Rapid City - Civic Life & History
Unlike Black Hills communities that began as mining camps, Rapid City owes its beginning to a group of discouraged gold prospectors. John Brennan and Samuel Scott were part of the wave of white settlers who flocked to the region after the Custer Expedition discovered gold here in 1874. In February 1876 Brennan and Scott led a small party of men to the banks of Rapid Creek, where they laid out a square-mile business district for what is now Rapid City. Within six months, more than 100 people called Rapid City “home.”
City founders billed the community as the “Gateway to the Black Hills,” and it quickly lived up to the moniker. Originally known as “Hay Camp,” Rapid City soon became a staging ground for wagons hauling supplies to miners in the Black Hills. Later it would also serve as a hub for rail traffic.
The population grew and shrank with several booms and busts between 1880 and 1920. The South Dakota School of Mines provided a focus for higher education and after 1920, Rapid City population began to steadily rise. President Calvin Coolidge focused the nation’s attention on western South Dakota when he relocated his White House staff to the Black Hills in 1927. That same year Gutzon Borglum began carving Mount Rushmore, helping to spark a tourism industry that still powers the local economy.
During World War II, the War Department created the Rapid City Air Base (later renamed Ellsworth Air Force Base). After the war, the base and a growing economy fueled Rapid City’s development.
What may be the seminal event in Rapid City’s history began with a raindrop. On June 9, 1972, heavy rains caused massive flooding of Rapid Creek which would become the Rapid City Flood of 1972. The worst natural disaster in South Dakota history, the flood claimed 238 lives. As documented on the Rapid City Public Library's Flood website and by NOAA, the flood caused $160 million in property damage.
The city rebuilt, creating a 12-mile-long bike path and public greenway along the creek’s banks that serves as both a memorial to the lost and a means of ensuring such a tragedy never happens again.
Today Rapid City is not only a regional economic hub, but also a mecca for arts and culture. Much of the city’s pioneer era history is documented in the Minnilusa Historical Association’s displays at the Journey Museum. The Journey Museum is also home to the Sioux Indian Museum which preserves and interprets one of the finest collections of Sioux Indian craftwork and fine art in the country.
Paintings and artwork are on display in the Adelstein Gallery.Paintings by early Rapid City artist Grace French are also on display at the Journey, as well as at the Dahl Fine Arts Center downtown. The Dahl showcases work by contemporary artists in the region. Local musicians perform at the Dahl while the Black Hills Symphony performs at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center.
A vibrant local arts scene embraces talent ranging from the graffitti artists whose work adorns Art Alley to the professional musicians who perform with the Black Hills Symphony Orchestra at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center.
Local theater groups have been presenting plays here for over 60 years. As much as a century ago artists were performing at the Alfalfa Palace, a structure built in downtown Rapid City in the 1910s to promote the virtues of alfalfa. The Rapid City Auditorium at 7th and Quincy Street hosted concerts, car shows, boxing matches and other sporting events for more than 50 years before it was condemned in the early 1970s. Currently, film series and festivals show frequently at the historic Elks Theatre downtown.
Community theater has a long history in Rapid City. The tradition is carried on by Black Hills Community Theater. Other active arts organizations include the Rapid City Children’s Chorus, the Dakota Choral Union, and Black Hills Dance Theatre.
The Dahl Arts Center was later built on that site. The city-owned facility recently completed a $7.8 million renovation project and now includes numerous galleries, classrooms and an events center. The Dahl also includes the “Cyclorama,” a 10- by 180-foot painting that topped South Dakota Magazine’s list of the state’s “Top 10” pieces of art. And just as that piece tells the story of American history, Rapid City’s cultural offerings reflect the heritage of the people who live here. Rapid City also boasts a growing collection of public art, from the City of Presidents figures downtown to Art Alley, a spontaneously-formed and ever-changing outdoor canvas in the 600 block between Main and St. Joe streets.
Rapid City’s Scandinavian influence is reflected in the Stavkirke, a replica Norwegian church and museum, as well as during the annual Lille Norgefest. Local German and Celtic clubs also host annual cultural gatherings, as do students attending the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology.
The Western frontier influence takes center stage at local rodeos, the Central States Fair and Black Hills Stock Show.
And the area’s first inhabitants get their due at The Journey Museum of Geology and Paleontology and at the Museum of Geology at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, which features dinosaur fossils found throughout the region.
Summer Nights, a weekly summer festival featuring local bands, has exploded into a hugely popular event. Main Street Square opened in the fall of 2011 by hosting a “Bierborse” and music in its bandshell, and was soon drawing crowds to its outdoor ice rink.
A major renovation project is currently underway at Dakota Middle School in which the 75-year-old building’s auditorium will be tranformed into a public performing arts venue.
In addition to local talent, Rapid City imports entertainment. Since 1937 the Rapid City Concert Association has been presenting an annual series of national and international musical entertainment. Each year the Broadway Play Series brings top shows to the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, which has also hosted such big-name entertainers as Elvis Presley and the Eagles since it opened in 1977.
Many buildings in downtown Rapid City recall the community's frontier and western heritage. A number of buildings and monuments, including Dinosaur Park, reflect work done by employees of the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. For more information about these works, read this essay by Kathy Bunkowske.
Museums, Libraries & Archives
The Journey Museum is a natural history museum that takes visitors on a 'journey' through the history of the Black Hills. There are 5 different institutions that form the Journey Museum: The Museum of Geology at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology; the South Dakota Historical Society's Archeology Research Center; the US Department of Interior, Indian Arts and Craft Board's Sioux Indian Museum; the Minnilusa Historical Association and The City of Rapid City Duhamel Plains Indian Artifact Collection
The South Dakota Air & Space Museum, located just outside of Ellsworth Air Force Base in Box Elder, is an aviation museum that offers free year-round admission. The collection includes 25 military aircrafts from throughout history and a military missile display, including a Minuteman II Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. The museum is located 7 miles east of Rapid City on Interstate I-90.
SDSM&T Devereaux Library serves the South Dakota School of Mines campus community. The four-story building, located on the north side of campus, provides a variety of resources and services to students, faculty, staff, area residents and visitors.
Local Book Clubs
On this resource page Rapid City Area Book Clubs are listed with meeting, contact, and other information.
Historical Photos and Documents Online
The Black Hills Knowledge Network's online community archives include a wealth of photographs, newspaper clippings and documents related to the history of Rapid City. A database of Local Newspapers has been created which includes historical information and holdings.
The Rapid City History Portal is where you will find information on the events and happenings that made Rapid City the community that it is today.
Visit the Rapid City Public Library's website for information about the Rapid City Flood of 1972 - listen to interviews of survivors, see maps of where the flood occurred, hear transcripts of news broadcasts and more.
Chronicling America, a project sponsored by the Library of Congress, provides full text access to digitized historic newpapers from around the United States. Search historic newspapers from 1836-1922 or use the directory to find information about American newspapers published since 1690. Locate thousands of stories with references to Rapid City.
Historic photographs and newsletters from Black Hills Power & Light are available on the Black Hills Knowledge Network along with historic public policy reports, photographs and documents related to the creation of Mount Rushmore that were provided by the Chiesman Foundation.
South Dakota School of Mines and Technology Collections This collection contains documents, photographs and realia pertaining to collections on local history, mining and mineral resources and local history.
Digital Library of South Dakota A collaboration of the libraries of six Board of Regents colleges and universities in the state of South Dakota. Access images from the participating colleges' collections here.
Lakota and northern European religious traditions influence the life and culture of the community. Some of the oldest church congregations trace their roots to the late nineteenth century. Local Catholic and Protestant churches cater to American Indian communities. Meanwhile, newer churches influenced by the rise of evangelical movements in the United States also play an important part in the life of the city.
For a directory of religious institutions in the Rapid City Area, click here.