60 years old and going strong

By Jeff Smith

The 1928 Baldwin Locomotive Works No. 110 pulls up to the Hill City platform on Aug. 18 as many line up for a free ride. The event gave many a chance to see amazing scenery.

The 1880 Train is the oldest continuously operated standard gauge excursion train in the world. The train is a 10-mile ride from Hill City to Keystone.

For some, it brings about a strong sense of nostalgia. This includes Rick Mills,  director of the South Dakota State Railroad Museum.

“I’ve been riding the train since I was about 3 years old,” Mills said. “It’s something that has been a big part of my life.”

He said he is blessed to be a part of what 1880 Train is doing and tell the history of railroading to people.

The South Dakota Railroad Museum is the only facility in the state of South Dakota that gives people a comprehensive look at trains.

Being able to interact with everything is the name of the game for museums nowadays, Mills said.

“I don’t want everything under glass. I want kids to be able to touch and feel, make noise and have fun,” Mills said.

On Aug. 18, the train had four departures from Hill City to Keystone. It offered free rides in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the train. There were close to 1,500 people who received a ride on the train.

Holli Edwards, business development manager for the 1880 Train, said it has been a good year for business.

“Our fall is always fun too and we have a lot of our special events coming up,” Edwards said.

The train will close down for the season in October but then will open again in November for Holiday Express rides.

This past summer there were “shoot outs” on the train which Edwards said was very popular.

“The train gets held up halfway to Keystone and there is a big shoot out re-enactment,” Edwards said.

The shoot out re-enactments have been going on for several years and it used to just be on holidays. It was more regular this year and and seemed to pay off.

For people who are not sure what to think about the 1880 Train it is on Tripadvisor and people could leave comments on the website. Edwards thinks most people are impressed by seeing the steam engine.

“Pairing that with the Black Hills and not having to drive through the curves they can sit back and relax, enjoy the scenery,” Edwards said.

She said a lot of people enjoy the narration on board and seeing a lot of different wildlife.

Steam-powered passenger trains in the United States are rare. Mills said here are about 20 that are really significant.

“Consistently, the Black Hills Central is in the top 10 every year as far as our ridership,” Mills said. South Dakota State Railroad Ltd. is the organization that supports and promotes the museum.

Mills said there are a lot of repeat customers at the 1880 Train due to the unique nature of the passenger cars and the beautiful scenery on the ride.

“Everything combines for a great environment,” Mills said.

The museum is a separate entity from the 1880 train and operates as a non-profit.

“We work together well because of our proximity and we both want to educate and entertain folks about railroad history,” Mills said.

The museum was incorporated in 1994 by a group of people who wanted to see a railroad museum established somewhere in South Dakota.

“Over the course of the next 10 years a lot of planning was done and other towns in the state were also interested in having it located in their town,” Mills said.

In the end, Hill City was chosen as the spot for the museum because people were already coming into the area for the 1880 Train.

“This was determined to be the best place in South Dakota for the museum,” Mills said.

According to Mills, the number of people that come through the museum varies by the year. He said they receive about 20,000 people a year.

One of the big events for the museum is  called “Trees and Trains.” It is a series of eight days between Thanksgiving and Christmas where the train runs but there is also a Christmas celebration in the museum. There will be an abundance of model trains in the museum as well as Christmas music and Christmas trees.

Members of the  South Dakota Railroad Museum will often come out to the Black Hills and do some volunteer work throughout the year. The members of the organization are around the nation and some are from places over sea.

“They love to see the promotion of South Dakota’s railroad history,” Mills said.

2017 is the 28th season the Warders have owned and operated the 1800 train. Meg Warder, president of 1880 Train, said there have been a lot of improvements and changes over the years.

“It’s for the better, I would hope,” Warder said.

She said they have increased ridership and visitation numbers.

The first official ride of the 1880 Train took off on the morning of Aug. 18, 1957. It was previously used for mining operations in the 1890s.

Although 60 is a big milestone, many are looking forward to the train being around for many more years.