Beneath the earth's surface, raw iron ore is extracted, taken from its place of origin, and thrown into a blast furnace. Melted down and purified, then forged into hundreds of pieces, each with its purpose.
Thousands of parts are bolted, welded, polished, greased, and oiled. Rather than in the fire, it now contains it. The addition of water produces the necessary pressure that presses on a cylinder and turns the wheels. The most transformative machine of the industrial revolution was the steam engine, resulting in the beloved and iconic steam locomotive.
Once abundant and heard throughout the country, steam locomotives fell out of favor for the more efficient diesel and electric engines. As a result, it's not common to find these beauties, but they exist. One such place is between Keystone and Hill City in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Robert and Joanna Warder bought the Black Hills Central Railroad in 1990 and restored locomotives No. 7 and No. 104. Since then, locals and visitors have enjoyed the ride between the mining towns of Keystone and Hill City. Operating and maintaining the line is a big job, but the Black Hills Central Railroad employees seem up to the task.
I had a chance to visit on a sunny winter day and met up with the Business Operations Manager, Nate Anderson. The action happens at the Hill City Depot during the winter, located at 222 Railroad Avenue.
Here you'll find the gift shop, located in a part of the original depot. Inside, you can buy tickets and purchase memorabilia. After Nate shows me around, we walked down the line to the yard.
We hop up on the passenger trains along the way, each containing the original hardware and restored to prime condition. The enclosed passenger car has large windows and glass panels engraved with the 1880 train logo and comfortable seats able to be reversed according to the direction.
The rest are open-air and preferable to me on a warm summer afternoon. The closer we get to the building, the more I notice the familiar smell of creosote used to preserve the wood railroad ties. Now the door opens. I can feel the warm air mixed with the smell of grease and metal.
Memories of my hometown of Erie, PA, run through my mind. General Electric manufactured locomotives there, and my family worked in a few industrial companies. So I know this smell, and it's oddly comforting.
Inside the building, restoration and maintenance take place. A complete rebuild is underway on one of the engines, with the other patiently waiting—a few workers inside sport the overalls and hog head hats (railroad engineer hats).
I always wondered what the inside of a steam locomotive looked like, and Nate was happy to explain. It was fascinating. There's so much that goes into the care of these mighty beasts. We're lucky to have several pieces of locomotive history right here at home.
Just outside facing the road is the oldest, No. 7. It's a fully working 1919 Baldwin locomotive and has starred in movies such as "Orphan Train," "Into the West," and "Gunsmoke."
The 1880 Train actually started in 1957, on the original line operated by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad. It serviced gold mines between Keystone and Hill City, South Dakota, hauling cargo and passengers from 1879. It's the oldest continuously operating tourist train in the United States.
The Black Hills Central Railroad now carries thousands of passengers on a round-trip ride from Keystone to Hills City. The 1880 Train website displays the schedule, pricing, and frequently asked questions online. In addition, several events occur throughout the year, such as Old West Shootouts, Wine Express, Oktoberfest, and the Holiday Express.
The 1880 Train is one of many reasons to visit the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota. My XO Adventures can now cap off your Southern or Northern Black Hills tour with an evening train ride from Hills City to Keystone.
Daniel Milks - Explorer, Traveler and Occasional Writer