Tuesday, May 7, 2013

A Black Hills gem: The Mickelson Trail

Dick Lee (left) and Guy Edwards (center) were key
advocates in making the Mickelson Trail become a
reality.  SAHS president Rand Williams is at right. 
by Larry Miller

It was great bike riding weather across the northern Black Hills today (5/7/13), appropriate and accommodating conditions for the final program of the season for the Spearfish Area Historical Society.  The topic was The Mickelson Trail -- From the Beginning.  Paul Higbee moderated the program featuring Guy Edwards and Dick Lee, two men intimately involved in the creation of the "Rails to Trails" project that stretches 110 miles from Edgemont to Deadwood.

Created on the track bed once used by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, the Mickelson Trail -- named for late South Dakota Governor George Mickelson -- has become one of the top-rated trails in the country.  Its scenic beauty has become a significant attraction within the Black Hills, drawing bikers and hikers from all over the country.

But the project didn't just happen.  And the story about its origin is a fascinating lesson in vision, determination, and grass roots politics -- not to mention something that is all too rare these days:  a corporation willing to step up and help make good things happen!

CB&Q had constructed the line over just a nine-month period, completing work and arriving in Deadwood in 1890.  It was a race from Nebraska to the gold mining region of the northern hills -- a race between the CB&Q and the Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley line, which was building its route along the eastern slopes of the hills through Buffalo Gap, Hermosa, Whitewood, and then in to Deadwood.  The Elkhorn won the race.  But if the old CB&Q line no longer operates -- it has a very powerful legacy that remains -- the Mickelson Trail.

Dick Lee, a retired helicopter pilot and long-time Spearfish resident provided an overview of the political hurdles that had to be overcome when the Burlington finally shut down the so-called "High Line" from Edgemont to Deadwood in 1983.  The Spearfish spur of the line was closed down nearly a half-century early when flooding in Spearfish Canyon wiped out the rail track.  It was never rebuilt.

"When we first pursued the idea, nobody thought it would work, including Governor Janklow, but we managed to get around him," Lee told the group.  "We got George Mickelson on our side, and he made all the difference.  He said, 'we're going to make this thing work.'"

Lee recounted riding his bike on the old track bed back in 1986 -- as was Guy Edwards' wife, Cynthia.

"We noticed they were tearing down these old trestles on the abandoned line, and we were both kind of angry about that."  They expressed the view that these bits of history should belong to the people.  Cynthia Edwards notified her husband, Guy, who worked with Lee and a handful of others to pursue a vision of creating a "rails to trails" trail along the route.

Edwards provided great detail about the politics of creating the trail.

The first task was convincing the salvage contractor to quit cutting down trestles.

"He'd probably cut down 30 of them, and there were 52 on the line," said Edwards, but it cost  $14,000 to get him to stop.  Despite that early victory, the future looked bleak.

"Governor Janklow was opposed to the project.  As a matter of fact, three years earlier he had killed the project."

There was little support for the trail.  Property owners along the route expected the right-of-way to revert to them.  Even local business owners in Hill City, Custer, and elsewhere were not sympathetic, fearful that they'd end up in a fight with ranchers and other landowners along the trail.

Opening of the first leg of the  trail;
Left-to-right are Guy Edwards, Governor
George Mickelson, and Dick Lee.
From his earlier years in the South Dakota legislature, Edwards knew George Mickelson -- and Mickelson had decided to run for governor.  Edwards approached him and won his support for the project.  After Mickelson's election, the project had a staunch advocate in the Governor's Mansion.

Senator Jim Abdnor was enlisted to help smooth over some severe opposition from the local U.S. Forest Service supervisor, and momentum began to build in support of the project.  When landowners invoked a lawsuit to stop the project, the dispute over rail abandonment ended up in the courts.  It finally ended in the favor of trail supporters.

Marshaling local media and a growing number of community advocates, trail proponents received enormous support from the Burlington Northern railroad.

"The Burlington Northern not only gave us land north, they also donated $50,000," Edwards recalled.  "They were amazing partners."

Karen Miller of Spearfish rests near Tunnel B during
her 110-mile trek of the Mickelson Trail in 2006.
The trail was called the Burlington Northern Rail Trail.  However, after the death of Governor Mickelson in a 1993 plane crash, the Burlington agreed to cede their name to honor the late Governor.  It is now the Mickelson Trail.  The entire trail was completed in 1998.  Partners include the U.S. Forest Service, SD  Dept. of Transportation, Department of Corrections, the National Guard, Department of Game, Fish and Parks, the Friends of the Mickelson Trail, and countless other volunteers.

Edwards and  Lee both expressed advocacy for yet another enhancement for the Mickelson Trail:  paving the trail down hill from the 6,000 foot high "Mountain" trailhead near Crazy Horse to trailheads at Custer and Hill City.  They encouraged members of the society to write letters to the Governor and legislators to support such a plan.

There is already a paved spur of the trail from Custer to Stockade Lake, and there's a move afoot to build another spur from Hill City to Mount Rushmore.

If you'd like to see a gallery of scenes from our 2006 bike ride on the Mickelson Trail, visit this Black Hills Journal Biking Gallery.

This was the Annual Meeting for the historical society.  Rand Williams and Linda Wiley, who serve respectively as president and secretary, agreed to continue serving on the board and were elected by the membership.  Program chairman Laurie Hayes reminded members that programs are the lifeblood of the organization, and she encouraged the submission of ideas for programs next year.

See you in September!