Wednesday, February 2, 2011

On the trail....again!

It was 18 days on the trail – capturing a bit of yesteryear, when the “Lifeline for the Black Hills” was the 220-mile trail through Indian country from Fort Pierre to Deadwood.

Fort Pierre-Deadwood wagon train in late 1890's.
Courtesy of SD State Museum
Jerry Miles of Spearfish was among the 400 or so folks who re-created that journey in the summer of 2008, commemorating the closure of the historic trail some 100 years ago. It was in 1908 that rail service finally dealt a death knell to the trail that had served as a major transportation route for the northern hills for more than three decades after the discovery of gold in the Black Hills.

Miles shared some of his experiences on the trail last night (2/1/11) at the February gathering of the Spearfish Area Historical Society. The group meets on the first Tuesday of every month from September through May at the Spearfish Senior Citizen’s Center. Bitter cold temperatures didn’t keep some 40 members from showing up for the program, which included a high quality video that was recorded by Bernie Duffy of Sioux Falls during the commemorative trail ride.

The 2008 event was sponsored by the Verendrye Museum of Fort Pierre, and the trek started July 29th at the Stanley County Fairgrounds and ended in historic Deadwood 17 days later. Rancher Gerald Kessler of Fort Pierre, who’d been on more than 70 previous wagon trains, was the Wagon Master for this one. Organizers started planning the route about two years before the event, making arrangements for rights-of-way, and other logistical considerations ranging from porta-potties to drinking water and medical assistance.

The 50 wagons used along the trail also included a couple of old stage coaches, and there were about 300 horse riders.  In all, some 400 people from 27 states came to South Dakota to participate in the historic ride.

Commemorative Fort Pierre-Deadwood Trail Ride
August 2008
“We made the journey in three 5-day sessions,” said Miles, who was born and raised in central Perkins County and has been around ranches and horses for much of his life. After each 5-day segment, they’d take a one-day break, and some folks would wander to nearby communities to do laundry and take showers or baths.

“On average, we made somewhere between 18 and 22 miles every day,” said Miles, “and we stayed as close to the original trail as possible.”

He told the story of an elderly woman – in her 90’s – who carried an oxygen bottle for the duration of the trail ride. The youngest person, according to Miles, was a little 8-year-old girl who celebrated her 9th birthday on the trail. And then there was the man who walked the route – all 220 miles – never leaning on a wagon or accepting a lift. His only assistance was a cane!

Participants paid $150 each, which helped pay for the porta-potties, insurance and other services along the way. While riders were responsible for their own food, a tanker truck brought nearly 5,000 gallons of fresh water to the group every day. Miles said he brought along 15 bales of hay to help feed his own horses, which developed a pretty healthy appetite along the way. And Governor Mike Rounds authorized the use of state prisoners to collect garbage from each of the encampments.

Jerry Miles (left) shares trail information with
members Rand Williams and Martin Jones.
Miles conceded that there were a few problems along the route, but it was a journey of a lifetime.

“The most serious problems were with horses without shoes – or horses not in condition,” he said. One runaway horse suffered a leg injury and had to be put down. Miles said he prepared his own horses by working them up to seven or eight miles each day several times each week during the weeks leading up to the drive.

“There was entertainment just about every night for a couple of hours -- historians, cowboy poets, and the like.” Lots of visitors joined the group in the evenings.  According to Miles, “one night, we had 1,200 to 1,300 people for supper.”  A huge throng of folks showed up as the wagon train stopped at Fort Meade.

The prettiest part of the journey, according to Miles, was the segment from Sturgis through Boulder Canyon into Deadwood.

A frequent participant in trail rides, Miles says he’s already gearing up to participate in a ride from Philip to Fort Pierre next July.