There are many reasons a town may become deserted. Mines close, timber is depleted, highways get rerouted, businesses decline, new generations grow up and move away, and the once flourishing place becomes abandoned and run down. South Dakota has a number of these deserted and forgotten towns that were once bustling and thriving places. Read on to find out about 15 deserted and forgotten towns in South Dakota.
Founded in 1889, Ardmore was a small agricultural town, just north of the Nebraska border. The town began as a stopping point for the new Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad. By the early 1900s, the area was a bustling hub for the railroad stop. The U.S. government chose Ardmore as a sight for its experimental farm for different methods of crop production. President Calvin Coolidge even visited Ardmore and enjoyed a picnic with his wife while he was touring the government’s farm.
However, the people of Ardmore fell on hard times when a severe drought hit and the experimental farm closed. Further, when trains moved away from steam power, there was no more need to stop in Ardmore for water. To make matters worse, in the 1940s, a devastating fire hit Ardmore, destroying many businesses. Today, the town has long since been abandoned. However, a group of former residents reunites every few years at the fire station to reminisce on their former village.
Near the north part of the state, in Pennington County, is a forgotten town originally named Sitting Bull. Mystic was established in 1876 as a small, but bustling, mining village along Castle Creek. Gold had been discovered in the creek the year before, and the town grew up quickly as prospectors came to the area hoping to strike it rich. The Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad built the first line of the Black Hills in Mystic. The railroad transported coal and lumber, and increased traffic to the area. Over the years, Mystic survived the decline in mining by switching to the lumber industry and building a sawmill over a former mine.
The town managed to survive the Great Depression and World War II, but as timber was depleted, and the need for coal reduced, the railroad line shut down. By the 1950s, the sawmill and post office closed, and Mystic was mainly abandoned. In 1986, Mystic was named to the National Register of Historic Places. Today, visitors can hike a trail along the old railroad route and visit the former buildings, including a chapel, a granary, a boardinghouse, and cabins.
Southwest of Mystic lies another abandoned mining town. Castleton had around 200 residents at its peak with a grocery store, hotel, saloon, and jewelry store. Not much is left of Castleton, but visitors can stop and read a sign along the road that describes its fate. As the sign states, the gold was challenging to extract from the nearby creek. The ore lay 25 feet deep, and there was no profitable way to reach it. The mining town soon was abandoned.
However, by the late 1880s, rather than a gold rush town, Castleton was home to many working construction for the railroad. But, by 1890, it was abandoned once again. Not many structures remain in Castleton today, except for the historical sign.
Head about seven miles to the northwest from Mystic on a gravel road, and you will find yourself in the nearly abandoned town of Rochford. Rochford got its start when gold was discovered on Montezuma Hill. The first cabin was built in 1877 by M.D. Rochford, the namesake of the town. Businesses grew, the population boomed, and several mines sprung up in the area.
In December 1878, Rochford was a busy town of 500 people, with doctors, a school, and 200 houses. But merely 20 years later, only the post office and 48 residents remained. Today, Rochford is not completely abandoned. The downtown still has a historic saloon and antique shop. Several empty buildings remain, and the fire station is still open. According to a building sign on a store, the current population of Rochford is eight. Tourists come through the area in summer to visit the old Montezuma Gold Mine and the downtown district. But in the winter, Rochford becomes a mostly empty town.
Another former mining town, Etta, was established in the 1880s. Located near Keystone, SD, it’s the site of the largest spodumene (lithium mineral) crystal ever found. The mine stayed in operation until the late 1950s. However, once the mine closed, the town quickly became forgotten and abandoned. Today, the old mine still stands, as does an old mill and a few empty buildings. The abandoned mine, with its open pits, rock walls, and narrow passageways, is a spectacular sight. However, it’s on private property and can’t be viewed by the public.
Similar to other Black Hills mining towns, Rockerville got its start as a mining camp in 1876 and quickly sprung up into a busy town. Although it was abandoned when the gold rush ended, Rockerville had a new life as a tourist attraction in the 1950s. It was conveniently located on the highway between Rapid City and Mount Rushmore. Tourists visiting Mount Rushmore took a rest from the road in Rockerville for the gift shops, dining, theater, and motels.
As traffic grew, the highway needed to be widened. But the widened road wouldn’t fit through the small town’s existing road. The highway was diverted, and no longer passed through Rockerville. This signaled the town’s demise. With no more tourist traffic, Rockerville became abandoned. Today, Rockerville is a commercialized ghost town where tourists can stop by and see the historic buildings while heading over to the old saloon for a drink and some American fare.
Owanka was established in 1888 about 40 miles east of Rapid City. At its peak, 200 people lived there. However, Owanka did not have a good water supply. Trains used to deliver water to the town, but that stopped at some point. By the 1920s, the town was in its demise. The bank ran out of money after a robbery, and a scandal at the local school caused many of the remaining residents to find somewhere else to live.
Today, many of the structures are still standing, and one family still lives in town. Although tourists can pass through and view the old buildings, they need to be wary of the no-trespassing sign and respect the privacy of the remaining residents.
A railroad town, Capa was first settled in the early 1900s. Capa even had a luxury hotel offering hot mineral baths with water brought from a local artesian well. However, during the Great Depression, few people visited the town. Eventually, the railroad closed its stop, and by 1976, the post office closed.
Today, some unstable buildings remain among the collapsed ruins of the town. Visitors need to heed the no-trespassing signs and be wary of the structures that could collapse.
The town of Spokane is another reminder of the gold rush days. People came for the gold but found the Spokane Mine produced plenty of silver, lead, copper, zinc, and other minerals. However, by the 1940s the mine closed, and the town was abandoned.
Located north of Custer State Park, visitors can still see the empty schoolhouse and the old mine manager’s house today. The house is thought to be one of the last homes to be abandoned, someone possibly lived there until the 1970s.
And finally, it’s believed that the town of Spokane inspired the Marshall Tucker Band song, “Fire on the Mountain.” The song tells of a man searching for gold out West, who is met with tragedy and gunned down in cold blood. On a hill in Spokane near the manager’s house is a grave with a story of a gold prospector who suffered the same untimely end.
Igloo is a unique ghost town in South Dakota. It wasn’t a railroad town or a gold rush camp. Igloo was built during the Dust Bowl era for workers employed at the federal government’s army base and munitions storage. The United States Army Ordnance Corps chose the area for its remoteness and built the Black Hills Ordinance Depot in 1942 to help the Army in World War II.
Igloo had schools, a church, a movie theater, a swimming pool, a bowling alley, and an Army hospital. But when the Depot closed in the 1960s, Igloo was abandoned. Many homes were moved to the nearby Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Although many still stand today in various states of ruin. The army’s bunkers can still be seen. Some have collapsed, but some are standing and resemble igloos.
Scenic was a town, like many in South Dakota that sprung up in the Black Hills. Once a thriving mining town, Scenic’s demise occurred when the highway was diverted outside of the town. Today, the old saloon still stands, although abandoned. Other empty buildings include two jails, some stores, a dance hall, and the old post office.
Interestingly, the 12-acre Scenic was purchased for $800,000 in 2011 by the Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ) and currently serves as their meeting place.
Perhaps the best-preserved ghost town on the list, Deadwood is now a tourist attraction located in the Black Hills National Forest. Deadwood was a gold rush town established in 1878 with a wild history as a lawless outpost. Unlike the other abandoned towns on this list, Deadwood has been preserved and today has entertainment including casinos, museums, historic sites, dining, concerts, and spas.
Tourists can experience life in the Old West when they visit Deadwood. Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok are buried in the Mount Moriah Cemetery. A Wild Bill Hickok statue stands in the downtown area. Hiking, fishing, and other outdoor activities are popular in the area.
Although Galena is considered a South Dakota ghost town, a few families still live within the city. It’s unincorporated, so no formal census population is known. At Galena’s peak, it had around 2,000 residents who came to the area for the gold rush. Galena is rich in history. One of the first mining claims comes from the first non-Native woman to live in the Black Hills. Sarah Campbell, known as Aunt Sally, arrived in South Dakota with General Custer in 1874.
Established in 1876, Galena still has some abandoned homes, an old schoolhouse, and a cemetery. While tourists can visit, they do need to be respectful of the families still living there.
There isn’t much information available about the deserted town of Burdock. We don’t know the year it was established, or how large it became. Most likely, it’s another town that sprang up quickly during the gold rush and just as quickly disappeared. What is known is that uranium was found in the area in 1952.
Near the Wyoming border and to the southwest of the Elk Mountains sits a remnant of the town. It’s a wire sign bearing the town’s name, located in an empty field. There isn’t much left of Burdock, aside from the sign and some crumbling foundations.
Not too far from Burdock, near the Wyoming border, lies the mostly abandoned town of Dewey. However, it’s not completely abandoned, Dewey has a population of seven, according to a roadside sign that welcomes visitors. Dewey was once a busy cow town where ranchers would meet to ship their cattle via the railroad. However, when trucks replaced the train for shipping the cattle, the town began its decline.
Today only a few buildings and a handful of residents remain. The train still passes through town but doesn’t stop.
Summary of 15 Deserted and Forgotten Towns in South Dakota
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