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The Black Hills Central

August 15, 2009

I stopped by an interesting steam operation back in the mid-nineties. Sure it’s a bit maddening if you are a strict purist, but the Black Hills Central Railroad is one of the places to go if you want to see a steam locomotive working its figurative butt off.

The railroad is based in Hill City, west of Rapid City in South Dakota’s Black Hills, and bills itself at “The 1880 Train.” The purist may say “how can it be the 1880 train with locomotives from the 1920’s?” But ignore the Old West theme. Ignore the fake balloon stack. If you want the REAL attraction, look at the track curving uphill as soon as the train gets out of town.

Departing Hill City, the track immediately begins to climb Tin Mill Hill, a four percent grade with short spike of six percent halfway up. Much of the rest of the run to Keystone is downhill, with the exception of a short hill to Oblivion (Population 0). Downhill most of the way to Keystone? It’s uphill most of the way back. The Black Hills Central’s locomotives have their work cut out for them, and that’s just fine for the steam fan.

In the yard before a run in 1994, 2-6-2 #7 rests on a sunny May morning.

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A close-up of #7’s running gear.

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#7 crosses Old Keystone Road near the top of Tin Mill Hill. The road parallels the track all the way to Keystone, crossing the track numerous times between the two towns and making for an easy chase.

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#7 and train have just topped the crest of Tin Mill Hill. From here, most of the trip to Keystone will be downhill.

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The train rolls down the grade near Keystone.

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In the mid nineties, the Black Hills Central’s other operating locomotive was 2-6-2T #104. Here is #104 just outside of Keystone, starting the run back to Hill City. The railroad has no turntables or wyes with which to turn its power, and #7 and #104 face opposite directions. #7 would be running tender first on the return trip.

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#104 starts around a reverse curve at the bottom of the grade that will take it to the crest of Tin Mill Hill before it drops downgrade into Hill City.

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#104 leads the train past the railroad’s shop building and into the yard at Hill City.

When I last visited in 1996, the railroad had just completed the purchase of 2-6-6-2 Mallet #110. The locomotive was being prepared for the move to Hill City. In the years since, #110 was restored and is now the only operating compound Mallet in North America.

One day, I would like to go back.

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Copyright 2009 – Mary Rae McPherson

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