The Black Hills and Ft Pierre

Serving the early mining districts in Lead and Deadwood, the Black Hills and Ft Pierre was the first railroad to pierce the rocky landscape. Climbing up steep box-canyons of limestone and over mile-high mountain passes, this narrow gauge railroad was a logging line at it’s heart.  Operating from 1882 to 1932, the BH & FP provided 50 years of service in the Black Hills. The communities which were connected by the slim gauge trains supplied the mines of the northern hills with much-needed timber.  In return, these same communities needed supplies to be hauled up from the prairies into the heart of the hills. Operating with a small fleet of 3ft gauge 2-6-0 locomotives and a few dozen cars, many tons of freight and thousands of passengers were hauled into and out of the Black Hills every year.

Deadwood Central

A small narrow gauge line that never exceeded 16 miles of mainline, the Deadwood Central still served a vital purpose in Black Hills history.  From 1889 to 1930, the DC connected the twin communities of Deadwood and Lead. The railroad featured unusual tank locomotives, electrified streetcars, gasoline powered interurbans and an isolated spur that became a miner’s folly.  Bought out by the Burlington Route’s subsidiary, the Burlington and Missouri River, the little DC hauled passengers and freight from the standard gauge at Deadwood up the hill to the mines above Lead.  Twisting and winding along steep grades clinging to the side of mountains, the little railroad had many unfortunate accidents.  Railroading in the early days was a dangerous occupation.

Warren Lamb Lumber Company

While most sawmill operations in the Black Hills were small and only required a short spur track from one of the many railroads in the area, the Warren Lamb Lumber Company was large enough that it invested in it’s own narrow gauge logging railroad.  Separated into two main regions, the Warren Lamb Lumber company operated in the central hills, and the northern hills.  The southern rail line entered the Black Hills at Fairburn and logged areas in and around what is now Custer State Park.  The northern hills were penetrated through Dark Canyon with dual gauge trackage shared by the Crouch Line .

The railroad operated a small fleet of narrow gauge shay locomotives with at least one heisler on record. Russel-style logging cars and shop-made flat cars of various dimensions were used plus a lot of second-hand equipment was purchased through the years.  Despite being in the midwest, the Warran Lamb Lumber Company operate its railroad in a similar way to other western logging lines.  A small incline within the area of Custer State park was like a miniaturized version of the famous inclines found in California.  The narrow gauge operations ran through forests similar to the northern Rockies and Colorado.

The Fremont, Elkhorn, and Missouri Valley Railroad

Running up the East side of the Black Hills, the Elkhorn made quick progress to Rapid City by 1885.  By the year of ’88 the Elkhorn found itself laying the final stretch to Deadwood.  Owned and managed by the Chicago Northwestern, the Elkhorn operated both standard gauge and narrow gauge lines in and around the Black Hills.  This railroad is responsible for the creation of towns from Spearfish in the north to Hot Springs in the south and every community in between on the eastern front of the Black Hills.

Besides operating classic equipment from the 1880’s to the 1930’s, the Elkhorn had a very unique set of narrow gauge locomotives that is rarely seen elsewhere.  4-8-0 “Mastadon” locomotives were a design that was experimental after the civil war and never really caught on. The design supported a slightly longer boiler than 2-8-0’s but the lack of a trailing truck kept the design compact and limited the size of the engine’s firebox.  Despite the lackluster demand for mastadon locomotives, the Elkhorn bought five “class G” 4-8-0’s as their prime motive power on the Black Hills narrow gauge lines owned by the CNW.  By all accounts, these locomotives performed well on the steep grades and tight turns.

The Rapid Canyon Line

“One-hundred and five bridges… enough curves to make fourteen complete circles… and a trip of thirty five miles through beautiful and rugged mountain scenery”  –Tourist Pamphlet for the Rapid Canyon Line.

The Rapid Canyon Line, is a railroad with many names.  Officially titled the Rapid City Black Hills and Western, other names included: Black Hills and Western, Dakota Wyoming and Missouri River, Dakota and Wyoming, Missouri River and Northwestern, Dakota Western and Missouri, Dakota Pacific, and Black Hills & Wyoming.  For local residents, the railroad is simply known as The Crouch Line with the Rapid Canyon Line being the tourist/passenger operation of the railroad.  Each name represents a time the railroad changed hands. While the railroad was never the most successful short line, owing to it’s treacherous route through Dark Canyon and Rapid Canyon through the Black Hills, the railroad connected the CNW and Milwaukee Road in Rapid City to the CBQ Deadwood branch line that ran through the heart of the Black Hills.  Everything that needed to go East or West through the Hills went on the Rapid Canyon Line.  The railroad was in operation from 1891 to 1947 and served several generations of Black Hills residents.

The tight budget of the railroad meant a variety of second-hand equipment found it’s way on the railroad roster. Small gas-powered passenger cars ran alongside geared locomotives and even a mid-sized ten wheeler! Prairie and mogul locomotives with small driver wheels made up the majority of the roster over the years. Cabooses came from other railroads in the midwest, logging cars were bought up from different companies throughout the country, open tourist cars were built from old freight cars at local shops. Despite the ragged old equipment, the local residents who were served by the Rapid Canyon Line were fond of the short line.  Sunday picnics on mountain meadows, Saturday fly-fishing along Rapid Creek, a week-long visit to one of the many recreation camps along the route, and every destination in the Black Hills was accessible with one train ticket. The Crouch Line was always Rapid City’s Railroad

Highline to Deadwood, the CBQ

Totalling 114 bridges, 109 miles, 4 tunnels, and 15 trailheads, the George S Mickelson Trail is the premier biking and hiking trail in the Black Hills.  The gentle grades, tall bridges, and hard rock tunnels are not the result of some massive state trail program, but rather the hard work of railroaders in the late 19th Century.  After the discovery of gold in the Black Hills in 1874, the race was on to get a railroad to the isolated mountain range.  Surrounded by hundred’s of miles of western prairies, getting to the sacred hills was no easy task.  The first locomotive in the Black Hills, the JB Haggin, had to be hauled by an ox and mule team from Bismark in 1879. By 1891 there were several start-up narrow gauge railroads operating in the Deadwood area and the Elkhorn (CNW) established a standard gauge connection to the rest of the world.  The Burlington brought competition which was a boon to mines in the area.  Now they had a choice as to which railroad hauled ore out of the area.

The Burlington connection to Deadwood would outlast every other railroad in the Black Hills. After nearly a century of operation, the CBQ tracks, now Burlington Northern, abandoned the entire Edgemont-Deadwood branch line in 1986. While the trains were gone, fate was kind to the route. By 1996 the Mickelson trail was completed, forever conserving one of the greatest feats of engineering and construction in the Black Hills. Not only is the trail today enjoyed by thousands of people every year, but a spur that ran from Hill City to Keystone became the 1880 train.  The big class T-2 articulated locomotives of the CBQ were long gone, but ex-Wyerhauser locomotives #108 and #110 now run under the Black Hills Central banner and carry on the tradition of large steam engines on the sharp curves and light track of the Black Hills.