From Mule Train to Airplane – Transit in 1900s Colorado

This is a multi-museum post, based on the title theme. I found that touring several museums in a region was like collecting words that formed a complete sentence. Each museum added a piece to the bigger picture.

Mule Train

Before trains arrived in Colorado in the late 1880s, freight was shipped by mule train, and passengers arrived by horse or stagecoach. The San Juan County Historical Museum in Silverton, which is housed in the Caledonia mining camp boarding house, is a great source for information about these mule trains.

I learned that pack trains were integral to everything in the early days of the mining camps. Although they were called mule trains, burros were favored as pack animals because they were smaller and could graze for their food. (Mules could carry 250 pounds uphill but needed to be fed.) Mule trains were like the camel train I rode in Morocco – the animals were tied to each other, with one man leading the train and the other following behind. There were instances where a landslide or a mule taking a misstep would wipe out the entire train as it careened off the embankment.

This museum has comparative examples of burro, mule and horseshoes. Goods and mail were transported in canvas bags reinforced at the corners with leather and metal. There’s a display of ropes with small metal pulleys, which shows how loads were secured by leather cinch straps. I also found a photo showing a muleskinner contest in 1912, where contestants had to load pre-loaded bags of ore during a timed contest. I think the prize was $25. I had no idea that packing a burro was such an involved process. I also got a kick out of seeing a Seattle Iron Works sign here.

Seattle Ironworks
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

I later learned that the first roads were toll roads, built by private interests as early as 1867. All a man needed to do was buy a charter for $5, which gave him rights to build and operate a toll road for 20 years. Roads were financed by selling shares to investors. Tolls of .02-.50 cents per head were charged to users which is how costs were recouped and investors were repaid.


Toll roads allowed stagecoaches to make the trip, though roads were still pretty rough, with a rock base and gravel top. Paved roads wouldn’t exist much before 1916 when the US government started building the highway system.

I can tell you from personal experience that travel by stagecoach must have been a boneshaking experience. While I was in Silverton, I rode in a replica ‘hack’ or a ‘mud wagon,’ which was smaller and more lightweight than the Concord stagecoaches which were the deluxe model of their day. Mud wagons were stripped down to essentials, and instead of windows that could shut, they had canvas curtains that were rolled down to cover the window openings. Even at a slow trot on even ground around downtown Silverton, the jostling and dust I experienced told me that travel by stagecoach would have been a sleepless and exhausting affair.

PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

The best extant example of a stagecoach I found was at the Montrose County Historical Museum. It was a mud wagon from the Circle Route Stage Line that ran four times daily, departing from Lott’s Hotel in Montrose (owned by Otto Mears) to Ouray, Silverton and Durango. The Circle Route was one of three lines emanating from Mears’ hotel, and Montrose became a place where carriages and stagecoaches were repaired and horses were shod. Several towns along stagecoach routes developed the auxiliary services that the stagecoach lines required.

PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

I would later learn that passengers were limited to 25 pounds of luggage, with any beyond that being freighted separately. Horses were used in teams of six, and were swapped out at relay stations that were located every 10-50 miles. The roads going through mountain passes were very steep and narrow and full of switchbacks. One account said: “We literally flew around steep curves swinging over the abyss and then swinging back…in some places we couldn’t see the lead horses around the curve.” Many passengers preferred to travel by night so they didn’t have to see the terrain they were riding on.


The Railroad Act of 1862 launched the Continental Railroad. In 1887, Otto Mears switched from building toll roads, to railroads. He laid narrow gauge railroad tracks along the existing toll roads, which began the demise of the stagecoach lines, and also turned horses from work animals into recreational ones.

Between 500-1,000 men worked to lay a railroad track, earning $2.25 a day. Narrow gauge rail was cheaper to lay because it would accommodate steeper grades and tighter curves, which saved on manpower and blasting powder. Even still, some of the more challenging sections like the Highline near Rockwood, cost at least $100,000 per mile to build. Costs for rail, like the toll roads, were covered by investors.

Rail cut the travel time for freight between Denver and Durango from 2 weeks to 30 hours, which dropped the cost of freight from $30 per ton, to $12 per ton. The largest collections of railroad history I found were at the D&SNG Museum in Durango (also called the Roundhouse or the Railroad Museum) and the Pioneer Museum in Gunnison. One of the most spectacular cars at the D&SNG Museum is the Nomad, built in 1878 and belonging to General Palmer, who founded the Rio Grande line. It looked like Victorian parlor, and is the oldest private car in the U.S. (With apologies for the reflections in the glass barrier to this car).

PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

I took the steam train from Silverton to Durango in the restored 1881 Alamosa car, which in itself is a museum on wheels.

The Montrose County Historical Museum. is housed in one of the oldest D&RG train stations in that city. The docent showed me the separate waiting rooms for women and children, from the men who waited in a separate room so they could smoke and talk politic. This segregation did not continue onboard the train. I also saw the freight room, where goods were weighed and paid for by the pound before being loaded onto the trains.

The oldest train depot in Montrose has been relocated to the Museum of the Mountain West. The depot there showed sleeping quarters for railroad workers onboard a railway car, as well as the railroad master’s office in the depot. This museum also houses a lot of railroad tools, from the iron cookstoves used aboard the trains, to lanterns and a variety of other lodgings and items used by the crews.

Railroad master’s office
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno


Ironically, the first auto arrived in Durango in 1902 on a railroad flatcar. Photos in the Animas Museum in Durango showed that autos started to replaced trains by the 1920s, since the train trip between Denver and Durango that took 30 hours, took only 7 hours by car. By the 1930s, mines were also closing, which eliminated the need for transporting ore by rail. The Durango & Rio Grande Line would see a steady demise over the 40 years that followed.

Construction of the US Highway 550 started in 1913 and opened in July 1921. People with cars usually owned Model Ts, but the gravity fed gas tanks meant that you had to drive backwards on some of the steeper grades. Some tourists were so terrified of the Red Mountain Pass that they hired local sheepherders to drive them back into town. After driving that pass, also known as the Million Dollar Highway, I can personally attest to that fear.

The Pioneer Museum in Gunnison has an extensive collection of buggies, hearses, a milk wagon and a taxi across their campus, as well as a collection of 25 cars in the Andy Mallet Building, dating from a 1908 Oldsmobile Touring Car, to a 1987 Cadillac. Shown here is one of my favorites - a 1918 Dodge Mallet Touring Car.

1918 Dodge Mallet Touring Car
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno


The first plane arrived in Durango in September 1913, a Curtiss Headless Pusher Model "D" Aircraft, which was transported by train because it was unable to fly long distances. A replica is on display at the D&SNG Museum in Durango, along with a collection of antique cars and several of the trains that more modern modes of transportation replaced. Grand Junction, Montrose, Durango, Gunnison – towns that were once only accessible by mule, stagecoach or train - have regional airports now.

If you go, look for these books in the museum gift shops:

The San Juan County Historical Museum in Silverton is located at the end of Greene Street (the main thoroughfare) and is open from the end of May though mid-October from 10 AM – 4:30 PM. It is within easy walking distance from all of the downtown hotels. Admission is $10 for adults, $3 for kids 5-12. The Mining Heritage Center is downstairs. The brick building in front is the County Jail and is included in the museum admission. There is an elevator in the back of the museum, I do not recall seeing one in the jail. Plan to spend a couple of hours here.

The Montrose County Historical Museum is located at 21 N. Rio Grand Ave. Hours are Mon-Fri 9 AM – 5 PM and Sat 10 AM – 2 PM and is closed during the winter months. Admission is $8 with discounts for students and military. The museum is housed in the 1912 D&RG Train Depot and displays a wide variety of horse tack, mining equipment, medical supplies, and a general store, as well as personal and home furnishings. There are also cabins and stagecoaches in the yard. Allow 1-2 hours for your visit. The site is ADA accessible.

The D&SNG Museum in Durango is located at the train depot near 4th and Main. Summer hours are 7 AM – 6 PM daily, check their website for winter hours. Admission is free. It chiefly concentrates on “all things train” but you will also find autos and motorcycles there, as well as other related items. The gift shop adjoins the train depot. I spent about an hour in the museum. It is accessible but tightly packed.

The Animas Museum in Durango is located at 3065 West 2nd Ave (Corner of 31st and West 2nd Ave), about an hour’s walk from downtown, or a 10-minute trip by car or The Trolley (fare is $1 and runs every 20 minutes). The museum is in a red sandstone building in a residential area with street parking. There is also a log cabin and an1880s home here, ask the docent to unlock them for you. Plan to spend 2-3 hours here, depending on how talkative the docent is. Hours are Tues., Thurs. and Sat. from 10 AM-4 PM, and Wed. from 1-7 PM. Admission is free. I do not recall seeing ramps or elevators here, and I don’t believe the outlying buildings are ADA accessible.

The Pioneer Museum in Gunnison is located at 803 E. Tomichi Ave, just off US Highway 50. There is onsite parking. Museum is open May 15 to September 30 from 9 AM – 5 PM, 7 days a week including holidays. Admission is $10. This museum consists of 30+ buildings on a 16-acre site. Golf carts are available. I spent a full day here, and could have easily spent two.

The Museum of the Mountain West in Montrose is located at 68169 E. Miami Road and has onsite parking. Summer hours are Mon-Sat 8:30-4:30. Admission is $12.50 but you want to pay $15 for the docent-guided tour. Allow 2-4 hours depending on how much the docent has to say that day. This site is not fully ADA accessible.

The Silverton-Durango Railway offers excursions on both steam and diesel trains. Check their website for dates and prices. Best way to get there is to fly into Durango and take the train to Silverton and back again (there are no rental cars in Silverton). For a fully immersive experience, schedule your trip to allow an overnight stay in both Silverton and Durango.

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Heather Daveno

Heather Daveno hails from Seattle, Washington, where she works as an office manager by day and a self taught textile artisan by night. In her spare time she is a “hobby historian” and is currently researching the female side of her family history for a book she plans to write, titled: “The Matriarch Diaries.”

You can see her current textile projects at August Phoenix Mercantile and her travels at Daveno Travels.