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The Airplane Train

October 16, 2010

I had seen the occasional photo of trains carrying airplane bodies, but I didn’t really pay a whole lot of attention. Why would I? After all, those loads headed for the Pacific Northwest were not going to be passing through my area. Out of sight, out of mind, you could say.

So as I left the Motel 6 in North Platte, Nebraska, bound for Rapid City, South Dakota, loads for Boeing were among the furthest things from my mind. As I hit the road I wasn’t even thinking of doing any railfanning, even though I would be in the neighborhood of BNSF’s Sand Hills Subdivision. This was a travel day, after all. I had places to be and people to see along the way.

Being fairly technically savvy, I have a few extra gadgets installed in the car… okay, one of my friends says the dashboard looks like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. An exaggeration, perhaps? Anyway, the GPS navigator wanted me to go north until nearly the South Dakota state line and then head west. As my grandmother used to say, hogwash. It was more direct to cut across Nebraska Highway 2 to Lakeview and turn north from there. Fringe benefit? Highway 2 parallels the Sand Hills Sub.

Oh darn.

I crossed over the railroad and turned west on Highway 2, turning on the radio as I did. It would be silly to be driving along a busy mainline and NOT be listening in, after all. Within minutes of turning west, a hotbox detector went off. Within minutes of that, I was looking at the rear of an empty coal train I was catching up with. I was overtaking the train when the tracks passed below the highway and disappeared to the north. Continuing on a few miles I kept an eye to the north, looking for a shot of the empty coal train I was sure I was ahead of by now.

I blew by just what I was looking for; stopped the car and backed up. The hills along the highway opened up into a valley with the railroad along the far side. I grabbed my camera from the trunk, waved at a passing car, and settled in for a bit of a wait. The wait was a bit shorter than I expected, as within minutes I could hear the sound of General Electric diesels working upgrade.

“Those coal trains really move out here,” I thought to myself.

After a few moments a pair of diesels popped into view, but the odd looking loads immediately behind them indicated quite plainly that this was no empty coal train.

I got my shot and headed back to the car. Of all things, I expect a coal train and this oddball shows up!

I fired up the engine and headed off down the road, fully intending to keep going until I either saw a train coming the other way or made my turn north. A few miles later, however, the tracks came back alongside the highway.

“Oh, why not?” I thought to myself.

The next thing I knew, I was playing leapfrog with “The Airplane Train.”

The westbound train passes through the semi-desert hills that give the Sand Hills their name.

The Sand Hills live up to the moniker, with mile after mile of rolling hills and few trees in many locations.

The train splits the signals at milepost 228.74.

Small bodies of water and small creeks are scattered throughout the region, offering an oasis of green surrounded by brown.

The “Airplane Train” passes by some of the region’s four legged residents. Between the equine and bovine varieties, the four legged critters out number the two legged by a considerable margin.

As the “Airplane Train” recedes into the distance, an eastbound loaded coal train passes.

Much like U.S. 30 and the Union Pacific mainline to the south, Nebraska Highway 2 parallels the BNSF mile after mile across much of the state of Nebraska.

The train passes yet another oasis.

The “Airplane Train” splits another pair of signals. I paced the train another fifteen miles after this shot before turning north. By noon I was in Rushville on the now abandoned Chicago & Northwestern “Cowboy Line.”

Friends commented on how I had made good time.


Photos by Mary Rae McPherson.

Copyright 2010 – Mary Rae McPherson


The Challenger Returns

October 9, 2010

I used to take great pride in managing to see at least one steam locomotive in operation every year. That streak held from 1983 until 2002.

The streak ended in 2003, in no small part because of Frisco 1522’s re-retirement. 2004 and 2005 saw me trackside with Union Pacific 3985 and Louisville & Nashville 152, respectively. That was it for me and steam until the last two months; August saw me visiting the Black Hills Central in South Dakota and September brought a visit to Monticello, Illinois, for the return of Southern 2-8-0 #401. This week brought the cream of the crop, as Union Pacific #3985 made a run from St. Louis to Gorham, Illinois, down the Chester Subdivision.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not speaking ill of the operating museum or the tourist line. Both of these are delightful in their own distinct ways. They also offer a much more personable experience; a chance to kick the tires, if you will. It’s rather like the hometown minor league baseball team in a small town; much more intimate than the big leagues.

Of course if the tourist lines and museums are the minor league ball clubs, then chasing the mainline excursions would have to be the extreme sport of railfanning. Trying to get ahead of a fast moving steam special with higher speed driving; looking out for smoke and the highway patrol while trying to cause as little traffic havoc as possible… it’s the adrenaline junkie edition of railfanning. It’s also something I hadn’t done since the last time #3985 came calling.

I first saw Union Pacific Challenger #3985 in 1992, when the locomotive was eastbound from Kansas City to St. Louis en route to her starring role on the Santa Claus train on CSX’s former Clinchfield mainline.

3985 accelerates away from the siding at Strasburg, Missouri, after meeting a westbound Amtrak.

The next time I saw #3985 was in 2001, when the locomotive was one of the stars of the National Railway Historical Society convention in St. Louis. The locomotive hauled a round trip to Gorham. I shot no photos that day, concentrating instead on sound recordings and video.

The Challenger returned to the Chester Subdivision again in January, 2004, as she passed through on her way to Texas. After having some mechanical issues in St. Louis, the locomotive took it easy that day. It made for an easy chase as we followed it from Chester to the Mississippi River town of Thebes.

“Grab my camera and get a shot of that! I don’t want to wreck us.” 3985 picks up the pace a bit as we overtake the train near Ware, Illinois. Kurt Jensen photo (I was driving)

The Challenger’s return in 2010 was a last minute thing for me. There had been the railfan buzz of course (“hey, did you hear?”), but it was almost a last minute decision to do anything with it. The main reason? The Thursday schedule for the train. My job on the City of New Orleans works Thursdays to Chicago, and after taking a trip off for Monticello I wasn’t too keen on missing another day.


A few days beforehand I decided to bite the bullet; after all, how long might it be before Union Pacific steam ventures back to my neck of the woods again? So despite the fact that the Railfan Flu leads to the Payday Blues, my friend and I checked into the Best Western in Chester, Illinois, Wednesday evening.

This trip I had decided to leave all the video gear at home, a decision that turned out to be fortunate. Before heading to Chester, I got word that the state was closing Illinois Route 3 at the crossing of the Union Pacific’s Pickneyville Subdivsion at Chester; the very road at the heart of the chase. The alternate route around the closure was lengthy, winding and slow, but we chose to drive it on the way to Chester to see exactly what we were getting into. With a little luck, I figured we could pull it off.

The next morning found us waiting alongside the railroad at Menard Junction in Chester. Several other fans were there with the usual mix of still and video cameras; some from nearby towns and others from Ohio and Maryland. A few freight trains passed before we finally heard radio traffic about the “steam special.” The mention of those words on the radio may have been music to our ears at the time, but paled in comparison to the sound of 3985’s whistle echoing down the valley a short time later.

3985 running alongside the Mississippi River at Chester.

Despite the approaching stop in downtown Chester, 3985 was still running at track speed at Menard Junction.

The rear of the train had yet to reach me before I was running back to the car. The engine was already running when I slid into the driver’s seat.

“Hang on!”

Off we went, navigating a few side streets through Chester to cut off a mile of driving the main route that loops around downtown. Then it was the ultimate test of railfan patience; following a car through town with out of state plates that was running well below the speed limit.

“As long as this guy goes straight, we have a chance.”

He did, staying on Illinois 150 as we headed up Murphysboro Road and out of town. Clearing the edge of town it was off to the races; riding the brakes hard into the curves and punching the gas into the straightaways. Fortunately, we were the only eastbound traffic.

Luck was with us. As we approached the junction with the county road that would take us back to highway 3 at Rockwood, we heard the dispatcher tell the special that they would be meeting a northbound freight at Ford. A quick trip down 5 and we were back in the game. As we passed through the floodgates at Cora we could hear 3985 talking to a track gang working in sight of us. We passed by Cora and headed for Jones Ridge, crossing the track for a long pan shot with the hills in the background.

3985 southbound at Jones Ridge.

Gorham was a nice and easy drive down the backroads; no point hurrying as there was no possible way to overtake the train. We pulled into town just as the train was finishing turning on the wye.

An officer handles crowd control as 3985 is serviced on the north leg of the wye.

I managed to fire off a few uncluttered photos before the crowd moved in. A crowd of what looked like several hundred people were on hand to see the train.

3985 sitting on the wye.

While the crowd surrounded the world’s largest active steam locomotive, we headed just north of town to a crossing by an old Missouri Pacific signal bridge. Before long, we were joined by several other carloads of fans.

My initial thought was to get a tight shot of the locomotive passing through the signal bridge, but with the noon light being almost straight overhead the lighting for that shot would have been terrible. Looking off to the right, however, was an angle that seemed more promising. Shooting from a driveway and over a soybean field would work much better with the light.

The train had beaten its scheduled 11:30 arrival into Gorham by a good twenty minutes, so it was a forty-five minute wait for the train to get the highball. A couple of minutes after noon, 3985 whistled off and began moving through the switches off the wye and onto the mainline. Once the rear of the train cleared the last switch, the engineer opened the throttle wide, and the largest operating steam locomotive in the world took off like a scared rabbit.

3985 accelerates away from Gorham.

For once I was standing by the track as a mainline steam locomotive bore down with nothing more than a still camera; no video gear and no audio gear. For a moment there was a bit of regret on the latter; she was talking with a rapidly quickening bark as she quickly gained speed. No real regrets, though. I think the shot of #3985 accelerating past the old MoPac signal bridge will suffice.

Highball northbound!


Photos by Mary Rae McPherson except as noted.

Copyright 2010 – Mary Rae McPherson

Return To Hill City

October 2, 2010

I recently wrote about visits to the Black Hills Central Railroad I made back in the 1990’s as a preface to returning there in August. That trip has come and gone, though recent events have delayed writing about it.

One of the requirements of a good photo essay is, obviously, photography. Nothing makes for a more iconic image than an articulated steam locomotive blasting up a steep grade, smoke billowing forth in a volcanic plume as the exhaust shouts toward the heavens.

This is the exact sort of image I didn’t take.

My purpose for this trip was video, and working with up to three video cameras at most locations left no time to bother with the still camera. Sure a few stills would have been nice, but the wealth of great video scenes that resulted leaves me with no complaints. But while my trusty Cannon stayed safely packed away while the train was on the road, I did take the camera out for a tour around the locomotive servicing area before the first run of the day.

I pulled into the parking lot around 8 o’clock. A bit of haze drifted skyward from behind some parked equipment as I got out of the car. The hostler was already at work bringing the day’s locomotive up to operating pressure. I walked past a string of parked passenger cars with a caboose tacked neatly to the end and found an old friend parked nearby.

#7 was the first Black Hills Central locomotive I had seen under steam back in 1994. She was cold and lifeless this day; silent but only slumbering. Somehow she seemed a little smaller than I remembered. Perhaps it was her larger stable mate a few tracks over.

Still sitting quietly but with fire in her belly was the locomotive I had come to see; former Washington logger #110. This 1928 Baldwin 2-6-6-2T had been purchased by the railroad the last time I had been there, but had yet to begin her journey to her new home.

#110 seemed a bit of a contradiction to me. She is at the same time a beautiful piece of engineering and an ungainly machine. She is deceptively small, much larger at first glance than she is upon further examination; those tiny pilot and trailing trucks combined with the 44” drivers look in proportion to the rest of the machine and only give away her true size as you stand next to them.

Now don’t get me wrong when I say she is an ungainly machine. She has a stark beauty in her own way, as does any locomotive under steam. It is just that by their very nature, articulated tank engines seem to be missing something that smaller tank engines do not. A small 0-4-0T, 2-4-2T, or even a 2-6-2T, seems well balanced, especially one with the slight protrusion of a fuel bunker behind the cab. An articulated tanker on the other hand just seems as though something has been lopped off. It is rather like a freight train with a FRED replacing the caboose, you get used to it but it never looks completely right without that missing element.

Parked between #7 and #110 was another old friend, a much more well proportioned tank engine. 2-6-2T #104 was the locomotive I had found under steam on all but my first visit to the railroad.

Unlike #7, which had lost its box headlight and gained an old style wooded pilot since the last time I saw her, #104 was just as I left her. She was cold this morning, but otherwise ready to go.

After visiting the slumbering steamers I had spent time with years ago, I refocused my attention to the locomotive that was coming to life. #110 was in need of a bath, her running gear caked with grease and grime. While this may have made inspection more difficult, there was a certain beauty in a few days’ worth of heavy use sticking to the steel of her rods and drivers. Here was a locomotive being worked just as hard as she ever was in her service life hauling lumber in the Pacific Northwest.

As the oil fire slowly brought her up to working pressure, the hostler and another shop employee were busy working on the trailing truck. They were less than enthusiastic about the assembly; not without reason as the locomotive had dropped its trailing axle while hauling a full train in the not so distant past.

Not exactly Baldwin’s best designed part seemed to be the popular assessment.

By the time the locomotive was ready to go on my second day of shooting, the shop crew had given her a self-supplied steam bath. Even with the road grime removed, the running gear of the front engine showed plenty of evidence of hard running.

Once she was hot and ready for the road, the engine crew climbed aboard and she snaked her way through the yard. Before tying onto the train, she pulled to a stop at the water tower to fill up before the first run to Keystone. The fireman clambered atop the boiler, and with a wave to the crowd lowered the spout into the tank. It took several minutes to fill the tank.

As I said earlier, the primary goal of the two days in Hill City was video. Looking up into the cab from the ground, one of my cameras was ready for the run to Keystone. Thanks to the crew for their cooperation, as I set up to allow the viewer to be a back seat driver aboard a 2-6-6-2T.

Following work on a video on Louisville & Nashville #152, I’ll be editing the two days worth of footage into a video titled “Mallet In The Mountains.”


Photos by Mary Rae McPherson.

Copyright 2010 – Mary Rae McPherson

Return Of The 401

September 26, 2010

September 18, 2010, was a good day to be in Monticello, Illinois, if you are an aficionado of steam power. On that day, former Southern Railway 2-8-0 #401 was officially unveiled to the public after undergoing a lengthy overhaul. I was in Monticello over the weekend; on hand to crunch the ballast and kick the tires at the Monticello Railway Museum.

I must preface this to say that for much of my life, I have lived a scant three hour drive from Monticello, but had yet to venture to the museum. Trains have run behind diesels at this establishment, and the thought of seeing a vintage EMD or Alco wasn’t enough to prompt action on my part. Last year was an appearance by the replica of Southern Pacific’s 4-4-0 “Leviathan,” which I missed out on. I also missed out many years ago when the museum hosted Nickel Plate Road 2-8-2 #587.

The return of #401 to steam, however, was something I was determined to see.

401 steams quietly at Nelson's Crossing

Southern Railway #401 was built by The Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1907, construction number 32,487. The class H-4 locomotive was smaller than some of the consolidations already on the Southern roster, former excursion star Ks1 #630 was three years older and possessing an additional 10,000 pounds of tractive effort, but the H-4 was a capable machine for working some of the lighter lines of the system. This she did for over forty years, before being retired by the Southern in 1949. Following her being written off by the early dieselization of the Southern, #401 was sold to a industrial operation that kept her under steam until 1962.

Showing her last place of employment on the Southern; Memphis, Tennessee

Therein lies the key to her preservation; she was retired early enough that there was still a secondhand market for smaller steam power. Southern was an early convert to the Church of Dieselization, and management made no bones about it’s glee to be rid of those dirty old steam engines. Preservation was not a priority, and at the time the Southern’s upper echelon would have just as soon forgotten about the age of steam. One of the railroad’s classic Ps4 thoroughbreds was saved, due in no small part to a young law student by the name of Claytor who would factor into the Southern story in a much more prominent role a decade later, but this was a somewhat grudging exception to the rule.

Most of the Southern steam power to survive did so because it ended up on someone else’s roster secondhand. The trio that would make up the steam program only returned to the fold after shortline stops in Kentucky and Tennessee. It was a similar happenstance that resulted in #401 escaping the fate of most of the Southern steam fleet in the early fifties.

Monticello bound

So here it was, 2010, and this 1907 graduate of Eddystone was hot and rolling under her own power for the first time in over a half-century. For a museum such as Monticello, she is an ideal type of locomotive. She is a fairly simple machine, lacking such labor intensive amenities as a feedwater heater, superheater and the like. She is light on her feet, and her tractive effort a tad shy of 39,000 pounds is plenty to handle anything the museum will throw at her.

Historically and mechanically, she is a significant part of the preservation scene. She represents a bridge between the power of the late nineteenth century and advances in the art of engineering that would result in the U.S.R.A. designs of the teens; and ultimately the Superpower designs of the late twenties and thirties. Her narrow firebox between the drivers is pure old school, and her slide valves mark her as a saturated engine; slide valves, it turned out, were prone to excessive wear when exposed to the rigors of superheated steam.

At the Nelson's Crossing depot

It is easy to get caught up in the history of such a machine; why it was designed the way it was or how it survived when so many others of its kind were cut up as so much unwanted scrap metal (see above). It is easy to pile on the accolades for the superb restoration job the volunteers of the Monticello Railway Museum have done on this machine (which the photos obviously attest to). Instead, let us stand on the platform at the old Wabash depot in downtown Monticello on Sunday afternoon.

It’s mid-afternoon; we’re waiting on the 3:50 train from the museum. The huge crowds that were teeming around the depot for the Saturday noon dedication have mostly vanished, though a number of die hard fans are still lurking about with cameras in hand. A few people are sitting on the bench outside the depot, waiting on the train.

Among them is a middle aged couple, along with the man’s elderly mother who waits to see a steam locomotive for the first time in decades. She lives in a nursing home nearby, and has been hearing the call of the whistle for a couple of days. Her son and daughter-in-law picked her up, bringing her to the station to see the locomotive.

Several more cars pull into the parking lot as train time nears. Some are locals, coming with their kids to see the steam engine that has been in the news for the past several days. Others are fans who have come from as far away as Pennsylvania upon hearing of the engine’s F.R.A. certification having been issued only a few weeks before. Some folks carry the latest in digital cameras; others carry little point and shoot cameras or prepare to point their camera phones to take a picture or a few moments of video. Still others stubbornly cling to their trusty cameras and slide film, pushing that last roll of Kodachrome behind the lens before it can no longer be developed. They are many people from many walks of life with different ideas and interests, all brought together for this single moment by the hard work of a dedicated corps of volunteers and the steaming fruit of their labor of love.

Before long, the mellow three note chord struck by the chime whistle of #401 is heard as the train crosses the county road on the northeast side of town. A couple of minutes pass, and she rolls around the curve and into town, whistle blowing and bell swinging away on the front of her smokebox. She barks lightly as she pulls against the train brakes as she slows in front of the station, in front of the people with their cameras and camera phones and in front of one elderly lady who for a moment gets a taste of the old days even as she sits in her wheelchair.

Pulling into Monticello

This is what it is all about, is it not? All the hard work that went into this locomotive? All the sweating from the physical work and the constant drive to raise funds to allow the work to continue. All the frustration as one thing gets fixed only to find another that needs work. Sure, it’s fun to work around a living and breathing locomotive. Sure, the camaraderie of people working on a shared project is special. But the moments like this when the results of your work bring smiles to faces from ages eight to 80 are priceless.

The train pulls to a stop, and both the waiting people and passengers from the train walk up front to see #401. Parents pose their kids next to the engine; some go willingly while others take a little more coaxing. An older fan calls up to the fireman (permission to come aboard, sir?”) and is welcomed up for a few moments.

"Permission to aboard, sir?"

Before long the conductor in his traditional black suit and pillbox hat is calling for passengers to board the train, and with an “all aboard” gives the highball. In the spirit of the moment, we miss the breaking of the illusion as the locomotive shoves the train backward out of town; it might not have been quite like that in the old days, but who cares? Once the engine is out of sight, those remaining on the platform take a moment and listen to the barking exhaust fade into the distance. One can almost lose one’s self in the moment; what year is it anyway?

So I’ll take a moment to give a word of thanks to the folks of the Monticello Railway Museum; the job was well done.

And here is a welcome back to the world of the living to number 401 in the form of several photos taken during the night photo session organized by photographer Steve Smedley on Saturday night.

Waiting her turn at Nelson's Crossing

Posed with Norfolk Southern's executive F units

Moving back toward the Nelson's Crossing depot for another pose

Posed at the Nelson's Crossing depot


Photos by Mary Rae McPherson.

Copyright 2010 – Mary Rae McPherson

Overstating The Case For A 2-8-0

August 17, 2010

The Crab Orchard & Egyptian Railroad was the last steam powered common carrier in the United States. In the latter steam era of the CO&E, the railroad’s power was a 1940 Canadian built 2-8-0 that had come south after spending her first career hauling bauxite on Quebec’s Roberval & Saguenay.

#17 on the R&S in 1943

CO&E president Hugh Crane always said that #17 was the equivalent of a pair of GP38’s for the railroad’s purposes. That is probably true, as the railroad’s operations involved switching and moving short trains at a top speed of around twenty miles per hour over an eight mile railroad. Two geeps would have been overkill in that situation, and #17 was more than enough locomotive for the job.

That said, the nitpicker in me just has to take a look at the claim in a little more detail; was Crab Orchard & Egyptian #17 really worth a pair of GP38 diesels?

As much as I love you ol’ girl, I think not.

Any comparison has to start with an explanation of the difference between steam and diesel power; while they do the same work, they are essentially apples and oranges in how they go about doing the job.

The two measures in the amount of pulling power a locomotive can generate are tractive effort and horsepower. Tractive effort is simply the amount of pulling force the locomotive can exert, and horsepower is more a measure of how much work the locomotive can do. With steam locomotives, tractive effort is constant while horsepower varies. With diesels, the opposite is true.

A GP38 diesel is a two thousand horsepower machine, and two in tandem would result in four thousand combined horsepower. Tractive effort for a pair of ‘38’s starts at its maximum and drops as speed increases. A steam locomotive generates more horsepower as speed increases, until the boiler reaches its maximum output and the horsepower begins to drop. On modern high speed freight locomotives, horsepower peaked at around 40 miles-per-hour. Passenger locomotives peaked higher.

The first thing we have to take into consideration into a comparison between #17 and a pair of GP38’s is that #17 was not a high speed machine. She had 57 inch drivers, and the rule of thumb was that the maximum speed of a locomotive was the same as the driver diameter. With #17, 40 miles-per-hour would have been in the upper range of the locomotive’s operating speed.

Any 2-8-0 type locomotive, and #17 was no exception, was never designed with a high capacity boiler. The position of the firebox over the rear pair of drivers limited both the grate area and the furnace volume; both of which limited the steaming capacity of the boiler. Such a boiler was not capable of high sustained horsepower.

By the time #17 entered service on the CO&E, her capacity had been further limited. The locomotive was hand fired on the line, and the stoker she came with was never rebuilt and partially discarded. This was not an issue on the CO&E, where there was a lot of switching and slow running that hardly taxed a human fireman. In addition, both the locomotive’s feedwater heater and superheater were removed. These further limited the locomotive’s potential power, but again neither were an issue for the CO&E’s use of the locomotive.

The end result was that #17, while still a very capable machine for use on an eight mile short line, was a considerably less powerful locomotive than she had been on the Roberval & Saguenay.

On the other hand, a single GP38 diesel has enough power to pinch hit on an Amtrak train and keep four cars and a dead locomotive moving between 60 and 70 miles-per hour. A single unit would take a while to work up to that speed, but would be able to maintain it. Two units would accelerate a lot more quickly. #17 by contrast, would have never been able to approach such a feat.

When we think of a steam locomotive that would be able to produce four thousand horsepower, we are getting into the likes of the Nickel Plate Road’s famed Berkshires, which had a large firebox, a high capacity boiler, and the running gear to put that power to good use. Check out a video of restored 765 clipping off mile after mile at 60 miles-per-hour with a twenty-plus car excursion if you want an example of a high horsepower steam locomotive in action.

So with all apologies to Mr. Crane, while #17 may have been worth a pair of geeps to the CO&E, as much as I hate to say it I would have to give the prize to the pair of diesels.

#17 in Marion, Illinois, circa 1980


Copyright 2010 – Mary Rae McPherson

Back In The Black Hills

August 8, 2010

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

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