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How Florida Saved Durango

With summer in full-swing, the train whistle drowning out dinner conversations and traffic a beastly force to be reckoned with, it's time for a reminder: tourism is good. According to Region 9 Economic Development, 18-percent of jobs in La Plata County are attributed to this powerful industry.

Little do Durangoans know that part of our current success is actually due to the business savviness of a couple of flatlanders. Pour yourself a glass of orange juice, and settle in for a story of how Florida helped to boost the coffers of our high-altitude paradise.

Florida, in short

Florida could not be more different from Colorado. It claims at least three of America’s ‘-est’s’: warmest, flattest and deadliest. Warm, balmy climate means fantastic orange juice. Flat means it'll probably be underwater in the next few centuries.

In fact, Florida is so flat that its highest natural point, Britton Hill, is the lowest high point in all 50 states. Resting at 345-feet above sea level, Britton Hill sits lower than most Miami skyscrapers. 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, later turned into the hiking trails.

One would think such flatness would equate to safe passage for pedestrians and bikers, considering drivers can see for miles. Not true. In fact, Florida is the deadliest state for cyclists. In 2008 alone, Florida had 125 bicyclists fatalities, the most in the United States.

Despite this tragic shortcoming, Florida is the second most popular state to visit in the US, according to a 2014 Business Insider study. In the same study, Colorado ranked 16th.

Crash Course in Railroad History

In the late 1800’s, Animas City was the largest town in the Animas Valley. Located around 32nd Street and North Main Avenue, it was an ideal location for the Denver & Rio Grande Railway to set up a depot for its’ latest line.

In 1880, railroad tycoon, William Jackson Palmer’s, brightest business partner, Dr. William Bell, came to the folks of Animas City and offered “mo’ money, mo’ problems.” These farming families, who enjoyed picnics and apple picking, said “no way, Doc.” Dr. Bell shrugged off the stubborn naysayers and went 30-blocks downriver. And so it came to pass that, at the junction of Main Avenue and 2nd Street, Durango, Colorado, was officially rooted.

During the heydays of the mining boom, the D&RG transported gold, silver, pianos, lettuce and people to and from the mining town of Silverton nestled 3,000-feet higher than and 50-miles north of Durango. When the price of silver crashed in 1893, the railroad industry followed suit, morphing into an unreliable roller-coaster industry.

Nearly a century later, the D&RG was settling into its’ existence as a dusty relic for nostalgic narrow-gauge hobbyists to photograph. And then along came a citrus grower from Florida. In 1981, Charles Bradshaw bought the railroad. He renamed 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 the local economy.

In March 1997, the D&SNGR was sold to First American Railways, Inc. based out of Hollywood, Florida, and a year later, to American Heritage Railways located in Coral Gables, Florida. When present-day CEO, Allen Harper, took over management, headquarters for American Heritage Railways was moved to Durango. These days, Harper runs the line like a child beaming with pride over his toy chest. It’s obvious his greatest joy is sharing the wonder of these iron horses with adults and kiddos from around the world.

While Durangoans might miss their quiet streets in the months of June through September, keep in mind that those busloads of national and international cotton-topped tourists flocking Main Avenue are local businesses bread-and-butter. To think most of them come for the train.

What happened to Animas City? It’s since been incorporated into one of the biggest towns in the Four Corners region. At the corner of Main and 32nd, a grocery store now sits, where you can buy premium Florida-grown orange juice. Raise a glass to these preservationists of wild west history, and don’t judge Florida for its’ other ‘est’s’. Cheers!  

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