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A Few Moments Atop Tin Mill Hill

July 31, 2010

The weather up in the Black Hills is usually noticeably cooler than it is in the surrounding country; a fact that I was grateful for as I stood alongside the rails of the Black Hills Central Railroad.

I had seen the brochures and ads for the tourist railroad, which billed itself as “The 1880 Train,” for quite some time. While I had made a mental note that I would get around to seeing it “someday,” the fact that it came off as a touristy operation resulted in me taking a while longer to get around to it than perhaps I would have otherwise. After all, the primary locomotive featured in the promotional materials was a 1920’s vintage Baldwin 2-6-2 sporting a rather gaudy paint job and a phony “old west” style balloon stack and mock oil headlamp.

Okay. Whatever.

So despite the fact that I was living a mere two hours away from the railroad, it took a couple of years before I got around to actually going to see it.

In May, 1994, a friend and I headed northwest from rural Shannon County, South Dakota, and found ourselves standing alongside Black Hills Central #7 in the yard at Hill City. Gone was the worst of the gaudy paint that had been applied to the locomotive for a movie shoot some years ago, but the headlight and balloon stack remained.

Black Hills Central 2-6-2 #7 in the yard at Hill City, South Dakota, on May 21, 1994

As much as I like things to be a little more true to history, the fact that #7 had an oil fire in the firebox and water in the boiler made the rest considerably easier to overlook. Underneath that tourist line veneer was a fine example of the stock catalog Baldwin logging 2-6-2 of the 1920’s, mechanically nearly identical to another such 2-6-2 I had ridden behind a few years earlier in Kentucky.

Under the fake stack and headlight, #7 is pure Eddystone.

This particular example had been passed around from one line to another throughout her career, before coming to South Dakota from Arkansas’ Prescott & Northwestern.

#7's running gear

At the time, #7 was one of two operable locomotives on the roster. The other was another example of a stock Baldwin logging locomotive, 2-6-2T #104, which had come from Oregon’s Peninsula Terminal Railroad along with inoperable sister #103. Both were good engines according to the engineer. #104 had a bit better traction from the weight of the saddle tank, but the balloon stack made the cab of #7 a little quieter. He said that fact was one of the main reasons they had kept it.

Just to the east of the railroad’s yard and shop building, the railroad takes a sharp right hand curve that in days gone by was the west leg of a wye. Trains diverging to the right headed up the branch to Keystone, while trains going straight continued on to the historic town of Deadwood. The whole system was part of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy’s Black Hills lines. Today, the Black Hills Central’s route from Hill City to Keystone is all that remains.

It turned out that a muffler came in handy on this tourist railroad. Unlike your usual tourist pike where a small steamer trundles along with a few cars and rarely has to make much of an effort, the Black Hills Central’s locomotives really have to work for a living. After making that sharp curve, the track rises sharply in a fashion reminiscent of the start of a roller coaster ride. The first mile or so out of Hill City is known as “Tin Mill Hill,” a grade that is perhaps to the tourist railroad world what Saluda Mountain is to the Class I mainlines. The grade averages 4%, with a short spike of 6% partway up.

Once #7 was hot and coupled to the passenger train, we drove up the Old Keystone Road to the top of the grade, and I couldn‘t help thinking that this was the most ridiculous railroad grade I had ever seen! Parking wasn’t exactly ideal, but we pulled as far as we could to the side at the grade crossing at the top of the hill. Before reaching the crossing the track rounded a sharp curve, and then entered a cut immediately after crossing the road. The top of the cut seemed to be the best vantage point.

A few moments after the advertised departure time, two blasts from the whistle echoed up the mountain. A minute later came the whistle again as the engineer blew for the first crossing of Old Keystone Road. And then the assault started.

The train hit the grade and the sound of #7’s exhaust echoed up the mountain, joined by the whistle blowing for the second crossing of the Old Keystone Road. After using up the little momentum the train had at the bottom of the hill, #7 settled into a steady rhythm as she marched up the grade… briefly. Then the train began slowing, nearly stalling before the engineer blew the signal to release brakes.

“I thought maybe someone left a handbrake on,” he told me later.

After a few moments the speed picked up and #7 got back to business, steadily marching up the grade. For several minutes she got louder as she neared the top of the hill, until the blast of exhaust became visible above the tree line. A few more moments and she rounded the curve, blowing her Nathan five chime for the crossing just below, and then she lost her footing on the crossing. The engineer slammed the throttle shut, regained control of his steed, and #7 marched by below.

#7 crosses Old Keystone Road at the top of Tin Mill Hill.

Just past the cut is the crest of the grade, and from there it is mostly downhill the rest of the way to Keystone. We followed the train to Keystone, a feat made simple as Old Keystone Road crosses back and forth over the track repeatedly the length of the line.

It had taken me a while to come to see “The 1880 Train,” but I knew this was a place I would be returning to visit again in the future.

To be continued…


Copyright 2010, Mary Rae McPherson

One Comment leave one →
  1. mike szymanski permalink
    August 2, 2010 10:44 am

    good writing. I felt as if I were there.

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