Gold was discovered in these hill in 1874, a legacy of the ill-fated Custer. The rush to get rich overtook the territory, turning what was supposed to be the last safe haven for the free-roaming tribes of the West into a White Man’s playground.
The Homestake Mining Company built the first railroad in 1879, and from then on the Black Hills were a Cat’s Cradle of rail scars and the pockmarks of mines.
The Burlington and Quincy Railroad built this path and its cars in 1880, and the rail has since brought a barrage of miners, investors and — now — bright eyed tourists to the wilderness between Hill City and Keystone, South Dakota.
Today, the 1880 Railroad rattles along the ties that bring together history and kitsch, the past and the ineffable present, Hill City — a town of wineries and roughnecks — and Keystone, the town that will always represent the arrogance of the American government as they carved faces of white leaders into land that was supposed to belong to Indians.
But the ride is quiet, lumbering, pleasant. It passes through fields and farms, idling by homesteaders and cabins that have seen better times in the last 100 years. There are followers — local train enthusiasts, our conductor assures — one man with a beard down to his navel on a Harley and a young ferroequinologist, a yuppy in an SUV. They race after us, SLRs in hand, sometimes meeting us at a crossing and at other times just missing us in a fog of whistles and steam and trailing gravel from the tracks. Just to see the train in action.
We arrive in Keystone and find a quiet place to sit and drink, watching the costumed employees flounce around for the tourist groupies. We discovered early on that the walking tour of Historic Downtown Keystone would be more exciting if it were of the open, empty prairies of Wyoming, so we settle in and wait for our next train.
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