George S. Mickelson Trail History

South Dakota

At a Glance

Name: George S. Mickelson Trail
Length: 112 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Wheelchair Accessible, Horseback Riding, Mountain Biking, Snowmobiling, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Custer, Fall River, Lawrence, Pennington
Surfaces: Crushed Stone
State: South Dakota

A Brief History

The George S. Mickelson Trail provides visitors with breathtaking views of South Dakota’s beautiful Black Hills. The corridor is more than 100 miles long and travels over the entire Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (the CB&Q, or simply, “the Burlington”) branch line that ran from Edgemont, South Dakota, to Deadwood. The route was known as the “High Line” for its glimpses of granite mountains (where the right-of-way is sometimes cut directly into the hillside). It travels along creeks, across open valleys, and through forests and passes over more than 100 bridges. You’ll also encounter four tunnels. Add to this scenery the rich history of the region, steeped in legend of men flocking to the area in search of gold. As a result, several small towns popped up, such as Deadwood, Lead, Hill City, and others. Eventually, the towns brought in the railroads. The Burlington line opened in the early 1890s and competed with several other railroads. By the 1970s, the railroads began to pull out of the region when traffic dried up. The CB&Q followed suit, cutting ties and abandoning its line in 1983, which brought about the development of the trail.

The history of railroads in South Dakota’s Black Hills can be traced back to 1874, when the infamous Lt. Colonel George A. Custer discovered gold as part of an exploration team. This discovery caused an explosion of growth, and many folks hoped to strike it rich. Within a few years, many other towns were founded and quickly grew. What led to the development of railroads, however, was not to transport the gold itself, but to move people and supplies. The fast growth was more than the railroads could keep up with, local leaders became frustrated. So, they took it upon themselves to establish rail service. Supplies were sent west by stage coach, and in 1881, the Homestake Mining Company opened its 3-foot, narrow-gauge Black Hills Railroad to serve its operations near Lead (renamed as the Black Hills & Fort Pierre Railway in 1882).

Before the decade was over, Deadwood also had established rail service when the Deadwood Central Railroad, another narrow-gauge line, opened in 1889 between its namesake town and Lead. The first standard railroad finally reached the area in December 1890, when the Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley Railroad (FE&MV) opened its line from the east into Deadwood. A month later, it was followed by the competing Grand Island & Wyoming Central Railroad (GI&WC), a subsidiary of the Burlington system, which completed its 109-mile route from the south connecting Edgemont and Deadwood. It also opened a branch to Hot Springs. It is the GI&WC line that now makes up the entire George S. Mickelson Trail.

The FE&MV would become part of the growing Chicago & North Western in 1903, while the GI&WC formally disappeared into the CB&Q a year later in 1904, along with the Deadwood Central. While the High Line moniker was often used to describe the corridor, it was also known as the Black Hills Branch. Despite its main line status, the railroad was quite rugged. Aside from the four tunnels, all cut from solid granite—and more than 100 trestles dotting the route—it featured grades topping 3% in several locations. These steep grades sometimes required the Burlington to “double-head” freights during the steam era, which meant they used two locomotives at the train’s head. They also sometimes used helpers at the rear.

Through the late 1920s, traffic remained steady and consisted of such varied items as passengers, mail, coal, sand, aggregates, livestock, and various general merchandise. Things began to ebb following the Great Depression, and in 1930, the former narrow-gauge Deadwood Central was abandoned. In 1902, it had been converted into an electrified interurban/trolley system. In 1932, the Burlington eliminated all passenger service over its Keystone Branch and replaced it with buses. This left the High Line at Minnekahta and at one time provided the railroad with substantial passenger traffic destined for the resort’s popular spas, hotels, and other fine accommodations. Finally, during September 1949, the CB&Q eliminated passenger trains entirely over the Black Hills Branch.

While never recovering to pre-Great Depression levels, freight service continued for nearly four more decades, moving coal, sand, limestone, and other aggregates. In 1978, then-Burlington Northern (BN) abandoned the entire Keystone Branch with little remaining traffic left traveling the line. In 1983, the High Line was hit hard when declining freight tonnage saw the 60 miles between Custer and Lead/Deadwood abandoned. This was followed by a shutdown of the rest of the line between Edgemont and Custer in 1986. After the entire railroad was removed, efforts quickly took hold to convert the right-of-way into a trail, taking advantage of the region’s natural beauty. The idea was pushed by South Dakota Governor George S. Mickelson in 1991. That year, 6 miles of the line was converted, the state’s first-ever rail-trail. Other groups continued the push to see the entire corridor opened, which became reality in 1998.

If you may want to check out nearby railroad attractions, visit the popular Black Hills Central Railroad, situated almost right next to the George S. Mickelson Trail in Hill City. A few hours away, Wyoming is home to the Railroad Interpretive Museum in Douglas.

Photo credit Marty Bernard Photographs

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