South Dakota’s Black Hills were overrun with gold miners in the mid-1870s, following General Custer’s 1874 visit which discovered gold in French Creek, near the present day town of Custer, at the southern edge of the Hills. Although the land was owned by the local native tribes, under the terms of the Treaty of Laramie, prospectors entered the area illegally soon after. Despite attempts to discourage them, by 1875 it is believed several thousand illegal prospectors were in the Hills and had spread north to present day Deadwood and Lead
Overlooking Lead and the Homestake Mine
Moses and Fred Manuel located the Homestake claim In April 1876 (near the current town of Lead). They sold it to George Hearst (father of William Randolph Hearst) for $70,000 the next year. It turned out to be the richest source of gold in the area and would be worked for over a century until it played out in 2002. Most of the other mines in the Black Hills closed in the 1880s and 1890s, leaving behind hundreds of abandoned above and below ground mines and slag heaps. A dozen or so of these mines now operate as tourist attractions. We visited two that were very different. Together they told the story of this fascinating period in history.
Explore the Mines
The Broken Boot Gold Mine located just outside of Deadwood was operated for 26 years by a pair of young miners who struggled to get by. Their backbreaking work garnered them, on average, just 1.5 ounces of gold a day. Most of their cash flow came from selling the iron pyrite “fool’s gold”, of which they apparently had plenty. It was used to make sulfuric acid which was needed to process real gold.
Broken Boot Gold Mine in Deadwood
Except for a brief period when it was re-opened during World War I, the mine remained closed until 1954 when it was renovated, stablized and opened as a tourist attraction. Walking through the mine’s cramped tunnels you can imagine how tough life was underground 100+ years ago.
Don’t Miss the Homestake
From the Broken Boot we made our way to Lead, the site of the internationally famous Homestake Mine and the separately operated Black Hills Mining Museum. At the time it closed, the Homestake Mine claims it was the “the oldest, largest and deepest mine in the Western Hemisphere” Its tunnels reached more than 8000 feet below the town of Lead.
Homestake mining operations reached 8,000 ft below the surface
Today, the tunnels are flooded as the gigantic pumps that kept them dry have been turned off. The 1-hour guided mine tour includes a bus ride and some walking around the mining complex and parts of the town, since they are virtually one and the same. The tour follows the mining process including hoisting, crushing and milling of ore and views Homestake’s historic Open Cut, the site of the original Homestake claim.
Logan-Lilly Hoist at Homestake Mine
The tour teaches as much about life in a mining town as it does about gold mining itself. Lead was the quintessential company town. Homestake owned all mineral rights to the land under the town but the company also gave back to the workers. Homestake was responsible for the establishment of the first kindergarten in the entire West and provided the students in Lead’s schools with some of the finest facilities available in that part of the country. Homestake also funded construction of the Homestake Opera House and Recreation Building. Tickets had to be purchased for events in the Opera House, but use of the swimming pool, bowling alley, meeting rooms and library were all available for free. Even during the Great Depression Homestake maintained its payroll.
Makes for a Great Day Trip
Together, the Broken Boot and the Homestake offer a study in contrasts. The Broken Boot’s intimate scale provides a real sense of what conditions much have been like in the mines while the size and scale of the Homestake reminds of the economic impact mines have even to this day. Both of them made an impression on our suburban tween who had never seen anything like them. Taken together, these two mines make up a great day trip from your base camp in Deadwood.
This is one of a series of posts about our Top 10 activity recommendations for families visiting South Dakota with teens and tweens. We hope you will take the time to read about the rest.