Inside Abandoned

Black Hills Mines

If I had written this blog 20 years ago, I could have directed you to any number of old mining sites in the Black Hills. These are called “ghost mines” … but like most ghosts, they're fleeting. One atlas lists nearly 1,000 such mines, but the number is actually larger with many unknown or lost to history. Moreover, a single mining claim, which usually covers at least 17 acres – and can be  larger – may have numerous mining sites within it. Only a few mines are active today.

Typically, a ghost mine, had several distinct areas and features. The actual mine was a shaft, a tunnel or a pit; and often all three. Support structures might have included a head frame or a mill building. Then there was usually a boiler, a steam engine, a compressor or pump, and often a powder house where the explosives were kept. Finally, a well-preserved site might include cabins or even a shop.

Many of these ghost mines were abandoned and the claims reverted to public land.

The heyday of Black Hills mining was from 1876 to about 1910, with brief spikes of mining activity during World Wars I and II. By the 1970s only a few active mines remained, most notably the famous Homestake mine in Lead which operated almost continuously for 125 years. At its peak, Homestake employed more than 3,000 miners and, with shafts that went down below 8,000 feet, was the deepest in the Western Hemisphere.

Mine RubbleGhost mines never came close to that scale. Some were one- or two-man operations, most employed a few dozen men at most.

Black Hills mining is most closely associated with gold. After all, it was the Gold Rush of 1876 which launched the European settlement of the Black Hills and added yet one more sad chapter to the story of the “white mans' ” abuse of Native Americans. Indeed the exploitation of the Black Hills mineral wealth, long a point of contention, was widespread. Many minerals have been mined here, including lead, silver, tin, tungsten, quartz, mica and even coal. Had you been in the Black Hills in 1900 you would have seen a very industrial place with few trees but lots mills and railroads. By the 1930s it was almost all gone.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Black Hills was still full of mining relics. A hike just about anywhere in the woods would bring you to something: a mine, a cabin, a piece of equipment and even a few vehicles. Many of these relics were on public land and could be freely visited and photographed. That is not the case today. Now it is virtually impossible to see any mining relics anywhere on public land. Only those on private land still exist, and they are almost always fenced and “posted” with “no trespassing” signs.

Some mining relics disappeared due to decay. Old wooden buildings collapsed into piles and then rotted away. But many, if not most, of those on public land were simply bulldozed away by the United States Forest Service (USFS) which in the 1980s and 1990s embarked on a policy of returning the forest to its natural state. Shafts and tunnels were filled in. Buildings and equipment buried or, in some cases, burned. Undoubtedly some of these old relics were unsafe, but the Forest Service policy really amounted to little more than wanton destruction.

Mine Rock

Visiting mines on private land is vigorously discouraged. I suspect this is due to the landowners' fear of legal liability. Although most mines on private land have absentee owners, some have been turned into home sites.

Nowadays it is nearly impossible to visit an interesting mine site. All you are likely to see on are a few stone foundations. There are two exceptions, however: The ghost town of Spokane, just off Playhouse Road, southeast of Keystone and the Gold Mountain Mine northwest of Hill City.

The actual mine and head frame at Spokane are long gone. Local lore has it that the building was burned down by the Forest Service. It is a rumor that has never been proven, but widely believed and a local conspiracy theory. The rumor seems credible because the Forest Service was in there within a day with a bulldozer and filled in the shaft. (They've never been known to move that fast before or since.) In any event, there are still a few houses the ghost town of Spokane and the old school building was still standing (just barely) in 2013 but has since collapsed into a pile of rubble. The powder bunker is still in tact and a few houses standing.  Most notably the supervisor's house some distance from the main settlement area.

The Gold Mountain Mine was slated for the usual Forest Service treatment, until a group citizens in Hill City managed to have the destruction stopped. Now the site is undergoing restoration but the work – done mostly by volunteers with little or no Forest Service support – is slow. Still, if you want to get a somewhat sanitized version of what many of the vanished mines looked like, it's worth a visit.

For a look at more modern mining, a stop by the “Open Cut” in Lead and the Homestake Visitor Center is worthwhile if you happen to be there anyway. But for a really good look at what modern mining is like, visit the vast pit operated by Wharf just north of Terry Peak.

                CompessorFinally, if you want to better understand Black Hills mining, a visit the the Mining Museum in Lead is helpful. It's run by some former Homestake employees who are knowledgeable and often happy to talk to visitors. (, sometimes it's hard to get away … just a heads up, there.)

Finally, with the price of gold being what it is, there are quite a few new (or revived) claims. These are mostly what are called placer mines. They are operated by individuals who use shovels and pans to sort gold specks out of stream beds. There's not much to see there unless you run into a crazed individual in the grip of gold fever who will always tell you that he's not finding anything. Then he will suggest that you leave. Generally a good idea.

There are still a few ghost mines on private land that haven't been posted, but sadly for you, I'm not going to tell you where they are.

Footnote: In their 1974 book, "Black Hills Ghost Towns", Watson Parker and Hugh K. Lambert give detailed information about hundreds of old towns and mines in the Black Hills ... including detailed driving directions on how to find them. This book is still available and widely sold in the Black Hills bookstores.

How to get there:

Spokane SchoolSpokane: From Keystone take SD Highway 40 east from the traffic light. About three miles down the road turn right on Playhouse Road. (It is the only right turn you can make.) Go about six miles to a point about a hundred yards before Playhouse Road junctions with US16A (Iron Mountain Road.) Park at the gate and follow the foot trail about a quarter mile east toward the town.

Left is the Spokane School as it looked in the 1990s. The building has since collapsed into a pile of wood.

                Mountain Mine BoilerGold Mountain Mine: From Hill City take Deerfield Road West about five miles to the Junction with Burnt Fork Road. Turn right on Burnt Fork and drive north about two miles on the gravel. It will be on a hill to your left.

Left is the restored boiler at the Gold Mountain Mine.  The site also has the head frame and shaft. A person can stand on the grate above the shaft and look into it.

Wharf Mine: From Deadwood or Lead follow the signs to the Terry Peak Ski area. Just after the upper ski lodge bear right on the wide gravel road. About a hundred yards up the road you will see a viewing platform and parking area on the right.