Back In The Black Hills
The first time I saw the Black Hills Central Railroad in operation was in late May, 1994. The railroad had just began its operating season a couple of weekends before, and only one run between Hill City and Keystone was being operated each day. We made it a weekend, staying the night at a cheap hotel in Rapid City some 30 miles away.
On that first visit, gas, food and the hotel ate up all our funds, so we made do with following the train by car rather than riding. There were no complaints from me, however; I’d just as soon watch from the ground as ride anyway.
When the Black Hills Central first began operations, the line laid a third rail from Hill City to Oblivion to operate narrow gauge trains on the standard gauge Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Keystone branch. The CB&Q was still operating freight trains over the line at the time, so three foot gauge steam operated alongside standard gauge diesels for several years. The Black Hills Central switched to standard gauge equipment in the sixties, but as of 1994 the third rail was still in place.
Once the train climbs the initial grade of Tin Mill Hill out of Hill City, the rest of the run to Keystone is mostly downhill. There is one other short grade on the run to Keystone; the short grade to Oblivion (Pop. 0). On this initial visit, we didn’t turn off Old Keystone Road onto another back road that crosses the track on the grade. Rather, we contented ourselves to leapfrog the train from crossing to crossing.
2-6-2 #7 was a familiar enough locomotive, being nearly identical to the locomotive I rode behind on the Kentucky Central Railroad out of Paris, Kentucky, in 1991. #7 was built in 1919 for the Ozan-Graysonia Lumber Company, and then worked for the Caddo & Choctaw and the Prescott & Northwestern before coming to the Black Hills Central in 1962.
Flooding some years before had washed out the last two miles of track into Keystone proper, and trains were terminating at a small station named Keystone Junction outside of town. A few photographers joined us in greeting the train as it arrived at the station.
Before the first run I had spent some time with the engine crew of #7, and was able to receive permission to set up a tape recorder and microphones atop the tender for the mostly uphill run back to Hill City. With the engine running tender first on the return trip, I put the camera away and just watched as the train worked its way up the line.
Back in Hill City, the locomotive was cut off the train and I took one final shot as it moved through the yard and back to the engine house. Looking down what at one time was the mainline into town, one could imagine the passenger trains arriving in the days when the train was how people came and went from this tiny Black Hills town.
The next day we were back at the top of Tin Mill as the train topped the grade. This day we were at the crest of the grade, shooting from a driveway that crossed the tracks (the owner of which had no objection to our borrowing the location for photos). On the opposite side of the cut from the grade the train’s approach didn’t sound quite as impressive, though the backdrop of the pine covered hills made for an interesting scene.
Close to the end of the run at Keystone, we stopped for a photo along the Old Keystone Road. Despite the relatively slow speed, I set up for a pan shot as #7 as train rolled down the grade.
We made one more swing by the Black Hills Central in 1994, stopping by on the way through the area in August. That day found 2-6-2T #104 under steam, and we stopped and shot it crossing the Old Keystone Road in the middle of an “S” curve midway through the run from Keystone back to Hill City.
Also on the roster in the mid 90s was a pair of Baldwin 2-6-2Ts. #103 was a product of 1922, while near twin #104 was built in 1926. Both came from the Peninsula Terminal Railroad in Portland, Oregon. #104 has fared better than #103, or course, having been in near continuous operation throughout her career. #103, in the meantime, was up on blocks outside the shop building.
It was in May, 1996, when I was back in Hill City with camera in hand. What I had initially hoped would be a day with the railroad, ended up being more of a hit and run affair. With the camera loaded with black and white film, I did get one decent shot as #104 passed the engine shop and out of service former Peninsula Terminal stable mate #103 and entered the yard.
It was a little over a month later that I got another shot at the Black Hills Central. A cousin from Michigan came out to South Dakota for a visit, and the first stop was the steam train in Hill City. My uncle had been an avid modeler and rail photographer in the Detroit area, and my cousin had picked up a bit of the railroad bug himself.
We rode the first train of the afternoon, me recording the sounds of the locomotive from the first car, and then followed the second train by car. By this time, the wye had been removed, and #104 was now permanently running forward on the mostly uphill climb to Hill City.
I didn’t bother taking any photos on the Keystone bound portion of the trip, choosing to forego pictures of a backwards running tank engine. On the return trip however, it was back to leapfrogging the train on Old Keystone Road. We started just outside of Keystone, where we caught the train running easily alongside a creek across the road from Kemp’s Camp Ground.
A little further up the line, the railroad passes through a narrow canyon.
Past the canyon, the terrain opens up into a broad valley. The track passes through the valley, and then curves across the Old Keystone Road before curving back and up a stiffer portion of the grade.
On the outskirts of Hill City, the train descends Tin Mill Hill and into town. There isn’t much room in the cab, is there?
I visited the railroad one more time, in 1998. That time I didn’t take any photos; I was concentrating on sound recordings with new equipment that was both higher in quality and more labor intensive. I had moved away from the area by that time, and haven’t been back since.
So why the sudden urge to write about a tourist railroad I haven’t seen in 12 years? The main reason is that I am going back in late August. This time I will be armed with a digital camera and video equipment. Since I was last there, the railroad has returned another locomotive to service; a Baldwin 2-6-6-2T that had just been purchased at the time of my last visit.
I’m sure there will be more to write about the Black Hills Central in September.
Copyright 2010 – Mary Rae McPherson