As the sun rose on the windswept plains of southwestern South Dakota on the morning of December 29, 1890, 500 soldiers of the U.S. 7th Cavalry surrounded 350 Lakota men, women and children along Wounded Knee Creek. As the soldiers attempted to disarm the encampment of American Indians, a gun discharged and the government troops opened fire. As an approaching snowstorm blew the smoke and dust aside, almost 150 Lakota and 25 cavalrymen lay dead. Known later as the Wounded Knee Massacre, it marked the last major conflict between the Sioux and the U.S. government – and the end of an era for a displaced native people.
At nearly the same time, just 130 miles to the northwest, the scene was entirely different. A jubilant crowd gathered at the bottom of a pine-clad gulch, loudly cheering the arrival of the first long-range passenger locomotive in Deadwood as a band began to play the Star-Spangled Banner. For the first time, the city was connected to the outside world by a set of iron rails. The age of the stagecoach had drawn to a close, and the era of the steam engine was about to begin, bringing with it new technology, cheap goods and a boost to commerce.
The near-simultaneous events spelled doom for one culture and prosperity for another, although there were some who believed the coming of the railroad was anything but a happy occasion. The Black Hills Daily Times reported on the following day that the arrival of the train in Deadwood “gladdened the hearts of thousands,” and described how a crowd of 2,000 waved their handkerchiefs and shouted, “What a glorious sight!” But Estelline Bennett, a Deadwood journalist and historian who witnessed the event as a child, later wrote that “the essential qualities that made Deadwood a flaming frontier town went out with the old stagecoach or were ground to dust under the wheels of the incoming railroad train… in that one day the merry young mining camp bloomed into a surprised town with civic and moral obligations.”
Buffalo Bill Cody, however, had a more optimistic perspective. “A town is like a baby,” the Western showman told Bennett. “It either grows up or dies. But Deadwood, you know, was young so long it never will quite forget its youth.”
In fact, although Deadwood was one of the largest settlements in South Dakota, the boomtown stayed a stagecoach community for nearly 15 years, and it was one of the last major Black Hills towns to have rails laid up to its streets. But the railroad had been making incursions into the region for years, and even Deadwood, isolated as it was at the bottom of a steep gulch, had long known that the steam locomotive would soon be at its doorstep.
The first tracks came across the eastern borders of Dakota Territory in 1872, but railroad-building all but ceased the following year, thanks to economic troubles caused by the Panic of 1873. As the effects of the recession began to wind down – and with Deadwood mining operations in full-swing – the railroad made a quick comeback. The Homestake Mining Company ordered a five-ton locomotive in 1879 for hauling ore and supplies around Lead. Dubbed the J.B. Haggin, the engine was brought to the mine by a team of oxen from Bismarck. Today, the first locomotive in the Black Hills rests about three miles from where it was originally used, and still fascinates visitors today on the main floor of Deadwood’s Adams Museum.
As gold mining operations at Homestake continued to grow, more locomotives were ordered and more track was laid. Even though the railroads continued their growth in the eastern half of the territory, the Black Hills remained isolated from the rest of the country, a veritable island. A federal ruling in 1884 that prevented railroads from reaching the Black Hills from the east – across Lakota lands – didn’t help.
But the Fremont, Elkhorn and Missouri Valley Railroad had rail lines in northern Nebraska, which the company quickly exploited to their advantage. In 1885 the railroad reached Buffalo Gap, and in July 1886 the first train pulled into Rapid City, passing the newly-founded towns of Fairburn and Hermosa. Two years later the rails were within 10 miles of Deadwood, terminating in the small hamlet of Whitewood. It took another two years for the railroad to blast its way up narrow Whitewood Canyon and into the infamous gold town.
In the meantime, the Deadwood Central Railroad began construction of a line between Deadwood and Lead. It was completed in early 1889, and began an incredibly popular light rail service. According to Bennett, the children of Deadwood resident Fee Lee Wong were so enthralled with the small train that they “insisted upon going every day.” The Chinese merchant decided the best solution was to hire “an old Chinaman to take them back and forth until they tired of the sport, but that wasn’t for weeks.”
As Deadwood celebrated the inauguration of regular railroad service on the Fremont and Elkhorn, a rival railroad was already pushing its way into town. The new route of the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad would stretch from the southern Black Hills, starting at a new company-built community called Edgemont, through the high reaches of the mountain range, past Custer, Hill City and Mystic, and down into Deadwood. A Burlington passenger depot was built near the intersection of Sherman and Deadwood Streets, while the Fremont and Elkhorn erected a station only a half-block away on the banks of Whitewood Creek.
The growth of mining, and the Homestake in particular, ensured that railroads in the Black Hills grew at a steady clip. Thanks to the amount of coal, wood and supplies going into the mines – and the amount of gold coming out of them – Pluma, Lead and Central City were the site of spectacular railroad junctions. Passengers benefited from increased service, too, as new lines were created and existing routes were upgraded. The transition from steam locomotive to electric trolley service between Deadwood and Lead in 1901, for instance, was incredibly progressive for a city that was on the edge of the American frontier only 25 years earlier; in fact, New York City didn’t close its last horse-drawn streetcar line until 1914.
Railroad companies completed other feats of engineering in the Black Hills, including the Crouch Line west of Rapid City. This 30-mile-long railroad followed the crooked canyon carved by Rapid Creek to Mystic, crossing 110 bridges along the way. Locals would joke that the bends of the line were so sharp that the engineer in the locomotive could hand chewing tobacco to the brakeman in the caboose.
The railroad’s heyday didn’t last very long in western South Dakota, however. Although coal mines in nearby Wyoming kept the railroads busy, the decline of mining and the rise of the automobile was anathema to locomotives in the Black Hills. Although there was still growth in the regional railroad industry into the 1920s – to which Rapid City’s 11-story Hotel Alex Johnson, built by the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad in 1928, stands testament – there were already signs of decline, particularly in the northern Black Hills. The populations of Deadwood and Lead began to wane as gold mining played itself out, and the beloved electric trolley line between the two cities was abandoned in 1927. Two trolley cars were converted into cafes that served each town for several years, but they were demolished in the 1960s.
The onset of the Great Depression and the subsequent World War didn’t help the railroad, either. Passenger service between Deadwood and Edgemont was cut in the fall of 1949, and other passenger service in the region followed suit as post-war America embraced the automobile and the highway. In the fall of 1960 passenger trains came to a halt between Rapid City and Mankato, Minn., and on Aug. 24, 1969, the last long-range passenger train departed the Black Hills.
The following decades saw freight trains in the Black Hills grow shorter as well. On November 8, 1983, the last train rolled out of Deadwood, bound for the southern Black Hills on the Burlington Northern track. The line still exists today, although most of it is now the Mickelson Trail, the result of one of the most acclaimed rails-to-trails projects in the country. Observant visitors can still spot remnants of the iron track leading away from the trailhead and further into Deadwood, bulging up from underneath asphalt parking lots and gravel alleys.
Many other remnants of the railroad still remain in the Black Hills, however. Although Deadwood’s Burlington and Missouri River depot was demolished in 1950 and replaced with a bust of Wild Bill Hickok, the 1897 Fremont, Elkhorn and Missouri Valley passenger station still stands, restored and servicing the city’s visitors as an information center. In Rapid City, more than one railroad building – from depots to warehouses – are now home to bars and restaurants along Omaha Street downtown.
However, the most visible sign of the railroad presence in the area is the Black Hills Central Railroad, also known as the 1880 Train. Begun in 1957 as a tourist train on the line between Hill City and Keystone, the 1880 Train is the longest continuously-operated tourist train in the country, and continues to cater to Black Hills visitors today.
Without a doubt, the railroad impacted the development of the region for many years, and while its influence has decidedly waned, the rumble of locomotives continues to echo throughout the canyons and forests of the Black Hills. For passengers, the practical reasons for riding a train are few – and yet thousands of people pile aboard old steam trains in Hill City each year, moved by sheer fascination. As Estelline Bennett noted, it’s little wonder, since a train is a community experience: “An automobile goes all at once – not gaining momentum smoothly and majestically like a locomotive, and it has no retinue of cars following its curves, its accelerandos, and retardandos. Even an airplane flies alone, but a locomotive always has a following.”
125 Years of Black Hills Railroading by Rick Mills
Black Hills Believables by John Hafnor
Boots on Bricks by Mark Wolfe
Deadwood: The Golden Years by Watson Parker
Old Deadwood Days by Estelline Bennett
Some History of Lawrence County by the Lawrence County Historical Society