Every year, while my husband, Bob Schulenberg and I are on our annual trip to the Black Hills, we end the vacation with a ride on the 1880 Train. We know the route well, because it’s always the same. We know what sights are coming, because we have seen the so many times before. They just never grow old. Every time is…just fun!! The train is on a short, 10-mile-long track, and it simply goes back and forth all day long. One might think that the train has been around for 142 years as of 2022, but it has not. The 1880 Train was actually founded in 1957, so where did the “1880” part come in. The train got its name thanks to its founder, William Heckman, who wanted to recapture the nostalgic fun of the 1880s.
The track that the train runs on follows the original route of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad laid down in the late 1880s to service the mines and mills between Hill City and Keystone, so the route is authentic…even the original narrow-gauge tracks, which were 3 feet across. These days they have switched to the more modern broad-gauge track, which is 4-foot 8½ inches. The broad-gauge track made it possible to run faster trains, with increased passenger comfort, compared with the narrower gauge…not that the 1880 train goes fast. This train is a leisure ride, and nobody is in a hurry. While it is a tourist attraction, the Black Hills Central Railroad is also the oldest continuously operating tour railroad in the nation. It operates three steam and two diesel engines throughout the season. So much goes into making that final day of our trip an amazing day, and we are glad the train is there to make it so special.
A group, led by William Heckman was unhappy with the increasing prevalence of diesel engines since the 1940s, so the formed the group to ensure that “there should be in operation at least one working steam railroad, for boys of all ages who share America’s fondness for the rapidly vanishing steam locomotive.” It was a dream to preserve history, and I think it is amazing. The name “1880 Train” was originally a nickname by Heckman, but the name was so fitting, that it was made permanent. The Black Hills Central Railroad experienced a rebirth in 1990, with the line and facilities thoroughly cleaned and upgraded, and the existing locomotives restored to prime condition.
The ride is so pleasant. It takes you on a scenic journey through the beautiful Black Hills, giving you glimpses of rugged scenery, following the route of Battle Creek. You are given views of towering forests, pretty meadows and trickling creeks, as well as the remnants of old mines, allowing a glimpse into the remarkable past of mining in the region. A variety of wildlife poke their heads out from their hiding places, because they are just as curious about you as you are of them. From the train car you see the white tail deer, mule deer, wild turkey, mallard ducks, and cottontail rabbits that make their homes in the area. The train takes you over 15 road crossings where the locals and the tourists stop, take pictures and wave. The whistle sequence of long-long-short-long when approaching a crossing, introduces you to another part of history. This sequence is Morse code for the letter Q, and dates back to the time when the queen traveled by ship in England. Ships with the queen on board would do this sequence on the horn to announce to other ships in the harbor to get out of the way. The Queen had the right-of-way. When the queen switched to the railways, the same signal followed, and the Engineer did the sequence coming into a station to allow Her Majesty the right of way. The warning signal has been around for almost 200 years now! I wonder if it will change to a letter K when the Queen steps down. Time will tell, I guess. Nevertheless, Bob and I will continue to ride the 1880 Train every year, because we just love it.