The Establishment of Belle Fourche
Like many places in the Midwest, French Heritage seems to stand out. The name Belle Fourche was given to this area by early French fur traders. The name Belle Fourche means "Beautiful Fork", which makes sense as the Hay Creek, Redwater, and Belle Fourche River converge. Fur traders used this area as a meeting point long before the homesteaders of the late 1800's arrived. At the time, beavers were plentiful and an extraordinarily valuable source of revenue for the early colonies.
Although an important meeting place, the town of Belle Fourche came much later with the arrival of the railroad. In 1876 the Gold Rush of the Black Hills attracted miners, and those who mined the miners. Seth Bullock and Sol Star set out from Helena, Montana to open up a hardware store in Deadwood, South Dakota on the site of the Bullock Hotel.
Seth Bullock bought property nearby in Belle Fourche. At the same time the Gold Rush was booming, farmers were attracted to the fertile valleys just north of the Black Hills. While settlers were speculating on gold claims, farmers were speculating at the inevitable arrival of the railroad. Land was purchases all over the valley in the hopes of getting rich off the railroad.
The biggest contender for a railroad depot was the town of Minnesela, the county seat of Butte County. Once word of the railroad's arrival was imminent the inhabitants of Minnesela proposed to sell the land needed by the railroad at astronomical prices. In a wise business move, Bullock offered to build the depot and provide right of way access free of charge. Star telegraphed the railroad to inform them that he would not approve any deal unless the rail was brought into Deadwood as well.
The Freemont, Elkhorn and Missouri valley railroad accepted the offer and the town of Belle Fourche was on its way. Residents of neighboring Minnesela were furious, but eventually they accepted their fate. Belle Fourche became the new county seat, while Minnesela became a ghost town.
In 1890, the first carload of cattle departed Belle Fourche heading to the packing plants of the East Coast. Within 5 years Belle Fourche was shipping 2500 cattle cars a month. For a time, Belle Fourche was the largest livestock shipping point in the world. The area had gone from a fur traders meeting point to one of the most important livestock and agricultural centers of the United States.
The sheep industry quietly grew alongside and eventually was shipping millions of pounds of wool out of Belle Fourche. Sheep dynasties were born out of this unsuspecting town, with the largest consumer being the U.S Army. Other industries of significance are bentonite mining and now, ramen noodles.
As a result of the robust cattle industry, Belle Fourche is considered the first town in the Black HIlls to establish an event appealing to tourists. The Buffalo Roundup began in 1918 not only to attract tourists, but to raise money for World War I. The first year attendance was 15,000 in a town of 1400. Clearly a success the Buffalo Roundup became a yearly event, an is still in operation today.
Farming in Belle Fourche
While some industries came and went, farming had its roots firmly planted in Belle Fourche. None other than Seth Bullock introduced alfalfa farming to South Dakota in 1881. Alfalfa still flourishes in South Dakota and remains one of the top ten agriculture industries along with corn, soybeans, wheat and sunflowers. In Belle Fourche, much of this was made possible with the construction of the Orman Dam.
Completed in 1911, the Orman Dam A.K.A Belle Fourche Dam was the largest rolled earthen dam in the world. It's purpose was to provide irrigation to the farmers and later served as a recreational place for visitors and residents. Irrigation of the Northern Black Hills allowed for a more productive farming industry, attracting novices like lawyers and doctors to the area.
A notable claim to fame for Belle Fourche is being the geographical center of the United States. One might not think of South Dakota being anywhere near the center of the U.S., but in 1959 it became so. The addition of Alaska and Hawaii shifted the geographical center to Belle Fourche. A monument has been erected and visitors can stand in the center for a great photo opportunity.
Belle Fourche provides visitors quite a few reasons to visit and is located off of I-90 at exit 10 in South Dakota. The Tri-State Museum is a great place to start. Exploring the Northern Black Hills is an incredible experience. It's beaty and culture are like no other. Tour operators such as My XO Adventures can provide an in-depth private guided tour of the area. Safe Travels!
Daniel Milks is the owner of My XO Adventures