If you’ve ever had the chance to bike along the Mickelson Trail, you’ve seen some of the prettiest parts of the Black Hills, and one of my favorite parts of the trek is the tunnels near Mystic. About 12 miles north of Hill City, Mystic is a small town with a big history. It may be off the beaten path in terms of our direct routes today, but during its heyday, Mystic saw a lot of activity, as various economic booms in early Black Hills history came and went. A town isn’t always just what one can see when one looks at it today. There is far more to it than that, and one misses quite a bit of history if one passes over Mystic without a second glance beyond its surface appearance.
Originally known as Sitting Bull, the town sprang up during the Black Hills gold rush in about 1876. Located on Castle Creek, a site where gold was discovered, people moved into the area, and the town’s population was counted at 100 in 1879.
After the initial gold rush, the area experienced rapid growth once again when the railroad made tracks into the Black Hills. This was when Sitting Bull’s name changed to Mystic. The Grand Island and Wyoming Central Railroad, a branch line of the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad, built tracks to Mystic in 1889, and it became a regular stop on the route. Later, in 1906, another line to connect Mystic to Rapid City was completed, and a lot of coal from Wyoming and logs from the Black Hills made their way through Mystic on this line.
There was a lot of development of mines around Mystic, and one of the most successful mines was called Fairview, about a mile away from the townsite and located on the mountain for which it is named. Because of the large amount of ore coming out of the area, an electric cyanide plant was constructed in 1900, built by Rapid City businessman James Hartgering. He had an investor from Chicago, and the Mystic Reduction Mill allowed for almost on-site processing, and it was the first electro-cyanide process in the Black Hills. Unfortunately, the mill shut down after its successful trial, due to a problem with machinery. However, the Chicago investor, determined to show the Black Hills that such a process showed promise in other parts of the country, shipped more machinery to renovate the plant, and by 1901, the mill had the capacity to process 150 tons of ore each day.
Many support buildings were constructed to provide for the large workforce that was expected to run the mill, and many of these historic buildings remain.
According to the National Register of Historic Places, the mill was said to be 95 percent efficient during its operation. It charged about $6 per ton, with a 75-cent freight charge.
Unfortunately, and for reasons never reported, the mill did not regularly operate. Administrators blamed the fact that they could not get customers to habitually transport large amounts of ore to the mill, but there are intermittent reports throughout the years of different people running the mill and trying to get it to be successful, but finally, in 1913, it was torn down. The equipment was moved to Glendall (near Keystone), but is said to never have been used. The failure of this mill allowed for another industry to thrive in Mystic for a time, but I’ll save that part of the story until next week. The entire township of Mystic was added to the National Register of Historic places in the 1980s, and I for one am glad that I can enjoy my bicycle ride even more when I pass near Mystic on the Mickelson Trail. It’s not just impressive scenery, but also impressive history, and I have to remind myself sometimes that I am biking along the path that the railroad took through these hills. Those tracks changed history, and they could also make or break communities.
Much of Mystic’s early success is congruent with its location as a railway stop, but it also had to do with the industries that thrived, and logging was another important part of the town’s history. More next week.