The Black Hills

George Washington peeks out of the mountains in the Black Hills.

September 26 – October 2, 2020.

South Dakota never shut down due to the pandemic so when we got to Mount Rushmore the first thing we saw was a bulletin board listing ranger talks. Ranger Talks! We love ranger talks and hadn’t been to a one since the beginning of the year. We checked the time, zoomed right past the four giant faces carved on the mountain that everyone had come here to see, and rushed to the next talk.

And it was a good one – all about the controversy of the site. We learned how the idea to memorialize figures in stone came to be and about the controversial sculptor, Gutzon Borglum who had previously been cozying up to the Klu Klux Klan and working on a Confederate memorial on Stone Mountain in Georgia. But what really surprised us was that this National Memorial to four former presidents carved on the bare rock in the middle of the Black Hills of South Dakota actually belongs, not to the federal government but to the Lakota Indians.

Way back in 1868 the US government signed the Fort Laramie Treaty establishing the Great Sioux Reservation west of the Missouri River which exempted the Black Hills from all white settlement forever. The Black Hills, so named because they look black from a distance, are a sacred area to the Lakota*. But then in 1874 gold was found in “them thar hills” and white people wanted to go dig it up. So the US government took back the Black Hills, sold off 9 million acres of land, and reassigned the Lakota to five smaller reservations in western South Dakota.

The Lakota would eventually sue. And they won, 8 to 1. Almost 100 years later in 1980, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Black Hills were illegally taken by the federal government and ordered that the Lakota be paid the initial offering price plus interest, nearly $106 million.

But the Lakota didn’t want money. They wanted their land. The money remains in an interest-bearing account, which, as of 2015, amounts to over $1.2 billion.

We didn’t spend as much time in the Black Hills as we would have liked. We got waylaid in Rapid City and had our sights set on getting somewhere else before the temperatures started to drop. So we missed all the kitschy western tourist towns and a few state and federal parks.

But we did get to drive through some of this beautiful country and visit a few interesting places. Hopefully, we will get a chance to return when we have more time. And who knows, by then, the Black Hills might be under new management.

* The Lakota and the Sioux are one and the same. Many Lakota people prefer to be called Lakota, as Sioux was a disrespectful name given to them by enemies. I am using Lakota here except for the names of the treaty and lawsuit.

Spearfish Canyon

Our introduction to the Black Hills came with a 14-mile drive down Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway. I had read that the canyon was a good spot for birding. Unfortunately, we didn’t see many birds. It was overcast and threatened to rain all day and since it was the weekend there were lots of people everywhere we went. But still, we found some nice hikes and some beautiful waterfalls.

Bridal Veil Falls. When we arrived there was someone up on the hill playing the banjo. It was rather surreal. We could never identify exactly where he was.

The Homestake Mining Company Hydroelectric Plant No. 2. This power plant built in 1917 was constructed as a second power source for the Homestake Mine’s gold mining operation in Lead, SD not far from here. The Homestake Mine was the largest and deepest gold mine in North America until it closed in 2002. The mine is now used for scientific research and the power plant is abandoned.

We took a hike to see the Devil’s Bath Tub. It was an unmarked trail that had different options to follow that wandered back and across this stream.

Since the trail was unclear and a bit precarious at times we uncertain where it actually ended and almost turned around a few times when we couldn’t figure out the best way to continue. But finally, we came to this pool of water and decided that this devil of a trail had indeed led us to the Devil’s Bathtub.

On the way back. One of the precarious options on this trail, wading through the water or walking on this stick.

At the very end of our drive through Spearfish Canyon, we came to Roughlock Falls.

And we finally found some birds along Little Spearfish Creek. Here is a Song Sparrow.

And a Mallard.

From where we were parked at Roughneck Falls, we hiked to our last waterfall Little Spearfish Falls.

Sanford Labs Homestake Visitor Center

I found Sanford Labs Homestake Visitor Center when I was looking for a camping spot on the camping and travel app, iOverlander. The description of the site sounded sciency and, bonus, it was free, so we decided to check it out.

The Homestake Mine is in the town of Lead, near Deadwood. During the Black Hills gold rush miners relaced the hunter-gatherers that lived here before. In less than 100 years scientists replaced the miners. Here at the Visitor Center, a mine elevator is displayed.

A look down into the mine.

In the 1960s Ray Davis built a large tank to hold dry cleaning fluid. Here is a small cross-section of the tank, which held 100,000 gallons. The tank was deep in the mine, far from the radiation and noise of civilization. He was studying neutrinos, sub-atomic dark matter particles that pass through our familiar matter. (One Hundred Trillion neutrinos just passed through you in the last second.) He predicted that neutrinos would convert 10 atoms of the fluid into argon. Only three atoms were converted. Further study showed he was only capturing solar neutrinos, which account for one-third of all known neutrinos. Dark matter study still goes on in the mine.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

At the dedication at the completion of Thomas Jefferson’s head in 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in his speech, “When we get through, there will be something for the American people that will last through not just generations but for thousands and thousands of years, and I think that we can perhaps meditate a little on those Americans ten thousand years from now when the weathering on the face of Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln shall have proceeded to perhaps a depth of a tenth of an inch – meditate and wonder what our descendants, and I think they will still be here, will think about us.”

I’m sure Roosevelt could have never imagined how our country would change in the next 84 years. Or how the people we have memorialize in the past would be viewed in the present. But despite that these days these four old white guys may be looked at a little more critically, Mount Rushmore National Memorial remains an amazing feat of art.

Although the memorial is free to visit. We paid $10 to park.

Left to right, George Washington, first president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States, and Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States.

Sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, chose the faces that went on the side of the mountain. He felt that each one represented the most significant events in US history. Washington represented the birth of the United States. He was a leader in the Revolutionary War to win independence from Great Britain. He would become the United States’ first president in this new democracy. Jefferson represented the expansion of the US. As president, he purchased the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803 which doubled the size of the country.  Roosevelt represented the development of the US. He was instrumental in negotiating the construction of the Panama Canal, which linked the east and the west. He was known as the “trust buster” for his work to dissolve large corporate monopolies and ensure the rights of the common working man. Lincoln represented the preservation of the US. He led the nation during the Civil War which preserved the Union and would abolish slavery.

Although everything else at the memorial was open, Borglum’s studio was closed. But there were some good videos in the visitor center museum with him working in his studio and talking about his process.

Ninety percent of the sculpted rock was removed by crews with dynamite. Borglum built scale models of the heads in his studio and used a pointing tool (seen here) to transfer the mathematical dimensions of the models to the mountain at a ratio of 1:12. The pointing tool swings in a circle from a pivot on the top of the head. A line with a plumb on it is moved out to the correct distance.

This avenue of flags was established for the US Bicentennial in 1976. Fifty-six flags represent the 50 states, one district, and five territories.

Crazy Horse Memorial

About 30 miles down the road from Mount Rushmore, seven years after the National Memorial was completed in 1941, another sculpture began. This one, the Crazy Horse Memorial, was commissioned by Lakota elder, Henry Standing Bear to honor his cousin Crazy Horse, an iconic Lakota warrior. We have written about Crazy Horse previously in our Battle of the Greasy Grass post. Standing Bear wrote to sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski in 1939, saying, “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes, too.” Ziolkowski signed on to bring the mountain to life.

Ziolkowski died in 1982 at the age of 74. He knew he would never live to see the completion of the monument so he and his wife filled notebooks with extensive measurements to ensure the continuation of the project. Ruth passed in 2014 but the project continues with the second and third generations of the Ziolkowski family.

The site was a little pricy for us at $35 per car. But the memorial relies solely on donations, revenue from its gift shop, and admission fees. There is a large museum of Native American artifacts, crafts, stories, and photographs. The studio areas were open and many of Ziolkowski’s other works of art were on display.

The memorial as it looks today.

Drawing overlay on a picture of the carved mountain.

A scale model of the finished work.


Look for a link to this post and other interesting links to interesting stories around the world at My Corner of the WorldTravel Tuesday, and Sharon’s Souvenirs.

15 thoughts on “The Black Hills

  1. Hi Duwan and Greg, I’m visiting from My Corner of The World link up. Thank you for sharing your informative post and beautiful photos. I hope to visit Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial in the future. #MCoW

    • Duwan said:

      Thanks for stopping by, Natalie! The Black Hills have so much to offer. I’m looking forward to when we can go back and have more time.

  2. Great photos and details! I learned a lot about Mount Rushmore. I haven’t been to that part of the US – thanks for the virtual trip! 🙂

    • Duwan said:

      You’re welcome, Becky!

  3. So much wonder in these pictures, Duwan. I almost heard a Ranger talk–on a cross-country train ride–but the cxd it. I imagined it to be as yours was–informative, exciting. I wish the mining lines in the cliffs were horizons. First, I thought they were–so much history–but they must be from the strip mining. Sigh.

    Thanks for sharing these.

    • Duwan said:

      We love ranger talks. They are always so informative and it is fun to hear about a site from someone who lives and works there.

      Stirp mines are often very interesting to look at – but how they got that way, not so much.

      Thanks for stopping by the blog!

  4. Every time I start reading your blogs, I think “You’re almost caught up!” to then realize time flies and it’s weeks later already again. The Black Hills are pretty incredible. I love all those waterfalls you hiked to. It’s been a while since I (and my ex) visited South Dakota, but I do remember Mount Rushmore (who wouldn’t) and the face of Crazy Horse in the distance. We didn’t visit that monument either, because of the steep fee.

    So, which song was being played by the banjo? The one from Deliverance? Creepy… 🙂

    See you soon!

    • Duwan said:

      Every week I also think I’m going to be caught up but then for whatever reason, a blog gets delayed. But honestly, I will be caught up here in a few weeks. We aren’t doing much interesting here in Tucson besides working on the van – cleans, finishing floors, getting oil changes and new breaks, etc. I thought we’d be out exploring Tucson every day but we just haven’t had time.

      I’m not sure which song was being played on the banjo but it was kind of eerie in a Deliverance kind of way.

  5. The Black Hills sound amazing! I would visit the place in a heart beat if I could!
    Love the incredible photos and fascinating info.

    Have a wonderful day, Duwan!

    • Duwan said:

      Thanks, Veronica! Hope you have a great day too!

  6. What a place to explore! Thanks for sharing your adventure and the great information, too. I love learning bits of history.

    I’m so happy to see your link at ‘My Corner of the World’ this week!

    • Duwan said:

      I think traveling is one of the best ways to learn.

      Thanks for hosting ‘My Corner of the World!’

  7. Oh, you’ve brought back so many memories for me. We took a trip to SD a few years ago and saw many of the same sites you did. I had no idea about the amount of $ sitting in the bank. I understand it, but at the same time I think it’s such a shame because that $ could help so many Native American families.

    • Duwan said:

      Glad I brought back memories of your trip, Amy. I assume they were good!

      I hope the Lakota can bring the matter to a conclusion they are satisfied someday. I doubt the federal government will ever relinquish that land – but maybe part of it. It is a lot of money sitting around doing nothing for nobody.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.