History, Videos & News


Black Hills vista circa 1920
Black Hills vista, circa 1920

The Black Hills are a special place. Many cultures over the centuries have come to value the region for not only its visible wonders, natural resources and beauty, but also for characteristics spiritual in nature. Time has not changed this admiration for the Black Hills.

In the history of the American frontier, no other development was more influential than the railroad and its iron horses. The steel rails crisscrossed the plains, ran up into the mountains and brought settlers and town-builders to areas that had been home to native tribes for centuries. Good or bad, the railroad was a physical manifestation of America's quest to grow and prosper.

The Black Hills mining boom began in 1874. Gold was discovered near the site of today's city of Custer by a member of an exploration party lead by Lt. Colonel George A. Custer. By late 1877, events changing the Black Hills forever had occurred: the Battle of the Little Bighorn; major gold strikes in the Deadwood and Lead areas of the northern Black Hills; and the area became a part of the Dakota Territory.

High Line construction, 1890
Construction of the High Line near Custer, 1890

The first steam engine in the Black Hills was brought across the prairie by bull team to the Homestake Mining Company at Lead in 1879. In 1881, the Home-stake Company created the first narrow-gauge railroad in the Black Hills to haul its cargo and the public from Lead to several mining camps. In 1885, the first standard-gauge railroad reached Buffalo Gap, Dakota Territory, and was extended on into Rapid City the next year.

The standard-gauge Burlington branch that came to host the 1880 Train's operations was built in several portions between Hill City and Keystone during the central Black Hills mining boom in the 1890s and the first month of 1900. The Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad (hereafter referred to as the Burlington for simplicity), pushed its line into the southwestern corner of the newly created state of South Dakota in November of 1889. In the spring of 1890, construction of this began at Edgemont as the first phase of the "High Line."

In the summer of 1927, President Calvin Coolidge dedicated a granite mountain three miles southwest of Keystone as America's Shrine of Democracy, the Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

In 1948, another monumental project was begun near a future route of the 1880 Train. South of Hill City, a granite mountain was chosen to memorialize the Lakota Indian warrior Crazy Horse. A young sculptor named Korzak Ziolkowski and several Lakota elders proclaimed that the mountain carving would "let others know that the Indian peoples had great leaders, too."

Railroads in Lead City, 1900

During the late 1940s, diesel engines became more common than steam. After years of declining use, William B. Heckman (a public relations man with railroad experience) decided to start a railroad where steam actually operated and was not just relegated to static display. He and Robert Freer, a sales engineer of diesel locomotives in the Electro-Motive Division of General Motors, organized a group who 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."

On the morning of August 18, 1957, the first official train operated on the Black Hills Central Railroad. Veteran Burlington engineer Earl Coupens piloted the Klondike Casey and its two open-air coaches away from the Burlington's vintage1890 Hill City depot, up the four-percent grade of Tin Mill Hill and on to Oblivion. The route was nicknamed "the 1880 Train," as it was likened by Heckman to riding a train in the 1880s. While not quite historically accurate (Heckman was never a rigorous advocate of historic accuracy), the dating of the operation stuck, and if nothing else, captured an illusion of the railroad history.

Fifty years after its inception, the Black Hills Central Railroad is still providing what Heckman envisioned–a place where new generations experience a steam locomotive and a way to commemorate the vital role that railroads played in the development of this country.



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Online gathering rides on Swiss train technology

Thousands of people have gathered online and at locations in the United States and Switzerland to learn about the creativity of Swiss inventors in the field of train transportation. The showcase event was held live by internet simulcast via Skype.

Cesar Meza is the proud engineer and mechanic on the last operating locomotive designed by Swiss inventor Anatole Mallet in the 1870s.

"It's not a museum piece, it's the only Mallet engine still running today," the 35-year-old from South Dakota told swissinfo.ch.

Thanks to its double engine technology, the Mallet locomotive was a wonder of power in its day, when it was used by timber companies in Washington state. Today, it takes some 100,000 American and foreign tourists each year through the Black Hills around Mount Rushmore.

"The Mallet uses steam twice as it moves from the first to the second set of engines, and it still runs very well. You can definitely tell the difference between our two smaller locomotives and the Mallet – we go up to a six per cent grade on our line and while smaller engines can only pull four cars, the Mallet can pull seven," he explained.

This Swiss-designed Mallet locomotive brings over 100,000 passengers into the Black Hills of South Dakota each year.

Swiss ingenuity

The Black Hills Central Railroad is one of 20 train lines, museums, collectors and companies participating in a simulcast internet exhibition and discussion on Saturday on Swiss train technologies, old and new.

The event was organised by the Philadelphia-based International Bundesbrief Society. "We look for unique inventions with Swiss roots," its president Jim Scherrer told swissinfo.ch.

Inspired by the Swiss Charter of 1291, the society seeks to promote freedom and democracy. In 2010, it held the first virtual celebration of Swiss ingenuity via live audio and video over the internet to highlight Swiss barn designs.

"The Swiss are predisposed to improve and perfect things and to make them extremely tight and specific," Scherrer said.

He added that while the first cog railway was invented in New Hampshire, the Swiss consul in New York at the time travelled there to see it and urged authorities in Bern to improve upon it, arguing "this is a very appropriate technology for our Alpine environment".


Yet, Swiss inventiveness is still at work in the field of train transportation.

"In the 19th century, Swiss technology brought increases in power and precision to the US train system, from engines and rolling stock to timekeeping as well as inspiration in the area of mountain railroading. Today, the Swiss bring cost-effective and energy-efficient design and engineering," said Scherrer, whose grandparents went on the Rigi railroad for their honeymoon in 1913 before emigrating to the United States.

New Swiss inventions include the gauge bogie by the Prose company that eliminates the need for passengers to change trains. Another is the Cabrio double-decker cable car with two-side mounted support invented by the Garaventa company and premiered at Mount Stanserhorn in June.

"Swiss train technology is familiar to American hardcore enthusiasts and we're hoping that with Saturday's event, the audience for it will be larger," John Luppino, operations manager at the National Toy Train Museum in Pennsylvania, told swissinfo.ch. His museum owns models of Swiss Crocodile locomotives.

Train aficionados form a substantial subculture in the US and support a national train revival. Hundreds of towns, volunteer associations and museums across the country restore and put back into service historic trains, which fosters tourism and contributes to rural renewal.

Big cities such as Atlanta, Houston, Minneapolis and Washington are building tramway networks. The Swiss Train Club has an American chapter. Worldwide, a Yahoo group list boasts 10,000 train enthusiasts.

"Physically exciting"

This train revival rides on more than nostalgia. "The main reason is that a train has a lot of appeal to people of all ages. There's something very physically exciting about standing in a train," Luppino reckoned.

Ron Goldfeder, a retired employee of the St Louis Museum of Transportation, who now volunteers there, said: "There's a fascination with the machinery, a natural inclination to be interested in big moving things."

He counts himself and his wife among train enthusiasts. "We spent our honeymoon in Switzerland, visiting the Lucerne museum of transportation and riding the Rigi Bahn," he told swissinfo.ch.

The St Louis Museum of Transportation holds the biggest surviving Mallet locomotive in the world.

"It ran in Virginia on the Norfolk&Western Railroad. It was a very successful locomotive able to pull the heavier and longer freight trains that are used here in the United States," Goldfeder said.

In the Black Hills of South Dakota, Cesar Meza loves sharing his passion for trains.

"I rode the train when I was a kid here in Hill City. I love to see how trains move, and with a steam engine everything is out in the open, so you can see how everything works compared to diesel electric engines," he said.

"I also realise that very few people have the chance to do what I do for a living, and that's something special."

Thanks to Marie-Christine Bonzom, swissinfo.ch for the original article.

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