Building A World Class Tourist Railroad

Posted by Dave Crosby
on Thursday, September 17, 2020

There exists, within the heritage railroad community, an unofficial hierarchy of sorts.  Most discussions about America’s greatest recreational railroads invariably centers around such familiar names as the White Pass & Yukon, Durango & Silverton or the Grand Canyon Railway.  This July I had the pleasure of spending some time at another top-tier tourist hauler, the Black Hills Central Railroad.

The saga of South Dakota’s Black Hills Central and its fabled “1880 Train” spans some 60 years.  From its 1957 inception as a narrow-gauge tourist pike on a lightly used Chicago Burlington & Quincy branch to its current position as a world class heritage railroad, the Black Hills Central has seen its fair share of trials and tribulations.  In 1972 the excursion route between the neighboring tourist hamlets of Hill City and Keystone was severed when flood water ravaged the eastern most three miles of track into Keystone.  With new landlord Burlington Northern deciding not to rebuild, the 1880 train was left with a route to, essentially, nowhere.  Even after the line was purchased from BN in 1981 the storm damaged track and bridges remained idle.  The second half of the 1980’s saw a marked decline in operations with differed maintenance taking its toll on equipment, track and ultimately, ridership.

Salvation came in 1990 when the Warder Family of Hill City purchased the Black Hills Central and began the process of rebuilding the railroad and refurbishing equipment.  In 2001 trains returned to Keystone proper after a near 30-year absence, giving the railroad two busy tourist towns to draw patronage from.  That same year engine 110 entered service after an extensive three-year overhaul.  This 1928 Baldwin 2-6-6-2 was capable of pulling however many cars the railroad could assign to it.  Other Black Hills Central steamers were restricted to four cars each on the grade between Hill City and Keystone which top out between 4-6%.  The successful operation of the compound mallet led to the purchase and rebuilding of a sister engine, #108 which entered service this summer.

While the sister Baldwin 2-6-6-2’s attract the most attention, the considerable investment made by the Warder Family over the last three decades is evident in just about every aspect of today’s operations.  Beautifully reconditioned wooden former interurban cars comprise the bulk of the company’s passenger fleet, having replaced hybrid open/closed wooden coaches assembled in the 1960’s which had deteriorated considerably over the ensuing decades.  Recently constructed open air cars supplement the current fleet.  New depots, parking lots and restrooms also contribute greatly to the overall quality experience of a highly scenic train ride.  Its all quite incredible when compared to moribund tourist railroad that was once on the verge of closure. 

While the blue accent paint on the former Weyerhaeuser logging engines illustrates the line’s status as an unabashed tourist operation, there is something magical about watching crews prepare one of two sister engines for service outside the Hill City shop each morning.  The steep mountain grades put these engines to the test and the sound of one of them assaulting “Tin Mill Hill” in Hill City is one of the greatest sensory experiences in steam railroading.   It is truly something every steam fan should experience.

On October 3rd both 108 and 110 will double head on the 1:15 Hill City departure, one of the very rare times where two locomotives that worked together in the steam era will join forces in current times.  It will surely be an event to remember in the unforgettable story of the 1880 train.

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