Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Wild Wyoming!

About 20 people joined us last weekend (9/20/09) for the Fall Tour of the Lawrence County Historical Society – providing a close-up view of coal mining and other early history of our neighbors in Crook County Wyoming.

Bus driver Billy Vaughn of Dakota Bus Service helped members load up for the day-long trek from the parking lot at Black Hills State University in Spearfish to multiple sites in and around Aladdin and Sundance, Wyoming.

We heard comments like “wonderful,” “terrific,” and “let’s do it again!”

Between LCHS President Jerry Bryant and members Jim Weaver and Vernon Davis, there was lots of information relayed en route to our various destinations.

Vernon talked about a few landmarks near Belle Fourche, including old Minnesela, the route used by the Lakota Sioux when they returned from the 1876 battle at the Little Big Horn, the brick factory, the old railroad track bed, and the site of the old Black Hills Power & Light plant. He also shared stories about his great uncle, “Buckskin” Johnny Spalding, one of the many colorful characters whose lives helped create the fabric of western lore.

Jim Weaver pointed out some of the trail used by Custer’s troops during the 1874 expedition into the Black Hills. It followed Wyoming Highway 111 for several miles, including land now ranched by one of Jim’s cousins.

Many folks who’ve raced westward across Wyoming Highway 24 on their way to Hulett and Devil’s Tower have stopped to visit the Aladdin General Store, but few of them have taken the time to explore the Aladdin Coal Tipple, lurking behind the trees on the north side of the road just before arriving in Aladdin.

The tipple is a delight! Built in about 1898 as part of coal mining operations in the Aladdin area, it is believed to be one of the last historic wooden coal tipples remaining in the west. From here, coal was loaded on to rail cars of the old Wyoming and Missouri River Railroad short line for the 18-mile transport to the Chicago and Northwestern Railway line in Belle Fourche.

One of the signs at the site notes that “The tipple consists of two distinct parts: the coal bin, which is the large gable-roofed structure (uphill portion) and the chutes (downhill portion). The gable-roofed structure would receive and store the coal for the sorting and loading process. When the door at the bottom of the bin was opened, the tapered, funnel shape of the bin floor would gravity feed the coal to the chute system…remains of a catwalk are visible on the east side of the tipple. From the catwalk, the tipple operator would coax the coal down the chute, pulling and poking the coal with a handled tool.”

Many of our LCHS tour group navigated to the top of the hill, which overlooks the tipple and allows closer examination of the coal bin, mine entrance, hoist house and air ventilation shaft. In 1899, as many as 80 workers were employed by the mine, and it produced some 7,402 tons of coal.

From the tipple, the tour went to the Aladdin General Store, a place where you’ll find a little bit of everything. Folks who’ve not spent time poring through the merchandise and historical artifacts are missing a great opportunity. Built in 1892, the two-story structure remains a highlight for visitors to this Crook County community of 15 persons!

We retreated across the road from the store to the City Park for a picnic lunch and a briefing by local historian Pam Thompson, who recounted the rich history of Aladdin and the surrounding area, including the tipple.

We’ve included more information and photographs about Pam’s talk–and the entire tour–in our
LCHS Photo Gallery.

Then it was off to the Crook County Museum in Sundance, via the route used by Custer in 1874 while he was exploring the Black Hills region. Jim Weaver provided great information about the Custer route along the way.

The museum staff in Sundance went above and beyond the call of duty, coming out on a Sunday to share their hospitality and knowledge of area history. Situated on the lower level of the Crook County Courthouse, the museum claims over 7,000 artifacts, including dioramas of Devil’s Tower, Vore Buffalo Jump, the Custer Expedition, and the first experimental nuclear power plant. Of course, there’s loads of information about Harry Longabaugh, who gained notoriety as the “Sundance Kid,” well-know partner of the infamous Butch Cassidy. The museum is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday in the months of June, July and August. And it’s free! You can find more information on the web at Crook County Museum.

Leaving the museum, our group was met with dark clouds, rain, and a bit of wind. Nonetheless, temptation called and several of the group hiked up the street to partake of generously-portioned ice cream cones. “A bit of wind” may be an understatement for the weather we experienced in the vicinity of Warren Peak. By the time we arrived at the historic fire watchtower, only a part of the group was bold enough to scale the steps up several flights for a more rare view of the region. Alas, the nasty weather cut short our panoramic view of Bear Lodge and surrounding area.

Weather and time necessitated that we bypass the Vore Buffalo Jump near Beulah. So much to see, so much to do. So little time.

Such is the plight of history buffs! But chalk up the Fall Tour as another great experience for many LCHS members.