Posts Tagged ‘Black Hills Ghost Towns’

Heading for the Black Hills of South Dakota in early June, 2013, just before dusk, in a cold rain storm that intermittently switched to snow,  I dozed behind the wheel and tried to stay awake. I was an hour or two out from Hot Springs, South Dakota, my destination for the night, and in this part of the world, lodging options are few and far between.

I drowsily pushed onward, rumbling down Highway 85.  The bluffs surrounding the road stood out above the dense fog that hugged the old highway. In one spot, as I looked out the passenger’s window of my car, I saw a sight that I will never forget- A herd of buffalo, on the stampede across the prairie, surrounded by fog. Old buffalo, buffalo calves…tromping at full speed through fog and rain.  It was truly one of the most amazing things I’ve ever witnessed, and with exception of the headlights of my car, this scene and moment could’ve (and  had) taken place in this part of the world for thousands of years. I won’t lie, it brought tears to my eyes…I guess because I’m a sappy, sentimental sort and I’ve always felt I was born 200 years too late.

Shortly after my chance encounter in the fog with the charging buffalo, I saw a sign that said “Historic Jay Em, Wyoming” with an arrow pointing left of the main road.  I had to make it to Hot Springs that night, so I decided to stop on my way back home a few days later.

I’d never heard of “Jay Em” before, but apparently it was named after a rich local rancher who funded its building around the turn of the last century- his initials were J.M.  It was laid out as a stopping and supply point for travelers and ranchers heading to or from the Black Hills region in the early 1900’s. It never materialized due to it’s proximity to Lusk, Wyoming, and rapidly faded. By 1920 the grand plans for “Jay Em” had been forgotten, and the town faded.

Today, Jay Em, Wyoming still has a few residents, and a Post Office that serves the local ranchers. No other businesses (as far as I could tell) call Jay Em home.  The old business district of Jay Em is well worth the stop. The buildings have been maintained by the few remaining locals, and you’ll more than likely be the only one there to enjoy the sights and take photos. An old lumber mill, a machine shop, a mercantile, an old garage and water tower, all painted white are an interesting step back in time.  Jay Em never had a paved street, and around the “business district” several old homes dating to Jay Em’s prime still stand.  Several newer houses dot the surrounding area, and like most ghost towns or almost ghosts of the west, a watchful local will always peer out a window or come out and stand by their fence and stare until you leave.

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I drove around Edgemont, South Dakota, looking for the dirt road that headed straight north out of town…I’m probably the only person who has ever gotten lost in Edgemont, but I somehow did.  I drove around and around in circles, down Main Street, then back on to Highway 18, over the railroad tracks, where I could see the damn dirt road I was trying to get on, then back on to Main Street from Highway 18…

Finally, I saw a hard left turn, the turn I had been looking for for the last 20 minutes, and thankfully it was just a road and not one of the millions of rattlesnakes that call the hills around Edgemont home- had it been a rattlesnake it would have bitten me in the ass- it was so painfully obvious after I finally found it.

On past the Highway Department storage building, under the Highway 18 bridge, and I was finally on my way down the desolate dirt road that leaves Edgemont and takes the random visitor or local rancher to Dewey and Burdock.

Rumbling over the gentle hills and around the sweeping bends in my Dodge, I was soon on my way to nowhere- my favorite place.

Antelope, prairie dogs, horned toads, and rattlesnakes are about all that call this arid edge of the Black Hills home today.  A few times in the past people tried to make a go of things out here, and Dewey and Burdock are the reminders of those people and their efforts.

Burdock was the first stop on my trip, from the extreme little that I could find regarding Burdock, it laid about halfway in between Edgemont and Dewey, just slightly off the main dirt road. None of the locals I had met and talked to in Hot Springs, Edgemont, or the handful of other Black Hills towns I had already visited knew much (if anything at all) about Burdock.  A few had heard the name, but had never known of a town existing in the rough geographic area I was heading for, another guy said Burdock existed long ago, but nobody could remember where or when.

I continued my wandering route north, armed with a cell-phone that had no service, and a 40-year old map my Dad had given me prior to my leaving Colorado.  Burdock was a dot on this map, and apparently I was heading in the right direction.

I was daydreaming and staring off to the west as I came around a lazy bend in the old dirt road, and just about missed my destination. A quick glance back to the right caught a few crumbled sandstone foundations, some rusted metal, and a crude sign made of an old drive chain that read “Burdock”.  I pulled off to the side of the main road in a small clearing, and took a walk through downtown Burdock.

Two or three sandstone and concrete foundations, a rusted stove and it’s pieces, some bailing wire, and a handful of porcelain shards and broken green and amber glass bottles are all that remain of this forgotten place.  It was hard to get an idea of how big or small Burdock may have been, or when it may have existed.  It was probably much like the other towns in the area- small camps that popped up as the railroad was being built in the 1880’s, a few permanent structures were built, and rapidly disappeared as the line was completed. I found some old pieces of a cast iron stove buried in sage brush growing out of one of the foundations, picked them up, took a few pics, and put them back where they had been undisturbed for many, many years.

My grand tour of Burdock finished, I hopped back in the Dodge and continued north in search of Dewey.

Dewey is a bit more of a booming metropolis than Burdock. Dewey still boasts a population of  seven, and the State of South Dakota has been sure to mark this with a white sign with black lettering as you approach the bustling business district, so the traveler doesn’t confuse Dewey with the numerous other…well nevermind Dewey is the only town within a 50 mile radius.

Anyhow, as I pulled in to Dewey that same odd twist of luck that caught me in Modena, Utah struck again- I arrived in town at precisely the same time as the train.  I once again pulled over, shut off my engine and waited as the train passed, the crew staring out the windows of the engine quizzically at me, wondering what the hell anyone who didn’t belong out here was doing out here???

And there were a handful, well seven to be exact if the sign is current, of people who belonged to Dewey.  From what I could tell there was one rather large, comfortable looking ranch just west of the main part of town, and I assumed this is where the entirety of the Dewey population called “home”.

There was a school, the standard 1880’s-1910’s style one-room country schoolhouse type that seems to spring up in the most inhospitable, uninhabitable, unlikely places all over the high plains and mountains of the west. It was, however, long closed.  A well kept church with a lone electrical wire running to it, and a pair of outhouses stood behind the school.  Three donkeys and a horse scratched at the ground behind the church, and for a minute one donkey entered an outhouse, but came out before I could get a photo.

A handful of small cabins, and what looked like an old storefront or two were spaced out across the area, and few larger ranch buildings in disrepair made up the rest of Dewey.

The northbound dirt road ended at Dewey, taking the road west you eventually reached Highway 85 and Newcastle, Wyoming.  Heading east (as I did) took you along a nice dirt road into the Black Hills that meandered it’s way through hills and pastureland largely inhabited by cows and deer until you once again found the blacktop heading to Custer or Hot Springs.

A day or two later after my visit to Dewey and Burdock, as I sat on the porch by the fire pit at my uncle’s ranch, my 92 year-old Grandmother told me about a little town just north of Edgemont on the way to Dewey. She told me about the schoolhouse, the people, and the 3 or 4 businesses that were there, and she wondered if there was anything left.  She said it was a place called “Burdock”…

Burdock, SD

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My family roots are tied to the Black Hills region of South Dakota and Wyoming.  I still have quite a bit of family in the area, and a couple weeks ago I decided to take my first trip as an adult (and I use the term “adult” loosely) and see what there was to see.  I’ve been there several times, but mostly as a bored kid, strapped in the backseat of whatever Chevy sedan or wagon the parents owned at the time. Back then, the trips to South Dakota to visit the family seemed like long, endless, journeys to a far away land filled with dust and hot wind.  I didn’t have much interest in those childhood trips. This time around, I left Colorado with an open mind and a tank full of gas, and set off for the dusty roads of the Black Hills to see what there was to see…

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Ardmore was one of the stops I made.  Just north of the Nebraska state line in Fall River county, Ardmore was the quintessential “town where time stood still.”  Most of the “ghost towns”  today have at least some small resident population- Hermits and recluses hiding from the rest of the world, or the elderly still clinging on to what once was.  Ardmore had neither.  This was perhaps the most ghostly of ghost towns I’ve visited recently.

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Ardmore was clearly a decent sized town at one time, and had a small main street and several side streets that housed businesses and residences. The railroad still passes through, but it doesn’t look like they stop.  As far as I could tell, no one lives in Ardmore. From the appearance of the town and the cars in the yards, it looks like time simply stopped in Ardmore in the early-1970s.

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The hot South Dakota wind I remembered from my childhood visits whipped through the tall oak trees that lined the streets. Antelope stared at me curiously from the surrounding fields. A few black birds crowed at me from high above as they roosted on dilapidated buildings or towering oaks. I stopped in the middle of “Main Street” which, evidently at some point in time, was two-lane  blacktop, but today was a series of asphalt chunks with tall, bright green prairie grasses growing through the cracks.

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Ardmore, distant, vacant, and remote is a ghost town worth the trip for anyone visiting this sleepy corner of South Dakota. You can stand in the streets of this abandoned town and imagine how it must have been in the 1940s and 1950s. Just be careful, the rattlesnakes in this part of the country are plentiful and big, and Ardmore is one gigantic hiding place for these venomous critters! Watch your step and don’t go reaching for anything!

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