By Aaron Isaacs, TRRM editor
Photos by the author and Jim Vaitkunas
Our trip through the Dakotas continues
The Black Hills Central is a classy, professional operation. It feels good to say that, because I’ve ridden so many tourist trains where the rolling stock was in bad shape, the track was rough, the depot facilities were minimal and the crews were amateurish. This magazine is a trade publication, so it’s not appropriate to be critical in print and and sometimes I must cast about for something positive to write. Therefore, it’s really nice to see a tourist railroad that seems to be doing everything right.
There’s a spacious new depot building with neatly landscaped grounds. There is large, professionally done signage and a big, paved, curbed and guttered parking lot.
The depot has an up to date point of sale system, nice restrooms and a well-stocked museum store. When the train arrives, it’s usually behind steam. The passenger cars are clean, well maintained and uniformly painted.
The crew is correctly garbed, the engine crew in bib overalls with engineer hats, not baseball caps. The conductor and coach attendants wear proper pillbox hats and navy blue uniforms. The on-board narration is a combination of live and recorded info. There’s plenty of it, but it isn’t excessive and the PA system is clear and the volume was right.
Even though the speed on the railroad, due to extreme curvature and some heavy grades, tops out at 15 mph, the track is well ballasted and smooth.
It doesn’t hurt that the unrestored pieces of rolling stock are kept out of sight a couple of blocks away.
Add to that some great scenery, hard working steam power, wildlife sightings, interesting towns at both ends of the line, plus lots of other nearby attractions and you have the recipe for tourist railroad success. The climb up the 4-6 percent grade of Tin Mill Hill is steam drama at its best.
The line’s history is a bit complicated. The 10-mile railroad was built as a branch of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy in 1900 to serve mining and lumbering in Keystone. The Black Hills Central was founded by William Heckman in 1957. He acquired narrow gauge 2-8-0 #69 from the White Pass & Yukon, along with open narrow gauge passenger cars the Burlington shops had created to trail behind Colorado & Southern 2-6-0 #9 at the 1948-49 Chicago Railroad Fair. The CB&Q also agreed to lay dual gauge rails over half the line from Hill City to a wye in the woods that was dubbed Oblivion. Thus began one of the earliest commercial tourist railroads. Interestingly, it operated with qualified CB&Q crews alongside BHC employees.
The narrow gauge operation lasted until 1964, when the third rail was pulled up (except for the Oblivion wye, which is still there) and standard gauge equipment substituted. The line suffered a setback in 1972 when a flash flood washed out the eastern three miles into Keystone.
It was now part of Burlington Northern, which rebuilt two miles only and installed a runaround track called Keystone Junction, a mile out of Keystone. From 1972 to 1977, during the rebuilding, the BHC ran out of Custer, 15 miles south of Hill City on the Burlington’s “high line”.
Freight traffic dropped off and the BN pulled out in 1981. BHC continued running, but the condition of the equipment deteriorated, along with track maintenance, and ridership declined.
Bob and Jo Anne Warder purchased the railroad in 1990, and immediately began upgrading it. The rolling stock was restored. A shop was added to the engine house. The track was rebuilt into Keystone, stopping at a high level platform just short of the first grade crossing.
The line had originally extended a half mile further. 2-6-6-2T #110 was acquired and restored. The new Hill City station was constructed and opened in 2010. Bob Warder retired in 2004 and the railroad is now run by his daughter Meg, who also sits on the ATRRM Board.
One of the railroad’s big attractions is steam power. Of the 237 scheduled Hill City departures in 2016, steam powered 74 percent of them. There are currently three active steamers on the roster. The big power is #110, a 2-6-6-2T (Baldwin 1928), built for Weyerhauser. It can pull seven coaches up the hill. 2-6-2T #104 (Baldwin 1926) was built for Silver Falls Timber Company. It can handle four coaches.
2-6-2 #7 (Baldwin 1919) was built for the Ozan-Graysonia Lumber Company and eventually ended up on the Prescott & Northwestern in Arkansas. Though operational, it sees only limited use today.
In the shop being rebuilt is 2-6-6-2T #108, sister to #110 and recently acquired from the Northwest Railway Museum. It is expected to be operational in 2018.
There are two diesels on the property, and they run usually pull the first morning trip while the steam locomotive is being fired up. GP9 #63 was built for the Chesapeake & Ohio in 1956 and served several short lines before coming to BHC in 2006. The backup diesel is a rare one, a Whitcomb center cab built in 1940.
The coaches are is of particular interest, because they are almost all wood-bodied, arch-windowed former electric interurban cars. There are eight in all, with the caveat that two were cut down to the belt rail and equipped with new flat roofs to serve as open cars. There are two more in the dead line, along with a former OE express motor. It’s the biggest such group in North America.
Seven were built in 1912-13 by American Car for the Oregon Electric. OE’s passenger service ended in 1934. Two of them went to the Skagit River Railway in Washington, ran in service until 1955, then were preserved. The rest were sold to the perennially impoverished Pacific Great Eastern. All were united on the Vernonia, South Park & Sunset tourist line in Oregon from 1964 to 1970, after which BHC acquired them.
However, 2016 did see another interurban coach restored and added to the fleet. Arch windowed Bamberger #403 (Jewett 1910) fits in well with the rest of the fleet. It was acquired from the Heber Valley Railroad, which used it as a gift shop. BHC acquired it in 2012 and sent it to Gomaco for rebuilding. It entered service this year.
Meg Warder says the railroad likes the interurbans because of their light weight and short wheelbase. They certainly make a handsome train. Along with the logging Mallets, they are uniquely well suited to this particular railroad.
Two blocks south of the Hill City depot is a three-track yard full of unrestored rolling stock. William Heckman acquired it over the years before he sold out to the Warder family. One piece that has departed is an open platform wood coach that has been restored as a fish hatchery car. It is on display at the Booth Fish Hatchery in Spearfish, SD and we’ll cover it in a future post.
Ridership exceeds 100,000 per year. That’s an accomplishment because BHC depends almost entirely on tourists who have to travel hundreds of miles to reach it. The local population is pretty small and the Black Hills are far away from any population centers.
Marketing is important, and amounts to 2-3 percent of the budget. Group sales, tours and charters make up 10 percent of revenue. BHC markets itself as The 1880s Train, a brand that was established during the narrow gauge days and has been retained. It may have helped attract numerous movie and television shoots.
The railroad does special events such as Rails & Ales and Oktoberfest, but they tend to be oriented to tourists, rather than local families. Warder says that licensed special events such as Thomas the Tank Engine and Polar Express aren’t a good fit because of the small local population.
BHC doesn’t use volunteers. There are 12 full time and 50-60 part time paid employees.
As this is written, construction has started on an extension of the Keystone high level boarding platform, along with a canopy for the first time.
The South Dakota State Railroad Museum
At the south end of the Hill City depot parking lot is the recently opened South Dakota State Railroad Museum. It sits on BHC land and its construction and development was underwritten by the railroad. It adds a strong historic interpretation element to the BHC experience.
Rick Mills is the museum’s executive director, and he’s the right guy for the job. He’s the foremost authority on South Dakota railroading, and has authored seven books on the subject.
The museum is filled with history displays and a model railroad. One of the neat little display tricks is a mockup of a station agent’s depot office. It sits in front of a simulated window, which is actually a video screen. Every few minutes a diesel horn blows loudly and the image of an oil train zooms past on the window screen. Nicely done.
The museum recently received its first piece of rolling stock, Minneapolis & St. Louis wood bay window caboose #1208. Acquired from a private individual, its interior is very original, and Mills is in the process of adding a few missing details.
Meg Warder says that the museum hasn’t made a noticeable impact on BHC revenue, but it provides a more well-rounded experience for visitors and they have expressed their appreciation. The museum charges admission, and Rick Mills says it is now covering its operating costs.