Snowmobiling To Ghost Towns In The Black Hills

I hooked up with Stuart Williams, Butch Gross and Bob Kennedy who agreed to lead me to the ghost towns that are scattered throughout the 13,000 wilderness acres of the Black Hills. These guys know their way up, over and through the Black Hills backcountry by snowmobile. They know all the lore, too.

Stuart is a third-generation owner of an auto service station in Spearfish, South Dakota, and would be our tour leader for the first day. He spins wrenches at his shop and is a longtime snowmobiler who has spent many days riding in the Hills.

Butch, our leader for day two, was an employee of Homestake Incorporated, which owned and operated a gold and silver mine in nearby Lead, South Dakota. He worked for Homestake until it shut down in 2001. The 57-year-old is the founder of the Terry Peak Snow Blazers, a local snowmobile club.

Bob is a close friend of Butch (Butch calls him “Tater”). Bob and Butch have explored the backcountry on their mountain sleds “countless” times. Bob and his dad, Dave Kennedy, operate a snowmobile repair shop in Spearfish.

Our adventure began with stops at a few tourist spots. Stuart, Bob and I took logging roads to Buzzard’s Roost Lookout. It overlooks the jagged granite and limestone cliffs of Spearfish Canyon. The view was spectacular. Stuart pointed to our starting point, Spearfish Canyon Lodge, which sits 5,500 feet below.

We made our way down from Buzzard’s Roost and headed toward Cement Ridge. The ridge has a fire lookout tower and sits just west of the South Dakota/Wyoming border, 6,647 feet above sea level. We connected with Dave, and his wife, Jean, on our way there.

We could see Wyoming’s Sundance Mountain and Warren Peak, which hosts a military radar that was used in the 1960s and 70s. We could also see the abandoned Tinton mine about two miles to the northwest — one of our feature destinations.

Stuart led us on a path to Tinton that was truly off-trail. We slowly made our way through the woods, up and down hills and over fallen trees. Fortunately, the snow was deep, which allowed us to climb over the fallen timber. The treacherous trek was certainly worth the effort. Tinton was just like I imagined a ghost town to be as I cruised along I-90 the day before. It certainly conjured up vivid images of a bygone era.

The town was once self-sustained and home to 200 people. It lies near the South Dakota/Wyoming border and was originally founded as a gold mining camp. Later, the mine produced lithium and feldspar and eventually tin. Shortly after World War II, the town was deserted by its people as earnings were dismal, at best.

The road we followed split the town and brought us in from the west. Crumbling buildings and homes still stand on its north side. Ancient mining and earthmoving equipment is scattered throughout. Dave pointed out the post office and the old gymnasium that once housed a half-court basketball court. Other buildings on site include a hotel, a bank and a store.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t go in the buildings to see the townspeoples’ remnants. The town is fenced-in to keep explorers at bay. I had to conjure my own images of oil lanterns, busted furniture and broken dishes that must lay inside the tarpaper shacks. I swear I could hear a ball bouncing off the gymnasium floor.

After snapping photos and trying to figure out what some of the old machinery was, we climbed back on our sleds, pulled the ropes and headed east out of town.

We snowmobiled down the old road and toured more of the Black Hills backcountry. After a few miles, Dave and Jean went their own way because they didn’t want to “slow us down.”

Stuart, Bob and I made our way to another point of interest, but it certainly wasn’t a rundown shack.

We followed Wagon Wheel Canyon to the family vacation home of the late, famed author Dale Carnegie. The home was built in the late 1950s or early 1960s, Stuart said, and features more than a dozen bedrooms, a horse stable, pool and tennis court.

We had seen the sights that Stuart planned to show us for that day and he had to attend a prior commitment. So we left the Carnegie site and made our way to the Grand Canyon for a 9-mile stretch of high-speed running. The canyon was wide and filled with snow. I couldn’t resist the urge to climb some of the alluring hills that sloped up from the canyon.

We picked up trail No. 1 and headed back to Spearfish Canyon Lodge. The trail was surprisingly smooth and uncrowded for a weekend day. We arrived at the lodge just before sunset, where we parked our sleds for the night.

Bob and I started day two of our ghost town tour with a brisk trip to the Trailshead Lodge where we met up with Butch, our tour leader for the day. Stuart couldn’t make it for the second part of our tour.

The day’s first point of interest was the town of Moskee, Wyoming. It was once a lumber town and home to 600 people, according to Butch, though other accounts estimate about 250 people.

We followed the Grand Canyon south from Willow Springs, Wyoming, to get to the defunct town. The canyon flowed like a river through the hills and pines, sweeping from east to west. It was covered with snowmobile tracks and was obviously a popular cross-country route.

After several miles, we headed west into Moskee. When we arrived, few remnants could be seen. But around a corner and to the south was a two-story water tower that sat atop a hill. The tower supplied water to the residents and fed fire hydrants planted throughout the village.

Moskee produced lumber for Homestake Inc. But when Homestake Forest Products opened in Spearfish, South Dakota, in 1940, it marked the beginning of the end for Moskee, Butch said.

For a closer look, we carefully picked our way through town toward the hill that led up to the tower; we didn’t want to run into any of the fire hydrants that are still scattered about. The three of us made it without incident and headed up the hill to the tower.

Melted snow ran down its weathered side as the warm afternoon sun shined through the cloudless sky. The tower still looked strong, though its gray, wooden sides certainly aren’t waterproof anymore.

As we hung out beside the water tower under the bright January sun, Butch drew a diagram in the snow of the square-sets Homestake placed inside its mines. He explained how the hefty 7-foot by 7-foot wood structures were placed and kept the walls from caving in.

After our rest, we climbed back on our longtrack sleds and boondocked toward Buckhorn, Wyoming.

Along our southward route to Buckhorn, we stopped at the Homestake Lookout tower. Homestake manned it to watch for wildfires, which threatened the company’s lumber supply during dry summers. I climbed to the top of the 80-foot tower and checked out the view. Our sleds on the ground below looked like die-cast models on white carpet.

From the lookout tower, we followed Soldier Creek to an open prairie surrounded by Quaken Asp trees just outside of Buckhorn. The area was dotted with old cars and trucks. We took our helmets off and looked around.

Inside one of four rundown buildings was a Brut LC44 snowmobile. Like many of the cars, the triple-cylinder, triple-carb sled was in shambles. But at least it was inside a building, protected from the elements — mostly.

I closely examined the sled. Its cylinder head was missing and the pistons were stuck to the cylinder walls. The rear suspension lay on the ground beside it and its hood was off to the side. The sled must have been there for some time.

Outside the building was another old sled. I think it was an Arctic Cat. All I could see was its handlebars and steering column, which stuck out of snow that was white as a ghost.

Near the shed was a lonely tree with an old pickup truck underneath it. I peered my head in an old camper that was no longer roadworthy.

After poking around for at least an hour, we continued along Soldier Creek toward Buckhorn, which was fortunate for a boy and his sled. The boy’s Jag was stuck in the deep powder snow, and it wasn’t moving without help. We pulled the skis while he gave it gas and went on his way.

We rode a trail into town for another short break — it had been a long day of backcountry riding, but we still had places to see.

After our rest, we headed to Monkey Hollow. It’s used as a retreat area for local search and rescue personnel. A small, wooden cabin and a shed sit on a hill overlooking hundreds of rolling acres that are surrounded by mature trees. Despite its name, there weren’t any primates. Instead, the area “crawls” with cattle in the summer, Butch said.

Our final point of interest was the McInernie Homestead. During the “Wild Bill” Hickok era of the late 1800s, a stagecoach ran from Deadwood, South Dakota, to Cheyenne, Wyoming. The stagecoach made regular stops at the homestead to swap horses and feed the passengers. A small cabin and several outbuildings remain.

The day’s shadows were getting longer by the minute. And although it was only a 5-mile trek as the crow flys, we knew it’d be at least twice that far to get to Butch’s house via his boondocker route.

We weaved our way through the countryside and made our way to Butch’s home under the guidance of our headlights. Butch’s big, old dog, Jake, greeted us with his wagging tail.

Bob and I said our “goodbyes” to Butch and made our way back to Spearfish Canyon Lodge under the clear, moonlit sky, I thought about all that I had seen aboard my snowmobile: desolate ghost towns and antique machines surrounded by picturesque scenery. Unlike so many of the Black Hills settlers, my dream had come true.

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