Our Tuesday ride took us on another loop – through Spearfish Canyon and the towns of Lead and Deadwood. Spearfish Canyon, a deep gorge descending from the northernmost part of the craggy Black Hills, is designated as a National Scenic Byway. Located on Highway 14A, the road twists delightfully through a 19 mile gorge and is a favorite of motorcyclists. The road travels through a fairly narrow canyon carved by Spearfish Creek; Bridal Veil Falls is quite pretty and as the road twisted and turned, we enjoyed great views of the cliffs and thick forests. Much of the ride through the canyon is also through the Black Hills National Forest…very pretty with Ponderosa pines, spruce, aspen, birch, and box elder and lots of high limestone cliffs interspersed in the canyon. The road follows Spearfish Creek much of the ride; this forty mile long mountain stream drops over 3000 feet in its short course. Midway along the byway, we noticed the old Homestake Mine hydroelectric plant, and found out later it had been used by the gold mining company to create electricity for its operations from 1917 - 2002.
Lead, South Dakota was one of the towns established in response to the Black Hills Gold Rush. It is a mining town with lots of history, named for an outcropping of a vein of ore, referred to as a lead and pronounced "leed." The actual Deadwood/Lead gold rush began in 1875 and ended in 1877. Yet gold played a huge role in the area’s history, economy and development for many years to come. Toward the end of the big Black Hills gold rush, mining magnate George Hearst arranged to purchase one of the most promising claims in the Lead/Deadwood area for $70,000 and incorporated it as the Homestake Mining Company. In January of 2002, the Homestake Gold Mine finally shut down after more than 125 years of continuous operation. At the time, gold was selling for under $300 an ounce, and the company did not believe it was worth continuing the mining process in Lead. Before its closing, Homestake Gold Mine was the oldest, largest and deepest mine in the Western Hemisphere, reaching more than 8000 feet below the town of Lead with tunnels stretching up to Spearfish. Now the mines are being used by a scientific group, and tours are offered so visitors can see what mining was like in Lead. The fact that the mining shafts are so deep is the main reason that the National Science Foundation chose Homestake as the location for the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory. During our tour, we viewed the huge Open Cut area in town (1200 feet deep and about a half mile wide), rode through the historic town of Lead, saw the cages and giant cables used in the shafts, and followed the mining process including hoisting, crushing and milling of the underground ore. I wonder if the company would have kept the mine open if they’d known that in eight years, gold would be selling for about $1200 an ounce.
Deadwood is a great place to take a step back in time. The town was founded in a narrow gulch when the gold rush occurred in the Black Hills and quickly became an established service town for the area. In 1876, there were over 170 businesses in Deadwood, including 2 dance halls, 14 gaming houses, 21 grocers, 3 butchers, 2 breweries, 8 laundries, a bank and an assayer’s office, and 27 saloons! This town has done a fabulous job of restoring the historic Main Street area. In fact, the entire town is a National Historic Landmark! The town today has built upon its colorful history, the characters who lived there such as Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, and Poker Alice, and the prospect of riches, and has many casinos, both in the historic part of The Gulch and outside of downtown area. A devastating fire in 1879 started in a bakery and quickly spread when the fire reached gunpowder in a nearby hardware store; the fire burned down over 300 buildings and left 2000 residents homeless. After the fire, the townspeople rebuilt their town using brick and stone; most of those buildings are still standing in Deadwood today. There are old saloons, a total of 86 gaming houses, and many other late 19th century buildings. Outside the center of town we saw more modern motels and casinos, but in the main part of town it was as if we’d left the 21st century and ended up back in the 1880s. We enjoyed walking in and out of many of the old stores and of course, Fred found a saloon with excellent happy hour prices where we could sit and relax until the afternoon gunfight began. I thought the gunfight here was more realistic than the one we watched in Cheyenne. The gunfight in Deadwood was based on a real historical event in Deadwood Gulch, and the actors did a better job too. The historic cemetery on Mt. Moriah sits high above The Gulch and is home forever to Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane and many other flamboyant people from the gold rush days.
After the gunfight, Fred and I mounted out “steel horse” and headed back through the northern Black Hills to our comfortable RV park and campground where we have a lovely long, level, shady spot. The weather has been great and we sit outside in our camp chairs and relax before supper each night.
Wednesday we rode the same loop as Tuesday, but did it the other direction, riding into Deadwood Gulch first, then through Lead, followed finally by another wonderful ride through Spearfish Canyon. Again, in the canyon the only photos I took were those I could take from the back of the motorcycle. Sometimes I wish I had a video camcorder attached to my helmet; that way I could take video as we rounded the corners! When we got home, I googled video of spearfish Canyon and found this video done by a motorcyclist: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9UmHYAbsTg I am pretty sure the person who made the video has it running faster than he rode the scenic roadway – at least, I know we didn’t ride that fast because we wanted to see the scenery!