The city of Lead (pronounced Leed), like many Black Hills communities, traces its founding back to the discovery of gold. In February 1876, Thomas Carey discovered placer gold in Gold Run Gulch. As was always the case with the discovery of gold, as soon as the word got out, other prospectors rushed to the gulch.
By July 1876, the residents laid out the town between the north and south forks of Gold Run Creek. The town was named after the large number of ore outcroppings (called “leads”) in the area. The gold rush lasted about two years in the Deadwood/Lead area. The discovery of gold at the Homestake Mine, however, would have an impact on the community for several decades.
The Homestake Mine was originally claimed by brothers Moses and Fred Manuel and a partner, Hank Harney, in April 1876. In June 1877, George Hearst purchased the claim from the brothers for $70,000. The mine went on to produce approximately 40 million ounces of gold; before it closed, it was the oldest, largest, and deepest mine in the Western Hemisphere, reaching more than 8,000 feet below the town of Lead.
By the time Hearst invested in Homestake, mining was second nature to him. A graduate of the Franklin County School of Mining in Missouri, he already had interests in mines in Missouri, California, Montana, Nevada, and Utah. Hearst headed the company Hearst, Haggin, Tevis and Co., which became the largest private mining company in the United States. Hearst and his wife Phoebe were the parents of William Randolph Hearst, who elected not to operate his father’s mining interests and instead took over the San Francisco Examiner, which was to become the foundation of the Hearst publishing empire.
George Hearst died in 1891 and left Phoebe Hearst as his sole heir. Phoebe took over his business investments, including the controlling interest in the Homestake Mine. Though she didn’t spend all that much time in Lead after George’s death, she became one of its biggest benefactors. In 1894, Phoebe Hearst gave the city a library, with over 8,000 books and public documents, which she maintained at her personal expense until she died (and which she endowed through 1925 in her will).
In 1900, she endowed and then continued to support the Hearst Kindergarten. In 1914, the Homestake Opera House and Recreation Building were gifts to the town from the Homestake Mine. It housed an opera house, bowling alley, swimming pool, library, social rooms, billiards and pool tables; with the exception of the opera house, all were free to the public. The Homestake Mine also provided free medical care to employees and their families at the Homestake Hospital. Phoebe Hearst died in 1919.
By 1910, Lead had become one of the largest cities in South Dakota, weighing in with a population of over 8,000 people, most of whom were affiliated with the Homestake Mine. Even through the Great Depression of the 1930s, miners did well at Homestake. Eventually, however, the rich deposits of ore were mined out and what was left was not economical to extract and so, in 2002, the mine closed.
Today, the Homestake Mine, the deepest, oldest mine in the West, is in the process of being transformed into the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (DUSEL). The same year that the mine officially closed, Dr. Ray Davis was awarded the Nobel Prize for a neutrino detector that he had installed 4,850 feet below the surface at Homestake Mine. An experiment that spanned decades of collaboration between the mine and Davis made the mine famous in the world of science.
When the mine was closed, a proposal to convert the mine into an underground laboratory spread quickly. By July 2007, Homestake was chosen for the new location of the underground laboratory, where experiments will take place deep below the earth’s surface—where cosmic rays can’t affect their outcome. The laboratory plans to conduct experiments in the areas of particle physics, astrophysics, biology, geosciences, and engineering.
The town of Lead has an alpine feel to it, with houses carved into the hills and the streets built on precariously steep inclines. It’s hard to imagine driving these streets in winter without visualizing cars sliding out of control down perilous slopes and through intersections. There is little room for expansion here, but lots of room for improvement—and the town may develop into a quaint and historic host for visitors, though it will be years before the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory will contribute to the economic recovery of Lead (construction of the lab isn’t projected to begin until 2012 at the earliest).
The population of the community is around 3,000 people. It is an optimistic population. Residents are hoping that the Science Lab and the tourism generated by its sister city, the gambling community of Deadwood, and by the great outdoor recreation in the region will restore the community to financial health.
© Laural A. Bidwell from Moon Mount Rushmore & the Black Hills, 1st Edition