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Rapid City: History


New City Becomes Regional Trade Center

The discovery of gold in 1874 brought an influx of settlers into the Black Hills region of South Dakota. Rapid City was founded in 1876 by a group of disappointed miners, who promoted their new city as the "Gateway to the Black Hills." John Brennan and Samuel Scott, with a small group of men, laid out the site of the present Rapid City, which was named for the spring-fed Rapid Creek that flows through it. A square mile was measured off and the six blocks in the center were designated as a business section. Committees were appointed to bring in prospective merchants and their families to locate in the new settlement. Although it began as a hay camp, the city soon began selling supplies to miners and pioneers. By 1900 Rapid City had survived a boom and bust and was establishing itself as an important regional trade center.

Tourism and the Military Spur Economy

The invention of the automobile brought tourists to the Black Hills. Gutzon Borglum, the famous sculptor, began work on Mount Rushmore in 1927, and his son, Lincoln Borglum continued the carving of the presidents' faces in rock following his father's death. The massive sculpture was completed in 1938. Although tourism sustained the city throughout the Great Depression of the 1930s, the gas rationing of World War II had a devastating effect on the tourist industry in the town.

The city benefited greatly from the opening of Ellsworth Air Force Base, an Army Air Corps base. As a result, the population of the area nearly doubled between 1940 and 1948, from almost 14,000 to nearly 27,000 people. Military families and civilian personnel soon took every available living space in town, and mobile parks proliferated. Rapid City businesses profited from the military payroll.

Rapid City Since Mid-Century

In 1949 city officials envisioned the city as a retail and wholesale trade center for the region and designed a plan for growth that focused on a civic center, more downtown parking places, new schools, and paved streets. A construction boom continued into the 1950s. Growth slowed in the 1960s, but the worst natural disaster in Rapid City's history led to another building boom a decade later. On June 9, 1972, heavy rains caused massive flooding of the Rapid Creek. More than 200 people lost their lives and more than $100 million in property was destroyed.

The devastation of the flood and the outpouring of private donations and millions of dollars in federal aid led to the completion of one big part of the 1949 plan—clearing the area along the Rapid Creek and making it a public park. New homes and businesses were constructed to replace those that had been destroyed. Rushmore Plaza Civic Center and a new Central High School were built in part of the area that had been cleared. In 1978, Rushmore Mall was built, adding to the city's position as a retail shopping center.

In recent times, Rapid City has been highly rated for its manufacturing climate. A hardworking labor force and a governmental structure deeply rooted in the concept of being a partner in the success of its business community remain major assets. The city offers an extraordinary quality of life with abundant recreational activities, culture, and short workplace commutes. Recent city development efforts show a continued vision for improvement and growth in the area.


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