Railroad Museum turns 10

Gray Hughes

The South Dakota State Railroad Museum, a major Hill City attraction, turned 10 this year.

But, according to Rick Mills, executive director of the museum, the history of the museum spans back farther than the 10 years it has been in Hill City.

“The museum itself was incorporated back in 1994 by a group in South Dakota that wanted to create a South Dakota State Railroad Museum that would save not only the memorabilia and the stories and other things about railroading in South Dakota, but also trying to have a place that we could actually display everything and show it off to folks that are coming through in a museum setting,” Mills said. “So once it was incorporated, that group worked for several years to look for a place that would make sense to have it. Of course, when it comes right down to it, Hill City is the logical place for having a museum dealing with railroading in South Dakota simply because the 1880 Train is such a perfect location for that — to partner with.”

Over the course of several years, the museum negotiated a deal that would establish its location right next to the 1880 Train. In 2009, money was raised, and a deal was struck with Black Hills Central Railroad (operators of the 1880 Train).

On May 1 of 2010, the  museum officially opened its doors to the public.

Seeing the museum grow over the past 10 years has been a neat experience to be a part of, Mill said, who was hired as executive director in January of 2010.

Mills said he applied for the job when he was working for a magazine in Rapid City, but — at that time — he already had experience working on museum boards and had published eight books on railroading history.

Railroading, he added, is something Mills has always been interested in.

“I knew if I didn’t apply for the job I’d always regret it,” he said. “Luckily, I was named the first director. I still enjoy it every day, doing things that promote history, promote railroading and promote the culture of South Dakota to thousands of people who come through the museum yearly.”

When Mills started with the museum, he said it was a shell with just a few things to start. Those items were donated from around the state — and the nation.

People visiting could see the vision of having a specific museum in South Dakota dedicated to railroading.

Unlike major state railroad museums across the nation (such as the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, Calif., or Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, Penn.), the South Dakota State Railroad Museum is not publically funded.

The museum, Mills said, is a 501 (C) 3 and funded entirely from private donations, grants, memberships and admission to the museum.

If not for private dollars, Mills said the museum would have to shut its doors.

“That’s been an ongoing situation over the years: how do we fund everything from day to day?” Mills said. “We have been very, very fortunate up to this point that things have worked out well for us. We are having some issues right now — as with everybody in the country — with the downturn in business with COVID-19 and everything. But — honestly — I am very confident we will keep operating through this event.”

It will take some “really ingenious” things to make up for the financial loss caused by COVID-19, Mill said, but even before the pandemic started, the museum was brainstorming ways to increase revenue, including retail offerings as well as some other services not offered before.

That, he said, will carry the museum through.

Over the years, the museum has had some great donations — both monetarily and through time and effort from volunteers.

“I always tell people I’m looking at ways to do things differently for the museum,” he added. “So I don’t do something outside of the box. I’m always looking at doing something outside of the boxcar.”

The museum’s board is comprised of people from across the state of South Dakota, and its members have a wide swath of experience — from business and education to railroad operations. Because of the board’s dedication, the museum is in a good place moving forward, Mill said.

And in this tenth year of operation, the museum was able to unveil a new feature: the depot.

Many railroad museums are constructed within old depots, Mills said, and while the 1880 Train next door is able to provide a visual to go along with what the museum is teaching, the lack of a depot was noticeable.

The depot, Mills said, is one of the most noticeable and iconic factors in railroading history.

That was the small town depot because when communities were established — a lot of the time by railroads especially in the west — there was nothing else in town except maybe that building that was represented with the railroad or represented by the railroad,” Mills said. “The depot became the nerve center. It became the hub of communication through the telegraph lines that came in.”

Often times, mail was delivered by train to the depots, and later on routes were established where people could pick up mail right off the train and either take it to post offices or route carriers would take it on routes.

This, Mills said, is what established rural free delivery for the U.S. Postal Service.

Banking, communication and commerce, too, hinged on the railroad and its associated depots, which, Mills said, became a symbol for many various aspects of western life.

“They were smaller structures where, basically, the commerce of the community was transacted,” he said. “And the railroad was the prime method. Not only the railroad but also the Western Union Telegraph Company would send a railroad employee or contractor would send out telegrams in the era before telephones. Everything revolved around the depot.”

The depot at the South Dakota State Railroad Museum, Mills said, he envisioned all of that for it because the depot was so important.

There are certain aspects of railroading — such as cabooses, steam locomotives, crews standing in bib overalls and people working on and traveling by trains — that are iconic, he added. This includes the depot.

Many of the small depots in South Dakota were generally around 24’ by 36’, but because of size constraints, the depot within the museum could not be that large. So the museum’s depot, which stands along one of the walls and houses Mills’ office, is 12’ by 28’.

“Basically, the shell that is inside here represents the inside of the depot without having the full measurements,” Mills said. “We have the agent’s office, we have the ticket office, we have the baggage room and we also have space back here where I have a stairway that is built up to our archives and area where we do a lot of our storage. That keeps out from the public. It was out in the public when we had our other staircase, but it also gives us room now that when we put in our elevator system, basically it will be a freight elevator that we can take items from down on the main floor up and put them in storage, or if somebody has a disability who is working here in the museum and needs to get up and move stuff out of the top floor, if possible, that they can get up there.”

Because of the newly constructed depot, the footprint of the museum is different — save for the location of the 1947 vintage caboose donated in 2016.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the nation, Mills said the museum was planning on having a ribbon cutting on May 1 to celebrate the museum’s tenth anniversary. Now, though, they are hoping to have a celebration in September, possibly co coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the TV show “Gunsmoke” filming on the 1880 Train (which was originally supposed to be remembered during the antiques show in March that needed to be canceled due to COVID-19).

CBS, Mills said, has given the museum rights to air the show.

“The good Lord willing and the creeks don’t rise and we get things going again, we’ll have that to do this fall,” Mills said. “We would like to tie it in with whatever is going on in Hill City and its possible ribbon cutting for the new sidewalks and everything. We feel like we are a big part of the community, we feel blessed to be a part of the community, but we want to do what’s right and partner with places and events going on in the community that will benefit all of us.”

And Hill City itself was welcoming of the museum 10 years ago and has been supportive ever since.

Growing up in Hermosa, Mills said he has always known Hill City has a strong sense of community. But once he started to learn more about the community itself, Mills said the community and the city council embraced him.

“It’s kind of like that old scene in ‘Cheers’ where Norm would walk into the bar, and I would walk in and people would say, ‘Rick, how’s it going? What’s happening down at the museum?’ Those kinds of things,” Mills said. “So I just have felt very, very blessed to have been embraced by the community.”

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