Hill City is known for being “The Heart of the Hills,” and as one would expect from a town with such a moniker, it has had its ups and downs. Founded in 1876, Hillyo, as its first residents called it, was the second settlement to spring up in the Black Hills during the gold rush of the 1870s and the first settlement to be founded in what would become Pennington County. Prospectors traveled to the area to try their luck in the nearby Spring Creek. However, once word spread about richer finds found in the Northern Hills near the new town of Deadwood, the town was nearly abandoned. By one report, the only residents that stuck around were “one man and his dog.”
This was not the end of the resilient mountain town, however. In the mid-1880s another profitable metal was found in the hills surrounding the small town: tin. The discovery of this soft metal brought wealthy investors to the area and sparked a major boom for the town. The Harney Peak Tin Mining, Milling, and Manufacturing Company was the prominent group hoping to strike it rich on this soft metal and made Hill City its headquarters. The company and its many English investors bought over a thousand tin mining claims and built The Harney Peak Hotel to house their visiting businessmen in luxury. Thousands of rowdy miners came from all around to work in the new mines and mills which contributed to Hill City having a reputation as “a town with a church on each end and a mile of hell in between.”
The discovery of tin, as well as the construction of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad through the town in the 1890s, put Hill City on the map; but unfortunately, this welcomed boom would be short lived. Tin production was lower than expected and investors pulled their money from the venture. Many of the thousands of miners that flocked to the town left, again. Miners would come and go as tin fluctuated in popularity, growing and shrinking the mining community over the years.
Today, Hill City is a popular destination for enthusiasts of all kinds including hikers, climbers, rock hounds, and history buffs. This quaint mountain town continues to focus on being a cultural and artistic hearth for hills communities.
Arts & Culture
The attributes that describe Hill City are “Small Town, Big Art,” as the Hill City Arts Council says. The Hill City Arts Council promotes the arts in providing year-round activities for children and adults as well as contributing different art pieces to beautify the town.
As you walk downtown, you will notice many different places to appreciate local art. Warriors Work & Best West Gallery and The Sandy Swallow Art Gallery feature many different Native American inspired artworks.
ArtForms Gallery is a local artist co-op owned and operated by twenty different Black Hills artists and features work in many different mediums.
Dakota Nature & Art uses the natural beauty found in the rocks, minerals, and plants of the hills to create stunning jewelry and other work.
Jon Crane Gallery & Custom Framing provides vivid photographs of the hills landscape.
Hill City has multiple museums that tell visitors the story of the Central Hills.
The Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, Inc has an incredible natural history museum filled with a plethora of dinosaur bones and other fossils as well as fascinating rocks and minerals.
Hill City is home to the South Dakota State Railroad Museum, telling the story of the development of rail systems in the hills and the rest of the state. Guests are also able to take a ride on the 1880 Train that regularly travels between Hill City and Keystone.
During the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps. to provide job experience to thousands of young men across the country. This program was a great benefit to the Black Hills and helped construct many of the lakes, roads and other structures that help visitors enjoy the hills today. The CCC Museum of South Dakota in Hill City help tell the story of these hard-working men.
Just outside of Hill City, on Deerfield Road, visitors can learn about the rich gold mining history of the hills at Wade’s Gold Mill. Visitors can take a tour through old mining and milling equipment and even take a chance at panning for gold.
The Hill City Public Library is located at 341 Main Street and is open to all visitors year-round. The Library also boasts a large collection of local history in books and memorabilia. Activities for children and adults are provided by the library such as “Pre-school Story Time” and the “Hill City Readers’ Group.”
The library’s hours of operation are available on the library’s website.
Historical Photos and Documents Online
The South Dakota State Historical Society Digital Archives has many different photographs from different times in Hill City’s history.