Ghost Towns of South Dakota: Owanka

Last Updated by Michael Zimny on

The Black Hills has ghost towns like South Chicago has Italian beef joints. Both can get you hankerin' for some of that old time flavor.

Exploring some of the old Black Hills mining towns requires some hiking or a four wheel drive. Owanka, just outside the Hills about 40 miles east of Rapid City, is easy to get to even in a circa-early-nineties sedan that burns motor oil, and as picturesque as any.

The Lakota Language Consortium's online Lakota Dictionary defines owáŋka as "a place/space/spot/site for an activity (as for camping, pitching a tent, for dancing, etc.), battleground, campground, ground, floor." "Good camping ground" stands out as the clear favorite in a quick perusal of settler histories.

The town was built on Boxelder Creek in a little dimple of a valley — the kind Southerners might call a holler — surrounded by crested buttes and rolling hills. It's not hard to imagine that real once-upon-a-time people did deem this a "good camping ground" — it offers water, shelter from the wind, and a persuasive visual pitch for prairie life. 

Owanka is a ghost town about 40 miles east of Rapid City.Owanka is a ghost town about 40 miles east of Rapid City.

The place has an interesting history, with ample reasons for its eventual demise (drought, Depression, a bank robbery, a murder) though its survival would have been more noteworthy and in need of an explanation. 

You don't have to come from a small town to understand this story. Urban or rural, we can't help but catch feels when we ponder Owankas cause we all end up Owankas. History's tilt is toward a few emerald cities, a few big farms, and a bunch of Owankas. Whether you're from South Chicago or Detroit or a tiny railroad town in the Dakotas, what so many of us have in common is that whatever our grandparents built — farm town, factory, city block — is burnt down, ghosted, bombed out.  

The tragedy of good camping grounds seized from their original owners was compounded when they were swiftly abandoned by the majority of the recent arrivals. When Owanka was born, tracking American history was like watching a carjacker cop a Cadillac, drive one block, crash and toss the keys. 

A pretty holler on the crick was esteemed and returned to from time immemorial. Then in the space of a few generations: envied, taken, left for dead. 

Some lament that we're a consumptive culture but how could we not be? We've become a past-less people, trying not to look back like Lot's wife. Our collective identities are something we consume like a beef stick and throw away the wrapper — a synchronized step into a Slim Jim. 

We build up commodities and communities our kids won't appreciate as much for what they were as how daintily they've decayed — our best efforts reduced to fodder for self-indulgent blog posts. The consensus line is that this build-and-destroy cycle and the insecurity it breeds is better than the systemic alternatives on offer around the globe.   

At least since WWII — then the Cold War, even today against ISIS — we have outgunned some badder dudes. We welcome people escaping bombed out nations, so there's that. But eventually everybody figures out we bombed our own pasts while we were bombing theirs. That we're locked into creative/destructive race to step into an ever-spicier Slim Jim and don't know how to lay off the gas. 

Maybe one day we break the cycle and stop building Owankas that move from present to past tense in the course of a single lifetime. Till then we catch feels for what was, in part because was is what everything we know will be. Soon.

You can check out a meticulously researched history of Owanka here. You might sense something familiar in Connie Mickelson's recollection of how the fallout from a fratricide split the community into discordant tribes.  

If you go, know that while Owanka proper is a ghost town, the property is privately owned. One family resides just outside city limits. Picture takers are welcomed, but please be respectful. 

subscribe to sdpb email updates food blog link image learning blog link image living blog link news and information blog link science and technology blog link sports blog link image

Related content from SDPB Radio - Art

The Enduring Simplicity (And Complexity) Of Michael Hall

In The Moment ... September 20. 2018 Show 426 Hour 2 Michael Hall writes picture books that delight and endure. He's...

Art That Takes You Home

In The Moment ... July 18, 2018 Show 381 Hour 2 Jon Crane creates "Art that Takes You Home." After a tour at...

Renowned Artists Visit Oscar Howe Summer Art Institute

In The Moment ... June 19, 2018 Show 361 Hour 2 Art can be meditation, expression, activism, and escape. It can also...

Eagle Butte Artists Learn Tips To Flourish

Artists who turn their passion into a business venture can find it a challenge. They need to figure out the details...


The Multiple Hearts Of Laura Geringer Bass

In The Moment ... September 20. 2018 Show 426 Hour 2 When 13 year-old Briana's dad dies suddenly, she is faced with...

Read, Baby, Read: What's America's Best-Loved Novel?

In The Moment ... May 22, 2018 Show 342 Hour 1 What's America's best-loved novel? You get to decide. PBS launches...

Author Kirk Wallace Johnson's "The Feather Thief"

In the Moment ... May 1, 2018 Show 327 Hour 1 The centuries-old art of salmon fishing fly-tying has a dark side. It...

Jane Yolen Celebrates #Yolen365 And Counting

In The Moment ... April 26, 2018 Show 324 Hour 1 In March, author Jane Yolen released her 365th book. That means you...


Matthews Opera House Season Preview

In The Moment ... September 26. 2018 Show 430 Hour 2 The Matthews Opera House subscription concert series begins...

Fun Approach To Music Theory

Andrew Rogers – in home music lessons designed for children and young adults. Uses a unique teaching style that...

The Literary Style of Reina del Cid

Reina del Cid kicks off her summer tour with a stop in Sioux Falls at the Icon Lounge. She joins SDPB's Lori Walsh...

Eric Johnson Returns For Black Hills Playhouse Opener

In The Moment ... May 29, 2018 Show 346 Hour 2 Leave the ordinary behind at this year's Black Hills Playhouse Season...


Broadway Choreographer Chet Walker

In the Moment ... April 9, 2018 Show 311 Hour 1 The University of South Dakota Theater Department presents "Cabaret"...

Images of the Past: Stage To Screen

In The Moment ... November 27, 2017 Show 227 Hour 2 A new exhibit at the Old Courthouse Museum tells the story of...

Personalities: From Huron High to Broadway

Singer, actor, and teacher Joseph Mahowald graduated from Huron High School in 1977. He went on to study music and...

In The Moment ... Alex Meyer's Scenic Design

In The Moment ... May 10, 2017 Show 090 Hour 2 Alex Meyer. He's a junior art and theater major at Augustana College...