggling business into a cash-cow for local businesses. Today, the railroad is owned by another generous Floridian, Mr. Allen Harper, who runs the line like a child proud of his toy closet. It’s obvious his greatest joy is sharing the wonder of these big steam machines with children and adults from around the world. The D&SNG makes no profit so the endeavor really is a labor of love for this man from the land of oranges, bike-haters, and small-lung capacities.

The 480 series - one of four K-36 steam engines in the D&SNG fleet

The 480 series – one of four K-36 steam engines in the D&SNG fleet

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Little kid, big train – Animas Valley heading to Silverton

Brakeman on lookout

Brakeman on lookout

Crossing the famous highline section above the Animas River

Crossing the famous highline section above the Animas River

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Upper Animas River – Weminuche Wilderness, San Juan National Forest

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Big toy – inners of the 480

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SONY DSC

Weary traveler from the old days crossing the mighty San Juans on mule

And maybe Durangoan’s miss their quiet streets in the months of May through October, but those busloads of national and international cotton-topped tourists flocking Main Avenue during the summer season are local business’ bread-and-butter. To think they come for the train.

What happened to Animas City? Not much – it’s now incorporated into one of the biggest towns in the Four Corners region and serves as the location of a City Market grocery store, where you can buy premium Florida orange juice.

So toast a glass to these conservationists of this remote pocket of wild west history and don’t judge Florida for its’ other ‘est’s’. After all, Durango has flaws, too. Maybe.

Handlebar's in Silverton: Toasting blueberry moonshine to our favorite Floridians

Handlebar’s in Silverton: Toasting blueberry moonshine to our favorite Floridians

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