The prospect of gold brought hardy settlers to the San Juan Mountains, and soon after, Silverton had its share of legendary shoot-outs, high-stakes holdups and daring bouts of bootlegging.
Sometimes, justice was served. But just as often, the bad guys got away. This fall, another chapter was added to Silverton’s history, complete with an illegal scheme hatched to use railroad tracks for hunting purposes, threats to train employees and an escape under the cover of darkness.
“They had this grand plan,” said San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad. “And I feel like we’ve hit a dead end at this point.”
On Oct. 19, the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office received a report that two men on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad got off as planned at the Needleton stop, a popular place for people to exit the train and access remote parts of the Weminuche Wilderness to hike and hunt.
After unloading an excessive amount of camping and hunting gear from the train, Conrad said one of the men, an 85-year-old, took off on foot into the backcountry. But his friend, who was in his late 40s, stayed behind and had other plans in mind.
As the train pulled away, the man began building a retractable cart that was hidden in their gear, which attached to the train tracks to more easily transport the pair’s heavy equipment to a campsite north of Needleton.
Conrad said the contraption was a typical game cart with a metal frame and wheels, commonly used by hunters to carry their kills out of the forest. This person, however, removed the wheels and specifically altered the cart to be hand-pulled and, even more impressively, fit the train’s narrow gauge tracks.
“He obviously figured out the measurements of the track and built this thing to suit,” Conrad said.
Not long into his journey, however, a D&SNG pop cart that follows behind every train looking for fires encountered the man and his cart going up the track.
“The pop cart driver told the guy, ‘that’s not legal,’” Conrad said. “But the guy got really aggressive, started yelling and seemed unstable.”
The pop cart driver, surmising the hunter was likely armed and fearing for his own safety, retreated from the situation, and notified police. That’s when the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office became involved.
Authorities learned the two men had a return ticket scheduled for six days later, and determined the best way to catch them would be to take the train in and make contact with them on their way out.
In the meantime, the two men’s high jinks had a discernible impact on the D&SNG, Conrad said. Trains were delayed because they had to run at half-speed throughout the section where the men could be because the makeshift cart could be on the tracks and cause a crash.
“No one should be on the tracks,” said Kevin Martin, a spokesman with the D&SNG. “It does slow down our operations.”
Martin said people on the D&SNG’s tracks is a problem, but in recent memory, the situation with the makeshift cart has been unheard of.
“Track safety is a very important part of what we do,” he said. “Anytime someone is on the tracks, it poses a very big threat to their safety and we are very conscious of that.”
On Oct. 24, two days before their scheduled ticket out of the San Juan Mountains, a pop cart driver saw the men’s gear piled next to the tracks, north of Needleton. So, officers staked out at the Rockwood station the next day, thinking the men were leaving earlier than expected.
But they never showed.
On Oct. 26, the day the men had a scheduled ticket out of Needleton, Conrad dressed in plainclothes and took the train into the backcountry.
But once again, the men had apparently vanished like the outlaws of old.
“They knew we were looking for them,” Conrad said. “I think they got their stuff ready early, and put it on their cart and got out at night. Because no one got on at Needleton that day.”
To pull this escape in the middle of the night, the man in his 40s would have had to hand-pull a cart full of gear, and possibly a dead elk or deer, about 15 miles, over a mountainous narrow gauge train track, in complete darkness, to Rockwood station.
“I think he had a long trudge out,” Conrad said.
And under this scenario, Conrad said, it’s likely the 85-year-old slipped onto a train the day before.
Trying to solve the crime back at the office, authorities were able to determine the identity of the 85-year-old man, who purchased the two train tickets. But when contacted by police, the man claimed not to know his companion, with whom he had spent six days or so in the wilderness.
“It’s obvious he knows who he is,” Conrad said. “He knows his friend is in trouble, and I told him I didn’t buy it.”
But the 85-year-old didn’t budge on his story. Authorities tried to check video surveillance at the train depot, but there isn’t any. It seems the only option, one Conrad ultimately decided not to take, would be to subpoena the man, who lives in Pennsylvania.
“Unless we drag an 85-year-old man back to Silverton … it seems like it’s another one that got away,” he said.
Conrad declined to release the 85-year-old’s name because he didn’t commit a crime.
There are a number of charges the man in his 40s could face, such as criminal trespass, criminal mischief and interfering with transportation. But ultimately, Conrad wanted to set a precedent about safety on the train tracks.
“No one was hurt, and I know it’s not a huge deal,” he said. “But I didn’t appreciate his attitude.”