IMAGES OF THE PAST Trails, Rails & Roads of the Black Hills

Last Updated by Katy Beem on
Devereaux Library, SDSM&T
Cedar Pass, Badlands

Trails, Rails, and Roads of the Black Hills is the latest television installment of SDPB’s Images of the Past, a multi-platform documentary project that knits compelling narratives about South Dakota history from rare historical films, photos, diaries and documents.

SDPB’s Brian Gevik has produced Images of the Past television episodes and weekly online posts since its inception in 2014. Topics range from the history of the Great Plains buffalo and accounts at Wounded Knee to the crippling 1909 Sioux Falls snowstorm.

Working with local historians and museums, Gevik reviews hundreds of pictures and documents for each TV episode and blog entry. Gevik says topics have a way of presenting themselves during the sifting process, whether it’s a focus on the Thoen Stone, whose cursive scratches account the harrowing final days of ill-fated Black Hills gold prospectors, or a historical view of modes of passage through hill and grassland terrain, as in the episode premiering Thursday, June 16 at 8pm (7MT) . “We noticed how much of the material features people on the move, says Gevik. “People posing with stagecoaches, trains, cars, and planes. People on horseback or driving wagons or waving hello from the window of a train or just standing by the car while they’re on vacation. The theme could be people on the move, but what ties it all together is being able to move about at will. For that you need roads and bridges and all the rest of it.”

The origins of Black Hills byways may not be top-of-mind for most folks driving Highway 79 for work or pleasure. A closer look reveals we traverse paths originally tread in a natural logic to navigate tricky topography in search of water, food and worship. For example, native inhabitants followed bison from the plains into the Hills via a low pass at Buffalo Gap. The same is true of sacred sites like Bear Butte and Inyan Kara Mountain. “Many of the pre-settlement trails in and around the Black Hills got a lot of use because they connected sites that had religious or spiritual significance,” says Gevik. “Others were well-traveled for purely practical reasons – they provided access to water or other resources. What all trails and roads have in common is that they connect particularly important places. They are where they are because it’s probably the easiest possible way to get from point A to point B.”

In time, competition for natural resources and thoroughfares came as explorers, fur traders and military expeditions moved into the area in the mid-1700 and 1800s.  “The military expeditions in the 1850’s were all about documentation,” says Gevik. “That was their primary purpose. It sounds fairly benign, but this was not exploration. They were gathering intel for military action against the Indians. At times that was their actual purpose and the mapping and documentation was secondary. They had professional mapmakers traveling with them, sketching it all out for what was then known as the War Department.” Later, fortune-seeking settlers followed trails leading to Custer City and Deadwood from Bismarck, ND, Cheyenne, WY, and Sidney, NE. “Those trails served as stage lines for people moving in, but they were also very significant freight lines for the oxen and mule trains that supplied the gold camps, “ says Gevik.

The first locomotive arrived to the Hills (via wagon) in 1879 to haul ore for Homestake Mine, and rail lines multiplied to meet demands for hauling ore, timber, and freight, as well as workers and sightseers. “Rail transportation really endured a long, slow demise,” says Gevik. “The last passenger train out of Deadwood ran in 1949 but it took another 20 years for passenger service to die out entirely in the Black Hills region."

Roads, or course, replaced rails as primary transport and a period of patch-worked county road systems supervened before state and federal highway building ramped up around 1915. “Roads got better and safer as engineers learned more and policy-makers made good roads a political priority,” says Gevik.

It’s the sort of history thousands of people -- quite literally – pass on an average day that, when assembled by historians, provides a long view of our connection to the area’s original inhabitants and immigrants.  

Gevik undertakes each Images of the Past installment with a mix of pleasure and worry. “I am genuinely fascinated by historical images and film, especially when they show people or places I’m familiar with,” says Gevik. “To be able to look at a landscape or building today and compare what’s here now to what was here a hundred years ago just really opens up your imagination.” Locating images and getting permission to use them can be concerning, Gevik says, but is helped along by contributors like the 1881 Courthouse Museum, Deadwood History, Inc., and the South Dakota Railroad Museum. “For Trails, Rails, and Roads, we also have film from the South Dakota State Historical Society showing the construction of the 3-level wooden bridge near Keystone on the road to Mount Rushmore,” says Gevik. “I had the privilege of speaking with the two men who designed it and I think people will be interested in the stories they have to tell.”

Trails, Rails, and Roads of the Black Hills premieres Thursday June 16 at 8pm (7 MT) on SDPB1.

Catch a live conversation about the program with producer Brian Gevik and Lori Walsh on Dakota Midday, SDPB Radio, June 13 at Noon CT (11am MT).

Images of the Past curriculum resources are available here as well as via the Online and Education Department's newsletter. Contact SDPB's Education Specialist Steven Rokusek at for more information.


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