ON WILLOW CREEK -- Where flood-cut banks dip down to Willow Creek, northwest of Fort Pierre, Lonis Wendt and Paul Seamans are on the trail of oxen that passed this way more than a century ago.
Somewhere in shouting distance of where they stand, but out of sight beneath the grass, lies what remains of the Willow Creek Road Ranch Stage Station – once a stop on the old Fort Pierre-to-Deadwood Trail.
That trail was the main route for keeping Deadwood supplied in its first years after 1876, and it remained in use until 1906.
Drivers loaded up in Fort Pierre with goods that had been brought in by riverboat, then trundled off to Deadwood over these sloping grasslands and river crossings. The journey was just under 200 miles and teams of oxen lumbered over it at a pace of 12 to 15 miles a day. There was mule- and horse-drawn traffic as well.
“What people don’t think about is that for 10 years, everything that was out in Deadwood was hauled out there to Deadwood,” said Seamans, who is from Draper.
With the exception of lumber cut in the Black Hills, added Wendt, of Vivian, virtually everything, from oats to whiskey, made that overland journey that started in Fort Pierre. The estimate is that 80 percent of the freight traffic and most of the stagecoach traffic to Deadwood from 1880 to 1887 went along this route.
Though President Ulysses S. Grant and his advisers had originally chosen a route that left from Chantier Creek – upstream from Fort Pierre and 18 miles closer to Deadwood – wagon-masters disliked the slippery gumbo soils and the steep climb out of Chantier Creek. Fort Pierre became the bull-whackers’ choice for a departure point.
Similarly, freight companies rejected an alternate route that started from Chamberlain because the longer distance to Deadwood added days to the route.
Along the Fort Pierre-to-Deadwood route there were more than 30 stops – called stage stations, way stations and road ranches, with different levels of services available – at places in the prairie such as this Willow Creek crossing.
The resilient prairie has long since swallowed up many traces of that trail except for the dim outline of wheel ruts in some locations. Only some battered wooden signs painted nearly four decades ago indicate that the Old Deadwood Trail passed here.
That is why in 2006, in the area from Fort Pierre to Four Corners, Eileen and Karl Fischer, Pat Adam and Jeff Slocum – all of Fort Pierre and Pierre – started to seek out the signs of a generation ago that marked the actual trail. They used Global Positioning System technology to plot those coordinates.
When they asked others to get involved, Wendt, Seamans and their colleague, Sam Seymour of Murdo, took on the stretches of the trail from Four Corners on.
The entire project was built upon the work of an earlier generation of history enthusiasts.
Roy and Edith Norman of Hayes, S.D. – inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame in 1997 – put up signs marking the Old Deadwood Trail in the early 1970s with the help of an employee, Louie McBride. They placed 52 those signs from Fort Pierre to the Pennington County line.
Fischer said the Normans, with their love of history, actually put up more than 200 signs in all, doing what they could to mark five trails important to the region’s history. But it was the Fort Pierre-to-Deadwood route that attracted the interest of people in the Fort Pierre area.
Eileen Fischer of Fort Pierre said she and others in the area began to think about replacing the signs when they saw that the wooden ones erected by the Normans were falling to ruin. They also worried that the signs were virtually invisible anyway, since most of them are off the beaten path, often in the middle of fields and pastures.
Now – thanks in part to a grant of $25,000 from the Deadwood Historic Preservation Commission – 30 new steel signs are in place along U.S. Highway 14. Some are as close as one-quarter or one-half mile from the actual trail, some might be as much as eight or 10 miles from it. But all of the signs have GPS coordinates so that truly adventurous tourists can go looking for the actual trail, if they like.
“Every single sign has the GPS coordinates on it,” Eileen Fischer said. “Our intent was to let people know that something went on there.”
She added that she hopes the signs will preserve the area’s history a little longer – and that another generation will replace them when they wear out.