With a piercing train whistle and the husky whoosh of steam, the 1880 Train pulls into the Keystone train
station several times a day between May and September. After a shopping break, and a new load of passengers, the train heads back to Hill City. It’s an experience that modern visitors still find fascinating.
The hulking locomotive looks a bit out of place amid the shorts-and-sandals crowd of summer Keystone. But in fact, the 1880 Train is right at home in the Black Hills. The railroad line between Keystone and Hill City was constructed in the 1890s (not the 1880s, but that’s another story) and served the region’s miners, merchants, and tourists for decades.
By the late 1940s, transportation had changed. Highways had improved, making the automobile a better way to move people. Diesel had replaced steam. Short lines were no longer needed.
But William B. Heckman, a public relations man with a nostalgic streak, believed “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.” He led a group that created Black Hills Central Railroad, and by 1957 the old Klondike Casey was pulling passengers in two open-air coaches up the old Hill City line. The great flood of 1972 wiped out much of the line, and it was rebuilt — but not at the Keystone end.
In 1990, Robert and JoAnna Warder bought Black Hills Central Railroad and began the revival of the business that continues today. Craftsmen now work year-round to restore train cars. A number of special events such as wine tours, Mothers Day runs, fall color tours and holiday runs have been added. And in 2001, the track was restored to downtown Keystone.
So 50 years after it began, the 1880 Train is fulfilling Heckman’s dream of keeping the steam train experience alive for new generations.