Strewn across the evergreen-studded slopes of the Black Hills are the crumbling remains of gold mining activity—mills, shafts, dredges, sluices, flumes, cyanide pits, assay houses and even a few schools and saloons. In Mystic, on a gravel road 12 miles north of Hill City, such ruins belie what was once a burgeoning town with cutting-edge mining technology.
In 1874 George Armstrong Custer’s 1,000-man Black Hills Expedition explored the valley that would hold Mystic, naming the stream there Castle Creek. In the summer of 1875, at the behest of the U.S. government, geologists Walter Jenney and Henry Newton led a party into the hills and found gold on Castle Creek. The resulting rush gave rise to a camp along the creek called Sitting Bull. In 1879 the population of Sitting Bull was 100, though interest soon shifted to richer finds farther north at Lead and Deadwood.
Placer mining kept the camp in business and, in 1889, prompted the construction of a station for the newly built Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, the first line into the Black Hills. Railroad officials renamed the growing town Mystic, likely after Mystic, Conn.
The arrival of the railroad spurred further mining activity. One early mine ran a simple 10-stamp mill from 1895 to 1902, but Mystic also attracted experimental operations. In 1900 Chicago investors poured $1 million into the Mystic Reduction Mill, an imposing four-story structure built astride the tracks that utilized a state-of-the-art electro-cyanide process. The process used electrolysis to extract precious metal from ore (a version remains in use today). But the Mystic plant was a bust—the crushed ore would not suspend in solution, instead settling and solidifying in the tanks. The mill was demolished in 1913.
By 1909 Mystic also boasted the first electric placer-mining dredge in the Black Hills. Its 78 buckets continually dug up the gravel creek bed and conveyed it to revolving screens. The dredge could move 55,000 yards of earth per month. But it, too, proved a costly flash in the pan, operating only a few months before its owners dismantled it and shipped it to Oregon.
In 1906 Mystic became a two-railroad town when the Dakota, Wyoming & Missouri laid its tracks through the valley. Better known as the Crouch Line, the 34-mile route from Rapid City to Mystic traveled a hair-raising grade, making 14 complete circles and crossing 100 bridges over Rapid Creek. The Crouch Line connected the smelters in Rapid City to the Black Hills mining districts and Wyoming coalfields. A 1907 flood washed out all but five of the bridges, but the Crouch Line managed to bounce back.
In 1918 entrepreneurs built a sawmill on the foundations of the Mystic Reduction Mill, and the following year George Frink—whose German immigrant father, William, had worked as a baker before investing in the mines—purchased the mill. He operated the sawmill almost continuously until 1952, becoming, with the railroad, Mystic’s chief economic pillar. Frink also served as postmaster for 25 years.
In the 1920s tourism from the railroad and improved roadways further buoyed the local economy, and President Calvin Coolidge even visited Mystic in 1927. Religion came to town in 1930 with the raising of the McCahan Memorial Chapel, built with wood from the Frink sawmill.
The Depression-era money shortage forced Frink to barter his lumber for more marketable goods in order to pay his men. Frink improvised to keep profitable, hiring trucks to ship his lumber over the new graded roads instead of using the railroad. The Frink sawmill survived a flood in 1920 only to be destroyed by a fire in 1936. Frink soon rebuilt it.
Mystic weathered the Great Depression but went into a steady decline after World War II with the closure of the Crouch Line in 1947 and the Frink sawmill in 1952. Constant flooding and the dwindling of timber and coal spelled the end for the Crouch Line.The last Chicago, Burlington & Quincy freight train went through Mystic in 1983, before its tracks also vanished.
Mystic, named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, sits on Black Hills National Forest land, just off graded Forest Service Road 231. It also marks bicycle Trailhead No. 7 on the 109-mile George S. Mickelson Trail.
Originally published in the June 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.