Rapid City is the second-largest city in the state of South Dakota. Named after the Rapid Creek on which the city is established, it is set against the eastern slope of the Black Hills mountain range. Rapid City is known as the “Gateway to the Black Hills” and the “Star of the West.” The city is divided by a small mountain range that splits the western and eastern parts of the city into two.
From mountain biking and rock climbing to nature photography and golfing, there are dozens of ways to experience the beauty of the Black Hills.
Rapid Creek flows through Rapid City, emerging from Dark Canyon above Canyon Lake and flowing in a large arc north of Downtown. Rapid Creek descends to the southeast as the valley widens. The floodplain of Rapid Creek is mostly undeveloped, one legacy of the Black Hills Flood of 1972. To the north, a series of ridges separates Rapid Creek from Box Elder Creek, with large older and new residential areas and commercial areas along I-90. To the south, the terrain rises more steeply to the southern widening of the Dakota Hogback into a plateau dividing the Rapid Creek drainage from Spring Creek.
Rapid City History
The public discovery of gold in 1874 by the Custer Expedition brought an mass influx of settlers into the Black Hills region of South Dakota. Rapid City was founded (and originally known as “Hay Camp”) in 1876 by a group of disappointed miners, who promoted their new city as the “Gateway to the Black Hills.” John Brennan and Samuel Scott, with a small group of men, laid out the site of the present Rapid City, in February 1876, which was named for the spring-fed Rapid Creek that flows through it. A square mile was measured off and the six blocks in the center were designated as a business section. Committees were appointed to bring in prospective merchants and their families to locate in the new settlement. The city soon began selling supplies to miners and pioneers, and its location on the edge of the Plains and Hills, with a large river valley made it the natural hub of railroads arriving in the late 1880s from both the south and east. By 1900, Rapid City had survived a boom and bust and was establishing itself as an important regional trade center for the upper midwest.
Although the Black Hills became a popular tourist destination in the late 1890s, it was a combination of local boosterism, the popularity of the automobile, and construction of improved highways that brought tourists to the Black Hills in large numbers after World War I. Gutzon Borglum, already a famous sculptor, began work on Mount Rushmore in 1927, and his son, Lincoln Borglum continued the carving of the presidents’ faces in rock following his father’s death in 1941, but work was halted and the massive sculpture was declared completed in 1941, due to pressures leading to the US entry into World War II. Although tourism sustained the city throughout the Great Depression of the 1930s, the gas rationing of World War II had a devastating effect on the tourist industry in the town, but this was more than made up for by the war-related growth.
The city benefited greatly from the opening of Rapid City Army Air Base, later Ellsworth Air Force Base, an Army Air Corps training base. As a result, the population of the area nearly doubled between 1940 and 1948, from almost 14,000 to nearly 27,000 people. Military families and civilian personnel soon took every available living space in town, and mobile parks proliferated. Rapid City businesses profited from the military payroll. During the Cold War, missile installations proliferated in the area: a series of Nike Air Defense sites were constructed around Ellsworth in the 1950s. In the early 60s the construction of three Titan missile launch sites containing a total of nine Titan I missiles in the general vicinity of Rapid City took place. Beginning in November 1963, the land for a hundred miles east, northeast and northwest of the city was dotted with 150 Minuteman missile silos and 15 launch command centers, all of which were deactivated in the early 1990s.
In 1949, city officials envisioned the city as a retail and wholesale trade center for the region and designed a plan for growth that focused on a civic center, more downtown parking places, new schools, and paved streets. A construction boom continued into the 1950s. Growth slowed in the 1960s, but the worst natural disaster in South Dakota history, the Black Hills Flood led to another building boom a decade later. On June 9, 1972, heavy rains caused massive flooding of the Rapid Creek. More than 250 people lost their lives and more than $100 million in property was destroyed.
Debris along Rapid Creek after 1972 flood.The devastation of the flood and the outpouring of private donations and millions of dollars in federal aid led to the completion of one big part of the 1949 plan: clearing the area along the Rapid Creek and making it a public park. New homes and businesses were constructed to replace those that had been destroyed. Rushmore Plaza Civic Center and a new Central High School were built in part of the area that had been cleared. The rebuilding in part insulated Rapid City from the drop in automotive tourism caused by the Oil Embargo in 1974, but tourism was depressed for most of a decade. In 1978, Rushmore Mall was built on the north edge of the city, adding to the city’s position as a retail shopping center.
In the 1980s, growth was fueled by an increase in tourism, increasingly tied to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, followed by another decline in the late 1990s. Fears for the closure of Ellsworth AFB as part of the massive base closure process in the 1990s and 2000s led to attempts to expand other sectors of the economy, but growth continued and the city expanded significantly during this period.
Today, Rapid City is South Dakota’s primary city for tourism and recreation. Urban flight from neighboring towns has greatly benefited the growth of Rapid City and the city continues to expand both commercially and residentially. With the approval of a Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory at the Homestake Mine site, Rapid City has a future of great advancements in technology, medicine, and scientific research.
In 2007, the Rapid City Public Library created a 1972 Flood digital archive that collects survivors’ stories, photos and news accounts of the flood. The Journey Museum has an interactive display on the 1972 flood which is an on going project to give future generations the best idea of how the people were affected and the changes made to it because of the lose of 237 lives. It will in the future include the biographies of all of those who died so they will be remembered as more than names on a memorial.