Thunder Butte, in South Dakota, has featured prominently in my family's history since 1913. Also known as "Wakinyan Paha" to the Lakota, its religious and cultural significance to the Lakota goes back much further in time, still. Rising from the dry, rolling prairie grasslands in Ziebach County, in northwestern South Dakota, the butte is located on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation.
From the top of the butte, you can see for miles in every direction. There are not many people here, although the land is alive with the memory of those who walked here before us. Taking in the quiet of the plains as they reach to the horizon, you can well imagine the way the world was before we were here, and what it may look like long after we have moved on.
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May 10, 2005
The Train Whistle Blows No More
The railroad helped settle the plains, and no less the rugged prairie around Thunder Butte. The line was completed into Dupree on December 16, 1910. The first train steamed into Faith in 1911. These trains were a part of the old Milwaukee Railroad System. The trains were a way for ranchers to get their cattle to Sioux City and Chicago. They were a way to get grain to market. They had box cars, coal cars, and passenger cars, as well. The trains were pulled by steam locomotives into the 1950’s, when they began to be replaced by diesel locomotives.
It’s amazing to think about it, today, when most of our notions about steam locomotives come from old Western movies. But, the steam locomotives were every bit as powerful as the diesel technology that followed. They had a much more voracious appetite for fuel and water, though, which spelled their doom in the end.
When John Crowley was young, he used to sit on top of Thunder Butte and listen to the old steam train pull in and out of Faith. According to John, “It was over 20 miles away. You couldn’t see the train but you could hear the whistle as it echoed across the plains—the most lonesome and mournful sound one could ever imagine.”
After World War II, more farmers, ranchers and people in the towns began to buy cars and trucks. Declining use of the trains had an impact on business. Passenger services were the first to go. Finally, railroad officials decided to cut all service to the area. Between 1979 and 1980, all of the rails and ties were pulled up on the Mobridge to Faith line. That was over 25 years ago. Still, it's sad to think that the train whistle will never be heard from the top of old Thunder Butte again.
Mike Crowley Tuesday, May 10, 2005
When I was called to active navy duty in WWII, I left Faith on that old train. The trip to Mobridge took all day, then a transfer and finally in to Omaha after three days. Years ago that little train was snowbound for several days out on the prairie---John Crowley