Login

A reality: Ft. Pierre/Deadwood centennial wagon train crossing western South Dakota

Some authenticity ... This wooden-wheeled wagon pulled by four mules was somewhat rare in the wagon train in that it did not have rubber tires, modern ice-chests nor a driver wondering when he would again get cell-phone reception. The August 3 night stop included a small city of waiting motorhomes and fifth-wheel campers, speakers talking about local history and a roast beef supper served by the Philip Volunteer Fire Department.

On August 3, the Ft. Pierre to Deadwood centennial wagon train stopped for the evening at Grindstone in Haakon County.

Horses were corralled and fed, riders took a few moments to put their feet up and the speakers for the evening prepared the flatbed stage. Supper did not have to be scrounged together by individual wagon groups; it was served by the Philip Volunteer Fire Department (PVFD) as a fundraiser. The PVFD later sold bagged ice to those who needed it.

Of the original 54 wagons, fewer than 35 still continued along the old route that once supplied the Black Hills with materials and people. Many of the missing wagons and many of the original 225 outriders are expected to rejoin the wagon train in its last few days before it makes its much publicized entry into Deadwood.

The 240-mile trip used to be traveled by seasoned mule-skinners and pioneers. Stopping spots along the way grew in population to eventually become small towns. Grindstone was once a turning spot to either continue on to Deadwood or head to Bismark, Dakota Territory. Now, all that is left of Grindstone is a semi-basement-level hall that, for the last 100 years, has hosted area dances rather than wagon trains.

The 17-day trip marks the 100th anniversary of the last wagon train to travel the route to the Black Hills. A few years after the discovery of gold in the Black Hills in 1874 became public, one of the shortest and easiest ways for people and freight to get to Deadwood was overland from Fort Pierre. Wagon trains, Missouri river barges and eventually the railroad met from the east and southeast at Ft. Pierre. The historic trail to Deadwood was abandoned in 1908 when the railroad began moving people and cargo from Fort Pierre to the Black Hills. By that time, gold that could be panned or relatively easily dug up was scarce and much of the land had been claimed by farmers and ranchers.

Some places on the western South Dakota prairie still show ruts from the 30 years of Ft. Pierre/Deadwood wagon trains before 1908. For the most part, within a few hundred yards, the modern wagon train should follow the original trail all the way to Deadwood. The centennial scouts were pleased that all the landowners along the trail allowed the wagon train to pass over their property. Many landowners planned to tag along, at least on and near their land, although they were not counted in the 300 or so who signed up and paid for the trip.

Accidents and mishaps have occurred along the way. Modern cowboys and livestock are not used to continual travel like this. If a wagon breaks down, it is easier to truck it home to fix it. Injured animals can be put in a trailer and taken to a veterinarian. If a cowboy gets hurt, they are taken by private vehicle or ambulance to a hospital. Even experienced and practiced horsemen can have accidents, as witnessed by a death on the trip when 70-year-old Lamont Hill was thrown from his spooked horse on Tuesday. Hill later died at Rapid City Regional Hospital from internal injuries. Some riders left to do chores on their farms and ranches, since it is haying and combining season.

The last day for the wagon train will be August 15. The group, probably swollen again to at least its full compliment of participants, will be the main part of a scheduled parade, town celebration and historical program in Deadwood.