Meet Kylah Thompson, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad’s first female conductor in the historic railway’s long and storied history.
“It’s almost unreal,” Thompson said. “It’s cool to walk in the footsteps of a lot of the people who built this place.”
The Denver & Rio Grande Railway first reached Durango in 1880, and just two years later, a line was built to Silverton. Ever since, locomotives have been carrying passengers deep into the scenic San Juan Mountains.
But the role of a conductor, the person in charge of the train, had historically been dominated by men.
Darren Whitten, superintendent of D&SNG operations, said the railroad in the 1990s did have two women who would help with conductor duties here and there, but there’s never been a fully promoted, on-paper female conductor.
Until Thompson arrived.
Whitten was adamant: Thompson was not promoted because she is a woman, she was promoted because of her outstanding work ethic and skills.
“Kylah is a very bright girl ... and has gone above and beyond on her own terms,” Whitten said. “She does not have an issue taking charge.”
Thompson, 23, grew up in Colorado Springs. She said her father loved the San Juan Mountains, frequently took the family to Durango and, yes, on trips on the D&SNG.
After attending college in Denver to be an emergency medical technician, Thompson wanted to get out of the city and moved to Durango, taking a job with the D&SNG as a photographer in June 2017.
By August 2017, she had moved up to working as a brakeman, which works under the conductor and is responsible for the safety of passengers. Then, in April 2018, she was offered a job as a fireman in the engine.
This summer, Thompson was officially signed on as a conductor.
“It’s not hard to fall in love with it,” she said. “It’s the best office in the world.”
It’s no longer the days of the Wild West, but Whitten said train rides deep into the backcountry still hold a good deal of adventure, and conductors need to be ready for anything.
Conductors are in charge of the train and all its movements, as well as the safety of the passengers and crews, Whitten said.
“They are, for all intents and purposes, the boss of the train while it’s rolling,” he said.
Trains have been known to break down, and sometimes, the rail line can be damaged, so conductors need a working knowledge of the mechanics of historic locomotives and what to do in an emergency.
“We’re in wilderness, and no one is driving alongside the train with a repair kit,” Whitten said. “You need to know how to field repair, and get to a location where we can make repairs.”
Sometimes passengers, often tourists not accustomed to high elevations, can have medical issues in the wilderness. That’s where Thompson’s experience as an EMT has come into play.
In July 2019, for instance, Thompson was instrumental in the rescue of a man who suffered a heart attack after a rafting trip on the Upper Animas River, Whitten said.
Thompson said she is now putting herself through paramedic school, but that won’t take away from her first love: riding the train, a challenge she revels in.
“It’s one thing to be good at it, but to be really able to excel at it, and really be that trustworthy person, especially in a position where I’m in charge of the whole train, I don’t want to make anyone ever question that,” she said.
Thompson takes note of the historic role she now plays in the D&SNG story, being the first female conductor. But she doesn’t take too much stock in it.
“I didn’t get promoted just because I am a woman,” she said. “I had to earn it. I had to work hard for it. And everyone who came before me had to do the same thing.”