Unlike Black Hills communities that began as mining camps, Rapid City owes its beginning to a group of discouraged gold prospectors. John Brennan and Samuel Scott were part of the wave of white settlers who flocked to the region after the Custer Expedition discovered gold here in 1874. In February 1876 Brennan and Scott led a small party of men to the banks of Rapid Creek, where they laid out a square-mile business district for what is now Rapid City. Within six months, more than 100 people called Rapid City “home.” City founders billed the community as the “Gateway to the Black Hills,” and it quickly lived up to the moniker. Originally known as “Hay Camp,” Rapid City soon became a staging ground for wagons hauling supplies to miners in the Black Hills. Later it would also serve as a hub for rail traffic. The population grew and shrank with several booms and busts between 1880 and 1920.
The South Dakota School of Mines provided a focus for higher education and after 1920, Rapid City population began to steadily rise. President Calvin Coolidge focused the nation’s attention on western South Dakota when he relocated his White House staff to the Black Hills in 1927. That same year Gutzon Borglum began carving Mount Rushmore, helping to spark a tourism industry that still powers the local economy.
During World War II, the War Department created the Rapid City Air Base (later renamed Ellsworth Air Force Base). After the war, the base and a growing economy fueled Rapid City’s development.
What may be the seminal event in Rapid City’s history began with a raindrop. On June 9, 1972, heavy rains caused massive flooding of Rapid Creek which would become the Rapid City Flood of 1972. The worst natural disaster in South Dakota history, the flood claimed 238 lives. As documented on the Rapid City Public Library's Flood website and by NOAA, the flood caused $160 million in property damage. The city rebuilt, creating a 12-mile-long bike path and public greenway along the creek’s banks that serves as both a memorial to the lost and a means of ensuring such a tragedy never happens again.
Today Rapid City is not only a regional economic hub, but also a mecca for arts and culture. Much of the city’s pioneer era history is documented at the Journey Museum, which is also home to the Sioux Indian Museum which preserves and interprets one of the finest collections of Sioux Indian craftwork and fine art in the country.
Arts & Culture
A vibrant local arts scene embraces talent ranging from the graffiti artists whose work adorns Art Alley to the professional musicians who perform with the Black Hills Symphony Orchestra at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center.
Local theater groups have been presenting plays here for over 60 years. As much as a century ago artists were performing at the Alfalfa Palace, a structure built in downtown Rapid City in the 1910s to promote the virtues of alfalfa. The Rapid City Auditorium at 7th and Quincy Street hosted concerts, car shows, boxing matches and other sporting events for more than 50 years before it was condemned in the early 1970s. Currently, film series and festivals show frequently at the historic Elks Theatre downtown.
Community theater has a long history in Rapid City. The tradition is carried on by Black Hills Community Theater. Other active arts organizations include the Rapid City Children’s Chorus, the Dakota Choral Union, and Black Hills Dance Theatre.
The Dahl Arts Center is a city-owned facility that includes numerous galleries, classrooms and an events center. The Dahl also includes the “Cyclorama,” a 10- by 180-foot painting that topped South Dakota Magazine’s list of the state’s “Top 10” pieces of art. And just as that piece tells the story of American history, Rapid City’s cultural offerings reflect the heritage of the people who live here. The Dahl is also home to the Rapid City Arts Council. Paintings by early Rapid City artist Grace French are also on display at the Journey, as well as at the Dahl Fine Arts Center downtown.
Rapid City also boasts a growing collection of public art, from the City of Presidents figures downtown to Art Alley, a spontaneously-formed and ever-changing outdoor canvas in the 600 block between Main and St. Joe streets.
Rapid City’s Scandinavian influence is reflected in the Stavkirke, a replica Norwegian church and museum, as well as during the annual Lille Norgefest. Local German and Celtic clubs also host annual cultural gatherings, as do students attending the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology.
The Western frontier influence takes center stage at local rodeos, the Central States Fair and Black Hills Stock Show.
And the area’s first inhabitants get their due at The Journey Museum of Geology and Paleontology and at the Museum of Geology at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, which features dinosaur fossils found throughout the region.
Summer Nights, a weekly summer festival featuring local bands, has exploded into a hugely popular event. Main Street Square opened in the fall of 2011 by hosting a “Bierborse” and music in its band shell, and was soon drawing crowds to its outdoor ice rink.
In addition to local talent, Rapid City imports entertainment. Since 1937 the Rapid City Concert Association has been presenting an annual series of national and international musical entertainment. Each year the Broadway Play Series brings top shows to the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, which has also hosted such big-name entertainers as Elvis Presley and the Eagles since it opened in 1977.
Many buildings in downtown Rapid City recall the community's frontier and western heritage. A number of buildings and monuments, including Dinosaur Park, reflect work done by employees of the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression.
Historical Photos and Documents Online
The Black Hills Knowledge Network's online community archives include a wealth of photographs, newspaper clippings, and documents related to the history of Rapid City. A database of Local Newspapers has been created which includes historical information and holdings.
Chronicling America, a project sponsored by the Library of Congress, provides full text access to digitized historic newspapers from around the United States. Search historic newspapers from 1836-1922 or use the directory to find information about American newspapers published since 1690. Locate thousands of stories with references to Rapid City.
Historic photographs and newsletters from Black Hills Power & Light are available on the Black Hills Knowledge Network along with historic public policy reports, photographs and documents related to the creation of Mount Rushmore that were provided by the Chiesman Foundation.
The South Dakota School of Mines and Technology Collections contain documents, photographs and articles pertaining to collections on local history, mining and mineral resources and local history.
The Digital Library of South Dakota, a collaboration of the libraries of six Board of Regents colleges and universities in the state of South Dakota, allows users to access images from the participating colleges' collections online.
The Black Hills Knowledge Network and the Rapid City Public Library have curated large collections of historic photos, documents, and news articles related to Rapid City and the surrounding area. Explore our Digital Archives page to learn more about the contents of the anthologies listed below.
- Billboards: A Rapid City Collection
- Black Hills Corporation: A Rapid City Collection
- Fitz and Startz Outbursts: A Rapid City Collection
- Holidays and Programs: A Rapid City Library Collection
- Infrastructure Damage: A Rapid City Flood Collection
- Pictures: A Rapid City Public Library Collection
- Politics and Industry: A Rapid City Collection
- Postcards: A Rapid City Collection
- Powertech: A Rapid City Collection
- Rapid City Flood: Commercial Damage
- Rapid City Flood: Community Damage
- Rapid City Flood: Residential Damage
- Rapid City History: Black Hills, South Dakota
- Rapid City Journal: 1930-1969
- Rapid City Journal: 1990-Present
- Rapid City Journal: The Creation of the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center
- Rapid City Public Library News: A Rapid City Collection
- Rapid City: Flood Victims: Flood Victims
- Reports & Correspondence: Rapid City Public Library Collection
- Reports & Media Coverage: A Rapid City Flood Collection
- Reseeding Efforts: A Rapid City Flood Collection
- Stratobowl: A Rapid City Collection
- The Lamplighter Newsletter: A Rapid City Collection
- Western South Dakota Photographs: A Rapid City Collection
Museums, Libraries & Archives
The Journey Museum :The Journey Museum is a natural history museum that takes visitors on a 'journey' through the history of the Black Hills. There are 5 different institutions that form the Journey Museum: The Museum of Geology at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology; the South Dakota Historical Society's Archeology Research Center; the US Department of Interior, Indian Arts and Craft Board's Sioux Indian Museum; the Minnilusa Historical Association and The City of Rapid City Duhamel Plains Indian Artifact Collection.
Museum of Geology:Part of the Journey Museum and located on the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology’s campus, the Museum of Geology offers displays on paleontology and mineralogy. You can find fossils or dinosaurs and other creatures from prehistoric times, as well as mineral displays – many sourced in South Dakota. Admission is free!
Apex Gallery: Located on the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology campus, the Apex Gallery features exhibitions that demonstrate the melding of art and science. The gallery hosts a new exhibition every four to six weeks.
The Dahl Arts Center: The Rapid City Arts Council operates out of the Dahl Arts Center, which hosts a variety of events and art exhibits year-round. Opened in 1974, the Dahl was gifted to the city by Mr. & Mrs. A. E. Dahl. The Dahl houses an event center, five visual arts galleries, a children's gallery, the Cyclorama Mural of American History, a gift shop, classrooms for artists of all ages and abilities, and an Emerging Artist performing space.
Outdoor Campus West: Located in Rapid City, the Outdoor Campus is operated by the South Dakota Game, Fish, & Parks Department and provides educational classes about outdoor skills, wildlife, and conservation. Classes are available for people of all ages during the summer and fall seasons.
South Dakota Air & Space Museum: Located at Ellsworth Air Force Base, the South Dakota Air & Space Museum displays over thirty vintage military aircraft, as well as missiles from throughout history. Exhibits also tell stories of aerospace pioneers, visionaries, and heroes. The Museum’s exhibits serve to educate, entertain, and inspire further aviation and innovation in South Dakota and the United States.
The Rapid City Public Library has been a cornerstone of the Rapid City community since its founding as Library Hall in 1888. A new Carnegie Library was built in 1916 on the corner of Kansas City Street and Sixth Street, followed by the building of the Downtown Library in 1972 on Quincy and 7th Street. The Rapid City Public Libraries today have two branch locations, RCPL Downtown and North at General Beadle Elementary, as well as an online branch.
South Dakota School of Mines & Technology Devereaux Library: Located on the north side of the SDSM&T campus, the Devereaux Library serves the South Dakota School of Mines campus and the larger community. The four-story building provides a variety of resources and services to students, faculty, staff, area residents and visitors.
The Rapid City Historic Preservation Commission works to preserve historic buildings and archeological sites in the Rapid City area through education and public policy. The Commission surveys local historic properties, conducts educational programs, and recommends policies that will benefit the preservation and restoration of historic properties and areas in Rapid City.
According to a national survey of congregations conducted in 2010, a majority of people (59,336) were not identified with a specific religion or denomination. Of those who did respond, Evangelical Protestants comprise the largest single denomination or faith in Pennington County. At that time, there were 16,338 Evangelical Protestants in the county. The next largest group was the Mainline Protestants with 14,196 members. Between 2000 and 2010, a major decline in membership in the Catholic Church and a major increase in people with unclaimed faiths marked the most important trends. Access the county profile from the Association of Religion Data Archives here. To see a chart with the data from 2000, click here.
Lakota and northern European religious traditions influence the life and culture of the community. Some of the oldest church congregations trace their roots to the late nineteenth century. Local Catholic and Protestant churches cater to American Indian communities. Meanwhile, newer churches influenced by the rise of evangelical movements in the United States also play an important part in the life of the city.