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July 17, 1988|JERRY HULSE | Times Travel Editor

SILVERTON, Colo. — The sky darkened and thunder rolled through the valley as the last train to Durango moved slowly out of Silverton.

While raindrops spattered against Victorian buildings, smoke black as the sky itself poured from the steam locomotive and passengers waved as the little narrow-gauge train gained speed, its whistle sounding a mournful farewell.

As the train disappeared, lightning streaked through the San Juan Mountains and another clap of thunder shook the wet earth and the fragile shacks that line Blair Street.

Although barely 4 o'clock on this stormy afternoon, already the merchants of Silverton were locking up. Bearded Al Denmonk sat behind his team of horses, counting the coin he'd earned delivering passengers through town aboard his new $30,000 stagecoach.

Doors were slamming shut at the High Noon Hamburger Emporium, the Cookie Mine, the Silver Bullet Souvenir Store and the Fudge Factory. A few customers lingered at Smedleys Ice Cream Parlor on Main Street, and locals were gathering for the weekly Monday night bingo binge at the French Bakery.

Known as "the mining town that wouldn't quit," Silverton survives on loot spent by summer visitors who arrive daily on the wheezing little Durango & Silverton narrow-gauge railroad. Operating since 1882, the D&S does a three-hour run out of Durango with a 2 1/2-hour layover in Silverton before returning to Durango.

En route the train passes meadows choked with columbine, the rail cars clinging tenaciously to ledges hundreds of feet above the Animas River where it rampages through rapids and mist-filled gorges. Conductors in bib overalls stroll through the cars, while a fireman shovels coal and passengers focus cameras on deer and elk watching from the forest.

In Silverton, passengers crowd stores stocked with Indian jewelry, concho belts and handbags, afghans, quilts, kachinas, knickknacks and T-shirts. Without the train, Silverton would be another abandoned mining town.

Earlier, after ore was discovered in the 1860s, thousands arrived to work the mines. Bordellos flourished. Saloons stayed open 'round the clock. Silverton was wild and wicked and lusty.

Prospectors swarmed through the hills. Some grew wealthy; others disappeared into obscurity. Today for miles around the ghostly remains of the bonanza days are visible: boarded-up mines and windowless cabins recalling a time when Silverton roared.

In the 1800s more than 5,000 miners crowded saloons up and down Blair Street. Silverton never slept. Dance-hall girls entertained and camp followers strolled the streets. Silverton survived on sin and silver, with more than $400 million in ore taken from the earth. Then came the crash of 1893 and the exodus began. Saloonkeepers closed their doors. Dance halls were boarded up. Abandoned shacks toppled in winter gales.

Although miners still work the Sunny Side Gold and a couple of others, Silverton's boom days ended years ago. Without the train and its summer tourists, only a Rocky Mountain ghost town would remain.

Sprightly 71-year-old Effie Andreatta sits daylong in her Bent Elbow restaurant-saloon, listening to ex-miner Bob Scott bang away on a piano that's as out of tune with the times as the Bentley parked at the door. A thunder mug makes do as a kitty and walls are hung with 19th-Century prints.

As the train chugs into town, wave after wave of passengers make a run for the Bent Elbow and its $4.95 buffet. During Silverton's bonanza days the Bent Elbow did business as the Tremont Saloon & Sporting House under the watchful eye of a firebrand known as Big Tilly. Others crowded Lola's, Denver Kate's, Big Molley's, the Bon Ton and the Sage Hen. And spilling from the mountains came the silver and gold that kept the fury going. Ore wagons arrived from the Royal Tiger and other mines. Bat Masterson patrolled the boardwalks, keeping the peace.

Blair Street still resembles the shoot-out scene in that classic film, "High Noon." James Stewart did a shoot-'em-up Western in Silverton, Barbara Stanwyck appeared in "Maverick Queen" and James Cagney starred in "Run for Cover."

Facing the Bent Elbow is an old-time photo studio operated by Tommy Wipf, a Jesse James look-alike and Vietnam veteran who arrived in Silverton 14 years ago with his 1908 box camera and $10,000 worth of Victorian duds that his customers don.

With fellow merchants, Wipf shoots up Silverton each afternoon in a mock gun battle, and with the stage set at 9,318 feet, Wipf claims it's a breathtaking performance.

After the rest of the town shuts down for the evening, the action gets under way at Romeros on Main Street. Featuring the "best chile rellenos and the most explosive margaritas in the Rockies," Romeros is a laid-back Mexican cantina with a jukebox that blares out "La Bamba," "Guadalajara," "La Paloma" and "Baja El Cielo Morelio."

On a lively evening Romeros sometimes rocks till after midnight, walls lined with license plates, miners' tools and a bugle that sounded reveille for a forgotten generation.

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