If a visit to Hill City, SD, is included as part of your Black Hills itinerary, there’s a good chance you’ll hear the iconic whistle of the 1880 Train. Its sound is distinct, and for those who have journeyed along for a ride, it immediately symbolizes a simpler time—complemented by unmatched scenery and historic areas of the Black Hills that lie within the 10 miles that separate Hill City and Keystone.
Yesterday was my first experience on the 1880 Train. (And I must admit, all throughout the ride I kept thinking to myself, “Why on earth did I wait so long to do this?!”) All of the raving reviews and recommendations were spot on—it was an incredible experience…
With some insider info from the 1880 Train’s Holli Edwards, I gained a new appreciation for the steam powered world! She shared with me a brief history of how both the Black Hills Central Railroad and the 1880 Train came to be. Beginning with the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, the first steam engine made its debut in the area thanks to the Homestake Mining Company in 1879. In the decade that followed, railroad tracks were built from Edgement, SD, all the way to Deadwood. A section of track was also built between Hill City and Keystone. As new technologies emerged, many steam engines were quickly replaced by more efficient diesel locomotives.
It wasn’t until a man by the name of William (Bill) Heckman recognized the importance of preserving and sharing not only the history of steam engines, but their impact on the development of our country. It was in 1956 that he established the Black Hills Central Railroad on the line between Hill City and Keystone, in hopes of giving tourists a steam train experience.
With strong support both locally and nationally, his dream became reality on August 18, 1957. It was on that day when the first official tourist train made the journey from Hill City to Oblivion (the midpoint between Hill City and Keystone) and back. The significance of this day is what makes August 18, 2017 so special—it marks the 60th anniversary of the 1880 Train!
In the 60 years since that exciting day, the 1880 Train has undergone tremendous change. In 1990, Heckman sold the business to Robert and Jo Anna Warder, who put a strong emphasis on restoring the current fleet to its prime condition, improving the grounds and facilities at both Hill City and Keystone stations, and continuing to purchase and restore railroad equipment, carriages and engines. In addition, the South Dakota State Railroad Museum became permanently housed at the Hill City station in 2010. Today, the operations are in the hands of Robert and Jo Anna’s daughter Meg, along with the support of a full-time staff and many seasonal employees. Holli was excited to share that the Black Hills Central Railroad/1880 Train had recently purchased an additional steam engine (#108) and plan to have it in operation sometime in 2018.
As for my first ride, I opted for an afternoon round-trip journey that began and ended in Hill City. Despite riding as a lone 30-year-old, I’m pretty sure I had the biggest grin on my face from start to finish. It started the minute I saw the staff walking up and down the aisle of the carriage in traditional railroad garb—we’re talking full-on pinstripe overalls, conductor hats, pocket watches, vests, bandanas and more. This was accenuated by the loud yell of “ALL ABOARD!!!” moments before we pulled away from the station.
On board, the whistle of the train was exhilarting. For someone like myself, unfamiliar with the world of trains, it was refreshing to have narration throughout the journey pointing out sites of interest, explaining the meaning of each whistle pattern, sharing details on the uniqueness of steam engines, and so on. Along the way, our tickets were collected and snacks and a souvenir booklet were offered for purchase. I could easily see why this attraction is perfect for multi-generational families and groups. There was truly something for everyone to enjoy.
It was a special treat to take a ride during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. At almost every railroad crossing along Old Hill City Road, large groups of bikes would stop and wait as the train crossed. This was met with mutual waving between passengers and bikers alike. After approximately one hour, we arrived at the Keystone station.
Once in Keystone, we were given 15 minutes to stretch our legs and maybe grab a treat from one of the sweet shops before departing back to Hill City. During this time, the engine was unhooked from the front of the train and relocated to the other end in order to pull it back to Hill City. This process alone was mind-blowing! As for the break, I could definitely see the value in taking an earlier departure so that you could split up the journey and enjoy more time browsing the streets, shops, and dining establishments in Keystone, and then take a later return ride to Hill City.
I really enjoyed the evening return to Hill City for both the golden colors that emerged as the sun began to sink lower on the horizon, and for the increased visibility of wildlife along the route. We saw countless deer on the way back, as well as an adorable Australian Shepherd who barked and chased us for a little while.
Pulling back into Hill City, we enjoyed one last blast of the whistle before coming to a stop at the station. Based on the similar expression of smiles among the others in my carriage (a fine mix of bikers, families, older adults, and young couples) it confirmed to me that this spectacular attraction should be experienced by all. If you’re planning a Black Hills vacation, I would highly recommend a ride on the 1880 Train. They operate daily from May 15 – October 15 each year, and they offer a growing number of special events including Rails & Ales (Sept. 9), Wine Express (Sept. 16), and Oktoberfest Express (Sept. 23). Beginning the weekend after Thanksgiving, they also provide weekend Holiday Express trains that incorporate a trip to the North Pole (Oblivion) and a visit from Santa! (I WILL be bringing my young nieces on a Holiday Express ride!)
As for the 60th Anniversary Celebration, the 1880 Train will be offering free rides all day on Friday, August 18. Live music will be provided beginning at noon, and admission to the South Dakota State Railroad Museum will be free as well. At 5 p.m., the Museum will host a free historical presentation spanning the last 60 years. Train tickets for this event are not available online and must be reserved by phone: (605) 574-2222.