In 1874, a military expedition led by George Armstrong Custer set out with the mission of finding a new location for a fort to keep an eye on Native Americans who had not signed treaties with the United States—at least this was the stated mission.
Traveling with a scientific contingent that included geologists and miners, the expedition discovered gold in French Creek near Custer. Since the expedition also included newspaper reporters, word spread quickly and the gold rush was on. From the discovery of gold in Custer, the rush moved north to the valleys near Deadwood as even richer deposits of ore were found there. No gold was discovered in the Fall River Valley, however, so the rush bypassed Hot Springs.
In 1875, the Bureau of Indian Affairs sent out a second geological expedition and this time reports of warm springs in the Fall River Valley began to surface. The healing powers of warm mineral springs had long been in the prescription bags of medical doctors at the time, but the area where the springs were discovered was virtually uninhabited, unreachable, and still a part of the lands belonging to Native Americans, as defined by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868.
Indirectly, though, the gold rush was a part of the development of the Southern Hills. The rush of miners to the Black Hills (which the military initially tried to prevent, and then allowed) brought the railroads and support industries, including ranching; eventually this created an environment in which development of a spa resort became possible.
In 1879, one of the members of the expedition that found the warm waters of Hot Springs decided to return, and this time he brought a young reporter from Deadwood with him. The reporter wrote an article about the warm springs and published it in the Deadwood newspaper. The article attracted the notice of a local physician named Jennings, but it would be another year before Jennings would venture south to investigate.
The springs were discovered, claimed, and sold for nominal sums two or three times before Dr. Jennings finally revisited the area in 1881. He formed a stock company with Fred Evans, E. Dudley, and L. Graves, then bought the springs and set out to make improvements. During the next few years, word got out about the warm waters of the region and a slow but steady stream of visitors began to visit the area with the goal of improving their health.
By this time, those who were going to be lucky enough to strike it rich in the Northern Hills had already done so and many of those businessmen were looking for new opportunities. The idea of a pleasure resort resonated with many of them and a lot of the historical founders of Hot Springs arrived here after spending some years in Deadwood first.
Most of the buildings that exist in the Historic District today were built in a period of rapid growth between 1890 and 1910. Many of the first buildings were hotels, built to house those seeking the cure from the warm mineral waters of the community. The elegant Evans Hotel was completed by 1886. In 1888, Hot Springs became the county seat of Fall River (and remains so to this day).
Hot Springs was selected as the site for the Soldiers’ Home and the Battle Mountain Sanitarium due to the common belief in the healthy environment of the community’s air and water. By 1890, the railroad came to town, a defining moment and a requirement for growth for any prairie town. By 1891, the Evans Plunge was built. It remains a cornerstone of tourism in Hot Springs to this day.
Today, Hot Springs, perched on the southern edge of the Black Hills, is one of the prettiest towns in the region. With steep red canyon walls, a warm water river meandering through town, pine-covered hills, and an aura of history wrapped around its sandstone buildings, it will never be one of those dusty prairie towns that flourish for a bit and then fade away, abandoned by its residents for greener pastures.
However, like many Western plains towns, Hot Springs has had its share of economic ups and downs. Once a flourishing spa community, over time it has seen a slow but steady decline in its downtown retail sector as the popularity of the use of mineral springs for medical treatment waned, the railroad washed out one too many times and was never rebuilt, and the ordnance facility in nearby Edgemont was closed. In the middle of these local changes, the stock market crashed and the country faced the greatest depression it had ever seen. The Dust Bowl, while less damaging in South Dakota than it was in Texas and Oklahoma, also took its toll.
The town has always appealed to independent entrepreneurs, though, and many of the beautiful sandstone buildings that line the main street have undergone major restoration. Today, hope springs eternal that some combination of art galleries, bookstores, restaurants, and spas will re-create the economic success of earlier times. It seems the community may be on track, as it was selected by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as a 2009 Distinctive Destination.
Hot Springs is a bit dusty and its edges are still a little rough, but there is something special here. For those seeking a sense of another era and a quiet respite from the hectic pace and crowds of the communities geographically closer to Mount Rushmore, Hot Springs is a great place to visit.
© Laural A. Bidwell from Moon Mount Rushmore & the Black Hills, 1st Edition