Railroads key piece of South Dakota’s 125th birthday

Farm Forum

When the Dakota territories entered the union more than a century ago, the railroad systems that ran through the region were absolutely crucial to its settlement. Railroads provided a safe and reliable method of transportation that connected the frontier to the rest of the nation.

As generations passed and other methods of transportation gained popularity, the rail system lost its perch as the premier form of transportation in America. But it still plays a crucial role in shaping the South Dakota economy.

On Saturday, the day before South Dakota celebrated its quasquicentennial, Rick Mills, the director of the South Dakota State Railroad Museum, gave a presentation called “Remembering South Dakota’s Railroads” at the Hill City High School Theater.

The presentation featured a collage of railroad photographs showcasing how railroads shaped South Dakota 125 years ago and how they remain vital to the state today.

The railway is far from its zenith in 1916, when South Dakota had 4,400 miles of railroad track and the nation had about 250,000 miles of track, Mills said. He estimated there are about 1,800 miles of track in South Dakota and somewhere around 160,000 miles nationwide.

Despite the decline, South Dakota would be unable to support an economy that is largely based on commercial agriculture without railroads, Mills said. The only other method of transportation for large quantities of freight that can compare to railroads is via water barge, which obviously isn’t a great option in most of South Dakota.

“Railroads are still the most effective and efficient method of land transportation for freight,” Mills said.

That statement is as true today as it was in 1891, he said. Many small towns would not be able to survive without access to railroads. Some towns actually wound up disbanding after their connection to the railways was severed, Mills said.

He explained how a grain elevator owner in small farming town could easily be ruined when a railroad leaves and how that can cause a cascade effect.

“The (railway company) couldn’t make money, decided they didn’t like the line or whatever and the railroads pull out of town,” he said. “It’s abandoned, the tracks are taken out, then what do you do? People aren’t bringing grain to you to take care of it. They’re saying, ‘Well, if I want to get it anywhere, I’ve got to truck it myself to another railroad town or somewhere else.’

“Your business is now the second thing to go under. You can’t make a living and you’ve got four kids and a wife, so you have to go somewhere else to make a living,” he continued. “You leave, your wife who was a teacher in that community, and your kids leave with you and it ripples through the community. If that happens to enough businesses in your town, suddenly a quarter of the town is gone, then half the town is gone, then suddenly your town is gone.”

That type of scenario has played out in many communities, Tilford being one nearby example, he said.

Railroads might be overlooked by some people since passenger trains have lost their popularity, but they have played, and will continue to play, a vital role in South Dakota as farmers and other industries rely on railroads to ship their products to the marketplace, Mills said.