Pursuing the Dream: The Badlands Gold Rush

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One of the best activities we did in South Dakota was visit a former gold mine now open for tourists to visit,   Big Thunder Gold Mine, in the former gold town of Keystone.  Big Thunder Gold Mine was located next door to the big gold mine in town, Lucky Boy.  The owners of Big Thunder claimed the next bit of land over from Lucky Boy in the hope of intercepting a part of the same rich gold vein. As history shown all over the world, the lure of striking it rich in a gold mine is a powerful motivator.

creek outside of Big Thunder Mine
Creek outside of Big Thunder Mine

The land belonged to the Native American Sioux tribe by treaty and was supposedly off-limits to non Native Americans.  Rumours of gold were so strong, however, that General George A. Custer was sent to investigate in 1874.  When Custer did find gold on his expedition, there was no stopping American and European immigrants from invading Sioux lands in search of the precious metal.

The American government tried to buy the land off the Sioux who refused to sell because the Black Hills were sacred to their traditional beliefs.  In response, the American government just looked the other way and let the gold miners stake their claims if they could protect them.  The initial prospectors did really well.  When the easy pickings were over, the next round of gold was either sifted from the streams or blasted out of the rock.

Big Thunder tunnel
Big Thunder tunnel

During the course of the Gold Rush, stagecoaches would regularly bring gold from Deadwood in South Dakota to the railroad depot at Cheyenne in Wyoming.  The stagecoaches were the frequent target of robbers and were protected by outriders and lawmen such as the famous Buffalo Bill Cody, Wyatt Earp and Calamity Jane.  The route spanning 200 miles could be done in 22 hours because they only stopped to change horses for fear of attack from bandits and the Sioux.

a Deadwood to Cheyenne Coach
A Deadwood-Cheyenne Coach

The Big Thunder miners’ story is pretty typical of the Black Hills Gold Rush that began in 1874 in South Dakota.  The miners were two German immigrants, Krupp and Engle, who did not know each other when they both arrived at Keystone at the age of 35. They soon became partners because they spoke the same language.  In gold mining, you always needed a partner to protect your back from unscrupulous fellow claimants.

mining tools
Mining tools were basic – a pickaxe, shovel, pan and dynamite.

In 1882, Krupp and Engle borrowed money from Bismark Mine to place their claim on the Big Thunder land.  Both miners worked days at the Bismark Mine and in the evenings would work on their own claim, Big Thunder. Being dirt poor, they did a lot of the mining by hand and by candlelight.  They only one had one pneumatic drill which they tried to avoid using. Instead they used a chisel to create holes and strategic placement of gunpowder to blast through the rock.

They found a small vein of gold after 15 years which inspired them for another 15 years.  Krupp eventually had enough and left town leaving Engle with the loan to repay to Bismark.  Having dug 680 feet into the mountain and 240 feet underground, all Engle and Krupp had to show after 30 years was 10 ounces of gold worth about $200.  Their claim was a dud.

tiny vein of gold
The tiny vein of gold

This story, however, has a very Wild West ending.  Engle decided to drink and to gamble his sorrows away. Everyone assumed that Engle was filthy rich thanks to his gold mine which was why he was living large.  The other gold mine owners (including the owner of the Bismark mine) entered into a high stakes poker game with Engle (not realising Big Thunder had no gold).

Having nothing to bet, Engle put his mine on the table and all the other mine owners did the same.  Engle won all their mines, was able to write off his debt to the Bismark mine and, indeed, became very rich.

mining tunnel dug by hand
Can you believe this was all dug by hand??

By sifting for gold and finding  a few flecks each, my children realised how difficult and tedious the job was. Even striking it rich in gold involved lots of work and even more luck.

learning to pan for gold
Learning to pan for gold

There was also really good displays showing different types of rocks and their qualities.

Good To Know

Located near Mount Rushmore in South Dakota and the Crazy Horse Memorial mountain, Big Thunder Gold Mine is very accessible and easy to walk through. Our tour guide was terrific and very knowledgeable.  They run small groups without waiting for more tourists.  For example, our family had its own tour guide. She taught the children also how to pan for gold and different things to look for in a gold mine.  I would definitely recommend this tour.

learning about mining
Learning about gold mining

For dinner we went to the Grizzly Creek Restaurant in town which has fairly standard American fare.  The children, however, loved the make-your-own-S’mores at the table.

making smokes at the table
Making S’mores at the table

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