- Associated Press - Monday, August 28, 2017

RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) - Smiling ear to ear under his striped hat, Scott Harlan described what it’s like to work on a steam engine.

“A steam engine is kind of like a breathing, living piece of equipment,” said Harlan, 38, who is the assistant operations manager for the 1880 Train. “I’ve been around helicopters and cars and trucks, dirt bikes, and I’ve never seen anything that is so almost alive …. That’s why people call it ‘live steam.’ They’re almost like a dragon.”

For 60 years men like Harlan have kept the Black Hills Central Railroad steam engines running smoothly along the track between Hill City and Keystone, the Rapid City Journal reported .

Jared Rittberger of Hermosa works as an engineer, fireman and mechanic on the engines. Although he loves the work, Rittberger said it’s not always easy.

“(It takes) lots of manpower, constant maintenance and vigilance, just constantly checking things, watching things,” he said while standing next to one of the steam engines as it hissed and chuffed. “Trying to catch problems before they catch you.”

A crew of seven works year-round to keep the five engines in working order. In the winter they have time to make major repairs, but during the busy summer season they mostly focus on running the engines and keeping up with standard maintenance and minor fixes.

“During the operating season we’re on the engine, on the cars, dealing with the public,” Harlan said. “So many people go, ‘Oh this has got to be the best job ever.’ Well, it is. It’s really neat, but like with any job there’s the dark side that people don’t see.”

Between the morning and afternoon runs the steam engine undergoes its regular noon service. Crew members descend upon it like a NASCAR pit crew, refueling, lubricating and making a minor adjustment to secure a loose part. It’s hot, dirty and noisy.

“You can’t go within a mile of this place without getting grease on you,” Harlan said.

After all the behind-the-scenes work is done two crew members shift from mechanic mode to operation mode, becoming the engineer and fireman who operate the train from the cab of the steam engine.

“When you’re operating a steam engine you have to use all your senses,” said Harlan. “The smells, the sounds, vibration and make adjustments - a lot of gut feeling. Are we going too fast, are we going too slow? It’s kind of an art.”

And for Harlan, seeing people relive parts of history, whether it’s the nation’s or their own personal history, is one of the best parts of the job.

“(I love) seeing the enjoyment from passengers, whether it’s kids or adults. Or hearing someone say, ‘I remember riding this train when I was a kid.’ For them to remember riding this train and to come back and ride it again with their kids or grandkids - to see that cycle, or an interest in the Black Hills history, it’s cool to be a part of that.”

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Information from: Rapid City Journal, https://www.rapidcityjournal.com

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