A Trail Rediscovered

Celebrating the Fort Pierre - Deadwood Stage
By Shawn Werner

A Trail Rediscovered
CREDIT: Library of Congress

This summer, Western drovers, horsemen and history buffs will bring back an aspect of Deadwood history that has been all but forgotten: The venerable freight wagon.

Freight wagons and stagecoaches sustained this isolated Black Hills outpost for decades following the 1876 gold rush. But with the advent of rail service, the freighters became obsolete, and the last overland wagon completed its run to Deadwood in 1908.

In late July and early August of 2008, wagon trains will retrace those routes. Organizers are still working out details, but as many as 75 wagons from Fort Pierre, Cheyenne, Wyo., and Sidney, Neb., could converge in Deadwood on Aug. 15.

Before Henry Ford rolled out the Model T, goods still had to get around the country. Thanks to the steam engine, the railways were the preferred method of shipping goods. Unfortunately, rail systems tend to work better on vast expanses of flat land, which was bad news for the Black Hills. While the rolling hills, sharp granite outcroppings and the evergreen sea of pines are pleasing to the eye, they make transportation via rail treacherous and inefficient.

While Deadwood eventually did connect to the world via rails at the fairly early time of 1890, much of the goods in the town continued to be brought in on coaches drawn by horses, mules or oxen. Many of these goods came in on the Fort Pierre-to-Deadwood trail, the Interstate 90 of its day.

The trail connected the Black Hills with the Missouri River. Passengers, supplies and cargo were all carried across the vast western Dakota prairie to the mining camps and towns strewn throughout the Black Hills. Many stage companies formed to meet the ever-increasing demand for transportation in western South Dakota.

The Fort Pierre-Deadwood trail was approximately 200 miles long, with a system of roadhouses and stations set up along the way. The trail was first used by American Indians, fur trappers, the U.S. Cavalry and freighters. The trail operated as a stage line between Fort Pierre and Deadwood from 1876 to 1908.

Long trains of ox wagons used to stretch across the prairie. It 1887, it was noted, 20 oxen pulling three wagons with 20,000 pounds of freight made the 200-mile journey from Fort Pierre to Deadwood in only 15 days.

Wheel ruts and other remnants of the old trail can be seen along its route. And recently the historic trail has been thoroughly surveyed and mapped, showing old stops and other places of historic significance. The South Dakota State Archives prepared a book showing the trail, stops, history and photos.

The book is available to participants in the Historic Fort Pierre Deadwood Trail Ride, sponsored by the Verendrye Museum. You can also order one from the museum. The cost is $25 plus shipping. To order a copy, contact the Verendyre Museum at (605) 223-7603.

This summer’s ride marks the 100th anniversary of the trail’s closing in 1908. The ride begins in Fort Pierre on July 29 at the Stanley County Fairgrounds with an inaugural picnic and celebration. The wagons head out the next morning.

Event co-chairman Charles Poches Jr. said recently that 47 to 50 wagons and 200 riders will start the ride. “It’s hard to tell how many will finish. Breakdowns and other problems are expected on a ride such as this,” he said.

Poches said the group has identified the trail, lined up permission from landowners and driven the route six times in pickup trucks. He said a surprisingly large stretch of the old trail has been left in its natural, unpaved state. Few highways follow the trail, and few towns are located on it.

“We are following the trail as much as possible,” Poches said. “From what we’re told, it hasn’t been ridden since 1908, and there are only two towns, Hayes and Sturgis, that are on it.”

Plans are in the works to organize two other rides into Deadwood. One group of as many as 20 wagons is expected to come up from Cheyenne, Wyo., along the old Deadwood-Cheyenne Stagecoach routes through the Southern Black Hills.

And a group from Nebraska might be driving up from Sidney, Neb., another traditional railroad jumping-off point for Deadwood-bound prospectors, freighters and freebooters. If the Nebraska group makes the trip, it would bring five or six freight wagons, said Russell Leger, a member of the Nebraska group.

The wagon trains are scheduled to converge at high noon on Friday, Aug. 15, on Deadwood’s historic Main Street. Governors of South Dakota, Wyoming and Nebraska have been invited to make the final push with their respective wagon trains into Deadwood.

To greet the wagon trains, the Deadwood Chamber and the Days of ’76 Museum are organizing a celebration that includes barbecues, tours, dancing, entertainment and a massive four-day Deadwood Firearms and Old West Auction and Show.

More than 1,200 pieces, including firearms, Old-West memorabilia, roulette tables, back bars and other saloon fixtures, antique slot machines, Native American artifacts and antique household items will be sold during the Deadwood auction, said Bob Greene of Auction Productions, one of three firms organizing the show and sale, which will be held in the Deadwood Pavilion on Main Street.

“This is not your typical farm auction,” added Rick Olesen of Dakota Plains Auction Service in Rapid City, another firm involved in the sale.

One of the more unusual items to be sold is an Abbott & Downey stagecoach, fully restored, which was recently consigned for the sale, Olesen said.

“This is definitely one of the most fascinating auctions assembled in this area in some time. Some of the highlights include a collection of items from ‘Broncho’ Charlie Miller (see related story), two Victorian-era Western roulette table coverings, original Faro boxes and layouts, Western art including sculptures and oil paintings and even Casey Tibbs’ gold-plated PRCA rodeo card,” Olesen said.

Perhaps the most impressive item up for grabs is the Colt single-action Army revolver made by the Colt Firearms Manufacturing Co. and donated to the Days of ’76 Museum’s capital campaign.

It is a one-of-a-kind pistol, given the unique serial number of “DW1876”. The caliber of the pistol is 44/40 and it sports a nickel finish. The pistol was engraved by a Colt master engraver with what is known as a “B” coverage. The barrel measures 4 ¾ inches. The grips are scrimshawed ivory with an Aces and 8’s logo on one side with the “Days of ‘76” logo on the obverse.

Proceeds from the sale of the pistol and other items donated for auction will go to the Days of ‘76 Museum’s capital campaign. The museum is in the midst of a $6 million campaign to pay for construction of a new museum building and other facility improvements.

Another related fund raiser is a raffle of a Model 1866 Winchester rifle. The winning ticket will be drawn during the Deadwood event in August. The gun is an engraver’s tribute to master gun engraver Louis D. Nimschke (see related story), faithfully reproducing the intricate metal carving the master was famous for. Tickets for the rifle raffle are $10 or six for $50.

“Broncho” Charlie Miller is renowned for being the youngest rider of the Pony Express, joining at age 11. Though the Pony Express ended in financial disaster, it is likely there that Broncho Charlie met “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Broncho Charlie joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and later joined Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show.

In his autobiography, titled “Broncho Charlie: Saga of the Saddle,” Broncho Charlie reminisces about the various events and interesting people that he encountered in his life. Everything from getting shot in a saloon to meeting a rancher in North Dakota by the name of Theodore Roosevelt adorn the pages of his memoir.

Some of Broncho Charlie’s possessions for sale in the auction include:
  • Two guns, a Remington rifle and shotgun
  • A McClellan saddle adorned with buffalo fur
  • A butcher block adorned with buffalo fur and several knives
  • Buffalo fur coats
  • Performer outfits from Wild West Shows
  • A wooden powder keg adorned with buffalo hide
The items are in excellent condition and auction officials expect the lot to fetch between $30,000 and $60,000.

Louis Daniel Nimschke was born in Germany in 1834 and later moved to the United States around 1850. His work has appeared on jewelry, seals, silverware, watch cases and even dog collars. But the work Nimschke was most famous for were his immaculate engravings on firearms.

In the latter half of the 19th century, the demand for engraved firearms was high and Nimschke’s skills were internationally renowned. His customers included a contingent of celebrities including Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, Maria Cristina of Austria, widow of the King of Spain and Napoleon III, Emperor of France.

Throughout the course of his life Nimschke would engrave over 5,000 firearms. Many firearms manufacturers employed their own engravers, but when a special custom order that required utmost detail needed to be filled the companies would commission Nimschke to do the work.

Nimschke was adept at both the American and European styles of engraving. Though he didn’t invent the American style, it is accepted that he mastered it. The principle difference between the two styles regarded their treatment of scrollwork. The American style was rich and bold, with the European being very fine and delicate.

Nimschke’s patterns, scrolls, borders, backgrounds and shading were so immaculate he is referred to as “The Engravers Engraver.” His work is the most highly prized of all engravers by modern collectors.

The scrolls that Nimschke adorned his firearms with are of his own unique design. Many engravers emulated this style, which has become known today as “Nimschke School” influenced work.

A two-car train in front of a steep cliff; several passengers are posing in front of the train. Elk Canyon on Black Hills and FT.

Images of the unique revolver to be auctioned off.

An example of a Nimschke engraving on a rifle. Many of the items up for auction are based on his work.


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