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After several tough years, tourism returns to Silverton

Fires, heavy snow and pandemic upended economy for three years
Passengers disembark from the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad on Tuesday in Silverton. The train ran without interruption this summer, creating a boon for Silverton’s tourism economy. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

SILVERTON – This historic mining town high in the San Juan Mountains has faced its share of economic disruptions during the past few years.

In 2018, the 416 Fire shut down the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which acts as the economic lifeline during the summer months, delivering hundreds of passengers every day to Silverton.

Then in 2019, massive amounts of snow cut off access to the isolated town 50 miles north of Durango. Red Mountain Pass on U.S. Highway 550 was closed for about 20 days in March after numerous avalanches covered the highway between Silverton and Ouray.

Then in 2020 the pandemic hit, resulting in widespread stay-at-home orders and the town’s own “locals only” policy, which prohibited nonessential travel into San Juan County.

But this year, things were back on track. The train ran all season, Mother Nature provided good moisture and COVID-19 restrictions were largely lifted.

Tourists who rode the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge railroad to Silverton stand in line to get something to eat Tuesday in Silverton. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Still, some businesses in this tiny town of 600 full-time residents are struggling to make ends meet after three tough years.

“You’ve got business owners that have just barely hung on from COVID, from the 416 Fire, from everything that we’ve been hit with,” said Molly Barela, owner of Golden Block Brewery on Greene Street. “As you can tell, there’s a lot that isn’t open.”

Some businesses and restaurants are closing for winter, something that happens most winters when the D&SNG train stops making daily trips to Silverton.

Other businesses report doing well and haven’t experienced setbacks to the same degree. The summer of 2020 marked a turning point for several businesses when thousands of residents flocked to San Juan County to “social-distance” while enjoying the outdoors. The train, all of a sudden, didn’t seem as vital to Silverton’s summer tourism economy.

Golden Block Brewery owner Molly Barela works the Tuesday afternoon rush after a Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad train unloaded passengers in Silverton. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The Golden Block Brewery is normally open year-round, but this will be the last year the brewery remains open during the winter, Barela said.

She said bouncing back from the 416 Fire and pandemic hasn’t been a cakewalk. She and her husband, Floyd Barela, have dipped into their own pockets to keep employees paid during the slow winter months, she said.

“I hemorrhaged my money that we make that would be our profit to pay to keep this open all year to make sure everybody in here has a job,” Barela said.

When the train is in Silverton, the brewery is a fairly busy place. But when the train stops its daily trips to the town, as is scheduled on Oct. 31, business also comes to a grinding halt for the brewery, Barela said.

Staying open beyond the tourism season comes at a financial loss.

“We do it for the love of the community and the love of our workers,” Barela said. “I grew up here. We’ve had a house down the street for 45 years and I’ve seen it (economic downturns), I’ve seen it too many times in my life.”

Sophie Fearon and Holly Huebner, new co-owners of Coffee Bear on Greene Street in Silverton, said summer tourism has been good. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Sophie Fearon and Holly Huebner, new co-owners of the Coffee Bear on Greene Street, are in their first year of business as owners, although they also worked at the cafe for its previous owners. Business from the tourism season has been good, but they know there will be a downturn in activity once the train stops running to Silverton.

“The train brought a lot (of tourists),” Huebner said. “Once it snows, I feel like most visitors usually end up leaving town.”

Silverton Mountain, a small ski area with extreme terrain, offers some reprieve during the winter months, but not enough for most businesses to justify staying open.

Huebner said the Coffee Bear does see a bump in business when Silverton Mountain is open.

Silverton visitors tend to drive to town when the train isn’t running, Fearon said, and she’s noticed congested street traffic. But even so, Huebner said that two years ago, the Coffee Bear was busier in the winter.

“(The train) comes in and you bust through those couple hours that they’re here and then it kind of quiets out, where two years ago it was just busy all the time,” she said. “Because people were coming here and staying instead of just visiting for a couple of hours.”

Scott Fetchenhier, owner of Fetch’s Mining and Mercantile, works in his store Tuesday in Silverton. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Scott Fetchenhier, owner of Fetch’s Mining and Mercantile on Greene Street, said even during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, business went well for him aside from the two months that Silverton was on “lockdown.”

Residents flocked to the mountain town to take advantage of its vast public lands during the era of social distancing. Now, Silverton isn’t as dependent on the train, he said.

“Silverton has been found, as has the whole Southwest; it’s been found,” Fetchenhier said. “We don’t even need to advertise anymore.”

cburney@durangoherald.com

Passengers disembark from from the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad train Tuesday in Silverton. Silverton business owners are winding down after a busy summer tourism season. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
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