A Day on the Black Hills Central

The Black Hills Central started as the dream of two men to create a railroad where steam would live on, a living museum of sorts where future generations could experience steam first-hand. One of these men was William Heckman, who had public relations experience with both the C&EI and the M&StL. The other was Robert Freer, from Electro-Motive Diesel’s sales department. The irony is not lost on me that an employee of the company which brought about the end of the steam era would also be instrumental in saving it.

By 1956, they’d secured a lease on the ex-Colorado & Southern narrow gauge equipment that the CB&Q had used for rides around the 1948-1949 Chicago Railroad Fair. Also included was initial lease was Colorado & Southern 9, a narrow gauge Cooke 2-6-0 built for the Denver, South Park & Pacific in 1884. The only problem now was the the lack of surviving narrow gauge on which to run their new-found equipment.

Through a partnership with the CB&Q, the two secured use of the Keystone branch, running from Hill City, SD, about ten miles east to Keystone. The only problem was that the Keystone Branch was an active part of the Burlington’s standard gauge network, with active shippers still present on the route. As a result, a third rail was laid from Hill City to a point roughly halfway up the line, known as Oblivion, where a wye was constructed for turning.

The line still lacked power. #9, the little C&S 2-6-0, was nearly worn out, and wouldn’t be allowed to run through the Black Hills National Forest anyway. Coal-burning locomotives, like the 9, were banned from the forest in 1912 because of the risk that a hot ember would spark a forest fire. As a result, the fledgling operation purchased White Pass & Yukon 69, a 2-8-0 Baldwin oil-burner built in 1908. The unit became the road’s “Klondike Casey”, hauling the road’s first train on 18-Aug-1957 and acting as road’s only narrow gauge power for the next six years.

Starting in 1962, the service was extended from Oblivion to near the end of the line at Keystone, SD. No third rail was laid, however. Instead, standard gauge Baldwin 2-6-2 #7 was purchased and a standard gauge service was established from the end of the narrow gauge into Keystone. The steamer was acquired from Arkansas’s Prescott & Northwestern Railroad, who had purchased it from its original owner, the Ozan-Graysonia Lumber Company. Passengers were transferred between narrow and standard gauge trains at the Oblivion wye. This cumbersome arrangement continued for two years, until 1964, when 69 was deemed “worn out” and narrow gauge service ceased.

9 later went to the Georgetown Loop, and after decades of neglect, was finally restored to service in 2006. 69 was sold to the Nebraska Midland Railway in 1973. Eventually it went to the Stuhr Museum in Grand Island, Nebraska, in 1975, where it operated until it developed serious boiler and mechanical problems in the 1980s. The unit sat there, mostly disassembled, until it was sold back to the White Pass & Yukon in 2001. It’s since been restored to operation in Alaska.

The next major change in the line occurred in 1972, when a flash flood destroyed the final three miles into Keystone. As a result, operations moved to the BN High Line main between Hill City and Custer, about fourteen miles south. By 1977, the train returned to its original route, but still missing the final few miles to Keystone. Only a few years later, Burlington Northern began considering abandonment for most of the Black Hills lines, citing little traffic on the branches. To assure the continued survival of their route, the Black Hills Central purchased what remained of the Keystone branch from BN in 1981, and subsequently became isolated with the abandonment of BN’s Black Hills lines in 1983.

By 1990, the railroad was still operating, but much of the equipment was nearly worn out due to an inadequate reinvestment in the physical plant. The original owner, Bill Heckman, sold to two Black Hills locals – Robert and Jo Anna Wardner. Since then, significant improvements to the cars, locomotives, and plant have been made. In addition, a number of enhancements have been made. Coaches have been rebuilt and other cars converted into coaches to accomodate the growing patronage. Trains of the Black Hills Central returned to their original eastern terminus in Keystone in 2001, when the missing mile of track was rebuilt and returned to service. The road also acquired a larger steamer – Weyerhaeuser 110, a rare 2-6-6-2T logging Mallet – and completely rebuilt it as well, returning it to service later in 2001.

Today, the road uses their original standard gauge 2-6-2, #7, and two tank units – ex-Portland Terminal 2-6-2T 104 and ex-Weyerhaeuser 2-6-6-2T 110. They also have #1, a Whitcomb 80-ton diesel from Black Hills Power & Light, recently-acquired ex-Progress Rail GP9 #63, and 104’s sister, 103, which is inoperable. Trains typically run with either 110 or a combination of 7 & 104 (back-to-back), with the GP9 being used on some trains in the off-season.

It’s well worth the trip to ride the Black Hills Central. It’s a scenic, well-run operation with some interesting steam power unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere. To get more details, see their official website at 1880Train.com.

Riding the BHC

Chasing the BHC

All photographs in this trip report were taken with a Canon EOS 20D using either a Canon 24-105mm F4 L IS/USM or a Canon 75-300mm f4-5.3 IS/USM.

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