Sunday, July 23, 2017

From the Coal Town of Gilette, Wy to the Black Hills of South Dakota

Highway 14 from Cody to Gardiner/Nikles
Cody to Gilette, Wyoming feels like the West: wide open spaces, farms enabled by irrigation projects, grassy hills, and antelopes grazing on untamed land. The 200 car-long train parked outside Gilette brings to mind the West: the railroad replacing wagon trains rumbling across the prairies. Today, Gilette is home to the world's larges open pit coal mine. The train we saw is pulling coal cars.  And that, too, feels like the West: boom and bust towns built around natural resource extraction.

It used to be gold. All over the West, towns sprung up to bloom briefly around the discovery of gold  or silver deposits, only to wither away as the mineral was depleted. Today, in Gilette, it's coal.  Wyoming produces 39% of the nation's coal, and a big portion of this comes from the 12 coal mines around Gilette. Gilette's population doubled in the 60's, and then double again since the 1990's to a population of around 30,000 today. The coal extracted from around Gilette has been more efficient (cleaner) than most coal areas. It has made the town wealthy: median income for a family in 2000 was reported at $78,377.

Mike Enzi, the Junior Senator from Wyoming, used to be mayor of Gilette.

Today, as the nation looks to move away from coal to cleaner sources of energy, the town has to grapple with its future. Will it be another ghost town when we decide we want to obtain electricity from renewable sources instead of open pit-mining.  Those long coal trains on the outskirts of town will disappear too. It's an essentially Western phenomenon.
Coal train outside Gilette, Wy/nikles
Needles Scenic Byway, Black Hills SD
Moving further East into the Black Hills of South Dakota--Devil's Tower, Custer state park, Mt. Rushmore,  it feels more Mid-West than West. More Hollywood than the real deal.

The Black Hills started in the West. With the discovery of gold in 1874, miners swept into the area in a gold rush.  Some towns, like Spearfish and Hill, and Custer, survive from that era. But today, they are more about tourism. The state of South Dakota employs hordes of t-shirt clad youngsters in the summer to collect $20 from every car driving the scenic Needles byway through and around dramatic granite spires.

The Black Hills themselves are soft, rounded, and wooded. They bring to mind the Appalachians, or landscapes in old-Europe, not the rugged independent, individualist West. They are an isolated range, rising from the Great Plains to a height of just 7,244 feet. There are genteel, prosperous ranches, bed and breakfast hotels. Private property with expensive looking houses dot the landscape. Large, fenced tracts of land are forebodingly private. The land has lost its Bureau of Land Management and National Forest Service public spirit.

Down the road from Mt. Rushmore is a competing private venture: the Chief Crazy Horse monument.  Started in 1948, it is planned to be the world's largest sculpture upon completion. But there are doubts it will ever be completed. This is an entirely private venture, on privately held land, and seemingly controlled by the wife, and children of the initial carver/sculptor, Korszak Ziolkowski.

Zilkowski's vision of Crazy Horse Sculpture
All that exists as of now is the face, which is big, but not impressive from afar. A face and a big fund raising operation. They charge $11/head to enter, and the main thing to see, and what they steer you to, is a fund-raising propaganda film.  You can spend money at the gift shop and the restaurant.  And they invite you to put them in your will.  You can pay an extra fare to go to the foot of the mountain by bus.  Hiking seems to be not allowed, or discouraged. The purpose is to honor the American Indians. There is mention of a college for Indians of the region.  But all the help seems to be young White college kids.  The whole venture strikes me as a mix of crazy obsession, family empire building, and a grifting operation. I may be wrong about that, but my antennae are up. An accounting of money raised, and where it goes, is not readily available. But See this report from Non-Profit Explorer.

View of Crazy Horse today/photo NPR

South Dakota Facts

South Dakota was admitted as state on November 2, 1889.  Today it has a population of 865,454 (2010 Census). 

The two senators are John Thune and Mike Rounds (the same number as California's 39 million, lest we ever forget).  The state has one member in the House of Representatives, Kristi Noem

The state capitol is located in Pierre, SD (population 13,646) located right in the middle of the state. The largest city is Sioux Falls (metro population is 252,000).

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