We rolled out for a great pancake breakfast at a lively Bowman diner called JaBRs. We were “bugged” by a funny old guy who seemed to be a regular. He told us it was his job to go around bugging everyone in the restaurant.
Then it was off for points south and a couple of endless hours driving across the dry and featureless North Dakota plains, enlivened only by a couple of tiny towns and a few escaping cows. All of that changed when we got to Spearfish, a cute town at the edge of the Black Hills of South Dakota. The setting was nice, and we revived ourselves with a very welcome iced coffee at McDonald’s.
We had been to the Black Hills on a family vacation when we were kids, and gotten to see Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Custer State Park, and other famous attractions. This time, we were passing through for one day only, and decided to spend our time seeing some things we missed way back then. From Spearfish, we entered the spectacular Black Hills Scenic Byway, an engineering marvel and great drive that takes you through beautiful, sheer Spearfish Canyon. The road winds through rugged forested cliffs towering above a pristine creek bubbling through the woods.
We took full advantage of the many turnouts where you can stop and marvel at the view. If you’re in a hurry, you should still take the time to enjoy the delicate and idyllic site of Bridal Veil Falls. We also had a great lunch at a nice cafe/gift shop called Cheyenne Crossing, where we feasted on Indian tacos on tasty fry bread and tangy lemonade.
From the restaurant, it was only a short drive to the tiny old mining town of Lead (pronounced “Leed”). This turned out to be a great place to stop! At the center of Lead, you will find the Homestake Mine, an enormous strip mine or “open cut” from which gold, silver, and other industrial minerals and metals were extracted from the earth from 1876 until 2001, when the company shut the mine down and ”donated” it back to the town. This was the mine that made the Hearst family fortune and, not coincidentally, provided the gold leaf for William Randolph Hearst’s famous swimming pool at San Simeon.
As gigantic as the Open Cut is, it represents only a fraction of what went on underground. Beneath the town, tunnels hundreds and even thousands of feet in length honeycomb the earth. To learn more, we went to the Black Hills Mining Museum, an unprepossessing little building packed with history. We perused the displays that explained the inextricably linked history of the Homestake Mine and the company town of Lead, but the real highlight was the escorted tour of the underground portion of the museum, which simulates a section of the Homestake Mine (the real mine is too dangerous for tours).
Our tour guide was a boy named Mikey, a slight and likeable teenager who turned out to be a subject matter expert on the mine. It was amazing that someone so young could know so much. Mikey regaled us with a virtual treasure trove of information about the historic development of the mine and mining techniques. For example, we learned that the mine was some 8000 feet deep (in addition the 1200-foot hole of the Open Cut), encompassed over 400 miles of railroad tracks, and that the miners had to extract over a ton of rock for a single ounce of gold.
Mikey led us through a number of underground displays showing the technological advances in the mine, from spike and sledge driving by hand to modern mechanized hydraulic drills. Mikey’s father had worked in the mine, and it was interesting to hear about the town’s struggles to survive after Homestake pulled out. In a fascinating twist, we learned that the abandoned mine was taking on a new life. A wealthy South Dakotan named T. Denny Sandford has given $72 million to have an underground particle laboratory built in the mine to study the properties of neutrinos.
I learned a tremendous amount during the afternoon we spent in Lead. This is a fascinating, horrifying place, a town that centers around a huge scar in the earth, and a monument to determined human ingenuity as well as greed on an insane scale.
And speaking of insanity and greed, we spent a little time driving through nearby Deadwood, where the f***in’ thoroughfare was jammed with hoopleheads (that’s a shoutout to all you fans of the HBO series, which we loved). I wasn’t sure whether it was just a typical Saturday in the casino town, or whether there was something special going on (there were beautiful classic cars all over the Black Hills on the day of our visit). In any case, we made our way up to Mount Moriah Cemetery and visited the graves of Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane. In contrast with the town, this was a dignified and tasteful resting place for the outlaws to spend eternity.
Our overnight stop was Sturgis, where we stayed at an extra-nice Holiday Inn Express. Had a quiet supper at the “Pizza Ranch” next to the hotel and enjoyed a dip in the hot tub where we met some nice senior citizens returning to Montana from a trip to Chicago. Glad to turn in after a big day.