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Wind Cave National Park  


Park History

Wind Cave

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Cave Area




Prairie Dogs

Beaver Creek


Wind Cave National Park is not one of the most well known of the U.S. national parks, but it is one of the oldest, having been first created in 1903. The park is the 7th oldest in the National Park System. It is in fact the first park which was established to protect a cave. The park contains three major facets--the underground world of Wind Cave itself, the grasslands and forested area on the surface, and the wildlife, including buffalo, prairie dogs, and other animals. Also one of the smallest of the national parks, Wind Cave includes some 28,920 acres or 44 square miles of land. It is located in far western South Dakota, south and east of the Black Hills and west and north of the Great Plains.

The centerpiece of the park is the cave itself, an extraordinary natural resource. Wind Cave is thought to be the 4th longest cave in the world, although it is likely that only 5% of the cave has actually been discovered or explored. It is also the "densest" known cave in the world, considering the volume of passages in the given area.

Above the surface, the park features the mixed grass prairie of the Great Plains to the east with the Ponderosa pine forests of foothills of the Black Hills to the west. Ravines and small creeks run through the land. The park is located along rolling, undulating hills which preserve a remnant of the extraordinary grasslands of the Great Plains.

The park also provides excellent opportunities for viewing wildlife. It features a sizable population of buffalo, typically numbering 350 or more animals. There are also extensive prairie dog towns which can be easily viewed alongside the roads in the park. Other animal which may be found in the park include badgers, black footed ferrets, coyotes, mule deer, about 50 pronghorn, and a herd of 350 American elk, prairie falcons golden eagles, meadowlarks, wild turkeys, and other birds. The most noteworthy of the animals, however, is probably the herd of bison which live on the grasslands in the park.

Wind Cave National Park is located in the western section of South Dakota, south of Rapid City, on the edge of the Black Hills. The altitude of the park ranges from about 3700 feet to 5000 feet. It is also near other national park areas--Mt. Rushmore is a few miles to the northwest, and Badlands National Park is about 70 miles to the east.

The park also provides a number of miles of roads from which to view the rolling prairies, Ponderosa pine forests, and wildlife in the park. There are also 10 designated trails on the land in the park. Turnouts along the roads provide easy opportunities for motorists to view the park's features.

For potential visitors, ParkVision recommends "Story Behind the Scenery" guides and "Trails Ilustrated" maps.

Park History

Geology The area currently occupied by Wind Cave National Park was once composed of limestone beds at the bottom of an inland sea. 70 million years ago, geological forces which uplifted the Black Hills and formed the Rocky Mountains created cracks in the limestone layer. 30-50 million years ago, water seeped into the cracks, dissolved some of the limestone, and created the passages which now make up Wind Cave. Later, water which seeps through cracks and openings formed a film or droplets on cave walls and ceilings. This water deposited minerals which eventually formed encrustations of various types in the cave.

Human History The area which Wind Cave National Park now occupies was utilized 6000 years ago by nomadic hunters and gatherers. Later, native America peoples inhabited the area. Before the mid-19th century, a number of Indian tribes made use of the area, including the Kiowa, Crow, Cheyenne, and Lakota. Eventually, the Lakota, or Sioux, Indian peoples gained dominance over the other tribes.

The Indians of the plains area apparently knew of the existence of the cave. Lakota Sioux people considered the area sacred, and legends referred to a "Cave of the Winds." The Indians also had legends which indicated that the bison, which were so important to their way of life, emerged from the cave.

As settlers moved into the arrea, conflicts between them and the native Indian inhabitants occurred. This eventually led to the government taking possession of the Black Hills area. Considering settlers, It is generally believed that the cave was discovered by a pair of brothers, Jesse and Tom Bingham, in 1881 while hunting. These brothers saw some grass blowing near the cave entrance, which was a 8" x 10" hole in the ground. One of the brothers--thought to be Tom, although there is no certainty as to which--had his hat knocked off by the winds blowing through the entrance.

Neither of the Bingham brothers actually ever entered the cave. The first known man to actually enter the cave was Charlie Crary, a local miner. Crary was understandably quite excited when he exited the cave and saw what the inside looked like.

Initially, it was believed that the cave might contain gold. In 1876, gold strikes in the Black Hills had triggered a rush. In 1889, the South Dakota Mining Company first filed a mining location certificate on the cave area. They hired Jesse McDonald to manage the property.

McDonald had 2 sons, Elmer and Alvin, who began to explore the cave. Alvin in particular was an avid explorer of the cave. By 1891 Alvin was keeping a log of his visits and explorations of Wind Cave.

Later, in 1891-1892, John Stabler bought an interest in the cave business Jesse McDonald had established, and the 2 men formed the Wonderful Wind Cave Improvement Company. The men managed the cave, set up tours, etc., for a number of years. In 1892 a hotel, the Wind Cave Hotel, was established.

A few years later, however, Stabler and McDonald had a falling out. Enmity and lawsuits followed. Eventually, in response to legal disagreements between the 2 men, the General Land Office ruled that neither had a valid claim to the area, and the U.S. government took possession of the land. IN response to calls for preservation of the natural wonder, in 1901 land surrounding the cave was withdrawn from the possibility of settlement.

By 1899, government officials in Washington and South Dakota had begun to talk about the possibility of making Wind Cave a national park. The land in the area was not particularly useful for cultivation, and Wind Cave and other caves in the area did not offer mining potential.

In 1900, responding to data provided by scientists from the South Dakota School of Mines, the U.S. Department of the Interior recommended that both the caves and the surface land above it should be protected by the federal government. That year, the government withdrew the lands around the gave while there was consideration of saving the lands. In 1901 the cave was opened under the control of the Department of the Interior. Two years later, in 1902, the government commissioned a Rapid City surveyor to explore the cave and map its rooms and passageways.

Senator Robert J. Gamble of South Dakota introduced a bill which declared the cave to be America's "2nd Wonder." Congressman Lacey backed the bill, and argued that the area had to be a national park to stop vandals, who were taking away formations and doing other damage, from destroying the cave.

Soon, on January 9, 1903, a bill establishing Wind Cave as the 8th national park was signed by President Theodore Roosevelt. The original bill preserved 10,522 acres. The first superintendent of the national park was William A. Rankin.

President Roosevelt, however, was convinced that the park needed an attraction beyond the cave to attract tourists. He felt that wildlife, in particular bison, might be such an attraction. In response, in 1912, after the American bison Society selected Wind Cave as a site where bison could be reestablished, Congress created the Wind Cave National Game Reserve. In 1913, 4 buffalo from the New York Zoological Society were brought to the park, along with some additional buffalo from the herds in Yellowstone National Park. By 1918 there were 42 animals in the reserve. In addition to its contribution to preservation of the buffalo, this also resulted in a tenfold increase in visitation at the park. The Boone and Crockett Club of New York also sent antelope to the park. In 1935, management of the game preserve was transferred to the National Park Service.

As with other national parks, in the 1930's the workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps made a number of contributions to the park. These men built buildings, fences, roads, trails, wildlife facilities, bridges, retaining walls, road culverts, a new cave entrance, cave stairs and trails, and electrical lighting in the cave. They also built the elevator building and the double elevator shaft. Some 2000 men worked on these projects, and many of the things they built are still in use.

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