History of Hill City, South Dakota
History of Hill City, South Dakota
Human history in the area that became Hill City, and the greater Black Hills in particular, started by at least 7000 B.C. The Arikara arrived by 1500 A. D., followed by the Cheyenne, Crow, Kiowa and Pawnee. In the 1800s the Lakota Sioux claimed the land calling it Paha Sapa. In 1874 Major General George Armstrong Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills during which gold was discovered in French Creek, 13 miles (21 km) south of Hill City. The discovery of gold opened the Black Hills, and the Hill City area, to mining. Hill City was first settled by miners in 1876 who referred to the area as Hillyo. This was the second American settlement in the Black Hills. Hill City is the oldest city still in existence in Pennington County. A post office was constructed and opened on November 26, 1877. The city almost reverted into a ghost town when miners relocated to the northern Black Hills after the discovery of gold there. However, in 1883, tin was discovered near town and the population rebounded. The Harney Peak Tin Mining, Milling, and Manufacturing Company made its headquarters on Main Street along with at one time 15 saloons. The company was the backing of English financiers and bought 1100 prospecting sites around the area. As mining grew the city became known for its wild living and was once referred to as, " a town with a church on each end and a mile of Hell in between." The company built the Harney Peak Hotel on Main Street to entertain its management and executives. Upon realizing the market in Tin was unsustainable, the company ceased operation in 1902. Although a small school building was established previously, a main school building was constructed on Main Street in 1921. This school building was replaced in 2001 with the current high school. On July 10, 1939 a fire started ten miles (16 km) outside of Hill City. Among those who battled the blaze was Hill City High School's entire basketball squad, as well as several teachers and administrators. US forest service named the school boys one of the best crews who fought the fire. The school team name thus became the Hill City Rangers and was privileged as the only school district in the United States allowed to use Smokey Bear as its official mascot. Hill City was incorporated on March 21, 1945. The Harney Peak Hotel remained in operation until 1934. The Building has been restored and is the current location of the Alpine Inn. This building is on the List of Registered Historic Places in South Dakota. The Black Hills Institute of Geological Research opened in 1973 and is involved in excavation and display of dinosaur and other fossils. In 1992 the institute was engaged in a legal battle over ownership of Tyrannosaurus rex fossil named "Sue".
The main railroad lines that intersect Hill City are the Burlington Northern Line (also called the High line) and the Black Hills central line (a spur that extended from Hill City to Keystone). The Northern line was discontinued for passenger service in 1949, and was fully abandoned in 1983. In 1957 the Black Hills Central Railroad, also known locally as the 1880 train, opened a tourist passenger train on the central line. In 1972 a flood destroyed the last mile of the Burlington Northern/Black Hills Central line that extended from Hill City to Keystone. This final mile was restored in 2001. The Black Hills Central Railroad restores era style locomotives and train cars, and has been featured on the television shows, Gunsmoke episode Snow Train, General Hospital and the TV mini-series, Into the West produced by TNT. The railroad also made an appearance in the movie, Orphan Train.
On August 12, 1990, Sue Hendrickson, an American paleontologist working for the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research discovered the fossil of what would become the most complete skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex ever discovered. The fossil was named "Sue" after the woman who discovered it. After discovery, excavation, and transport to the Institute's facilities in Hill City, controversy arose as to who the rightful owners of the fossil were. The parties in dispute were the land owner, Maurice Williams, an American Indian tribe - and thus the federal government, and the Black Hills Institute. Since Mr. Williams had put the part of his land "in trust" with the federal government was case to this action. On May 12, 1992 FBI agents seized Sue from the Institute over the course of three days. The fossil was shipped to South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. Through the ongoing court battle, it was decided that Maurice Williams was the owner of the fossil. The federal government later brought an indictment against the institute and several of its members. This case turned into the longest criminal trial in South Dakota state history. Finally Peter Larson, the President of the institute, was convicted on two counts of customs violations for which he served two years in federal prison. Sue was finally auctioned off by Sotheby's auction house, and sold by Maurice Williams to the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois for 8.36 million dollars.