A ghost town comes back to life: Lead, South Dakota

A ghost town comes back to life: Lead, South Dakota

Have you ever thought about what it would be like if your town shut down? 
What would you do if 90% of the jobs, including yours, went away?

Those of us living in cities rarely need to think about this. If we did, most of us would say, “That’s a no brainer. I’d move somewhere else and get another job!”

If you’re from small towns, though, these questions are all too familiar. I continue to be struck by the number of people in these small towns who stay, against all odds, and refuse to let their town die. 

Welcome to Lead, South Dakota.

Where is Lead?
If you, like me, have never heard of Lead, not to worry. Unless someone sends you there or you invest in gold, it’s not a place that screams, “Come visit me!” Located just south of Deadwood, Highway 85 cuts straight though this once-vibrant gold mining company town. You can easily whizz by before even knowing your were there.

My entre to Lead
This summer, I met a man in Iowa who’d been a reporter in Lead a few years back. Over BBQ he said, “Carolyn, you’ve got to go to Lead. I’ve been following your trip, and you haven’t been to a town quite like this yet. There’s an astrophysics science lab studying dark matter that’s saving a ghost town.” 

I imagined a scene from Mad Max set in a spaghetti Western, an ultra-sleek dome rising above desert sage.

“Tell me more,” I said. 

For the next hour he talked about the town’s closure in 2000, the underground science laboratory that took its place, the construction to prepare to have neutrinos shot through rock from Chicago to Lead.

“Without the science lab, the town would be dead,” he said.  

I had to go!

I looked at the map. It was perfectly in line with my route.

The region around Lead
I was about 40 minutes away on the Dakota plains when the storm hit. The sky blackened. The wind pushed my car to the right. I steadied the wheel, pulling left. The wind was gusting at over 70 miles per hour—faster than I was driving. 

In minutes, the sky cleared and shafts of light struck through the remaining clouds and shot across the landscape.

I spotted the mountain on my left. There was no mistaking it, I was again at Bear Mountain, the sacred medicine mountain I had stumbled upon last year. (Fascinatingly, I keep finding myself immersed in this region.)

As I drove through the storm, rounding this mountain, I realized why this was the PERFECT last stop of my trip: Not only would I be witnessing a town that is being “saved by science,” but I would also be learning more about how we are navigating the murky, often disturbing realities of treaty rights.

The entire Black Hills region is still in a 150-year treaty debate. In fact, forty years ago the Supreme Court awarded the Sioux Nation reparations now worth over a billion dollars for illegally appropriating the region. The Sioux Tribe has yet to take a dime. 

I looked up the population statistics on Lead. It’s 90% white with only 2.5 percent native. Most Native Americans in this region live on two of the poorest reservations in the country, Pine Ridge and Standing Rock.

Plagued by an unemployment rate above 80 percent, arid land, little to no industry and alarming rates of alcoholism, it’s no wonder outsiders ask: Why do the nine tribes constituting the Great Sioux Nation, including those on Pine Ridge, staunchly refuse to accept $1.3 billion from the federal government?

By 1999, Lead’s Homestake Mine (now a science lab) had made $6,500,000 in sales with an annual payroll of $8 million. Homestake was just one of dozens of industry permits for mining of minerals in the region.

The Sioux want the land back.

Lead stats today
Lead’s current population is just about 2,978, down slightly from the 2010 census. If you’d like to get a good idea about the social/economic/make-up of the town (and many like it), check out Lead Data.

Until 2002, the main employer was Homestake Mine, the largest and deepest gold mine in North America. Operating for 124 years, at its peak Homestake employed 2,200 people and supported a thriving economy with virtually no unemployment. Lawns now empty once held boats, RVs and other favorite outdoor play toys. Today, other smaller mines are still operating, but most of the 2,000 miners who lost their jobs left the city and the state.

Now a shell of what it once was, some say Lead’s future rests in the Sanford Underground Research Facility, the Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility (LBNF) preparing to study the properties of neutrinos. Others believe that, for the long term, they need to reinvent their town by growing smaller economies and building an outdoor recreation market.  

Accord to DATAUSA, the largest industries in Lead, SD, are currently Accommodation & Food, Arts/Entertainment/Recreation and Health Care & Social Assistance. I’ve found these statistics comparable to most small towns that are moving from a manufacturing economy to a recreation economy. The highest-paying industries, though, are Mining, Quarrying and Oil and Gas ExtractionUtilities, and Administrative, Support and Waste Management Services. As you’ll notice, though, far fewer are employed in these higher-paying jobs. 

What Lead looks like
I had been invited to a concert in downtown Lead the night I arrived. I showed up early to make sure I got parking.

The streets were relatively empty, parking was ample. I had time to kill, so I took a drive through a historic district of town. Driving the windy streets with roads cut into the hillside, Lead reminded of the West Virginia hollers. As with most company towns, housing for its workers tends to be close and modest. Lead was no exception. Although this mining town had originally been erected in the late 1800s, many of today’s homes were built much later. In the early 1930s, the town leadership feared the miles of tunnels under Lead’s Homestake Mine might collapse. Some buildings, like the Opera House, were moved further up the hill. Today there are approximately 500 homes in this district. Most people of means, though, live along the ridge just outside of town.

The people who are bringing it back to life
A few months back, when I was in Mississippi, a Main Street director described how he can tell if a town will thrive. “If it’s just a bunch of old white guys, the town will never succeed.”

Sadly, as in other regions of the county, there is little racial diversity in Lead. But what impressed me most about the place is that its “drivers” are diverse in age, class, occupation and lifestyle:

Sarah: Artist, Opera House director. Towns must have art venues that create diverse programming to draw people in. With her generous, warm and outgoing personality, Sarah is just the person to do this. She came to Lead via a graphic design gig at a successful firm in a town nearby. The first time she stepped into the Opera House, she was smitten. She loves theater, is a semi-professional singer and is addicted to restoring old buildings. When the chance came up to lead the charge of reclaiming this gem, she jumped at the opportunity. Her parents thought she was crazy. Now, years later with the Opera House stable, Sarah has found a new director so she can focus on development.

Matt: A self-proclaimed optimist and real estate agent. This is a pivotal role for a town in flux and having someone who can work seamlessly with investors is critical. Matt is that guy! I’ve met plenty of optimists in my day and I actually don’t trust many of them. Far too often their positivity feels like a new age formula from self-help gurus to help them manifest their grand desires. Don’t get me wrong, I am a HUGE believer in manifesting. I just don’t trust the sticky-icky-positivity that disregards the realities of life. Matt, though, he taught me what being an optimist really meant. The result: The town trusts him, big time!

Matt knows what it’s like to lose a town not once but twice. When he was a kid, his family lived on a ridge just beyond the town limits and near another open pit mine, Wharf. As the open pit expanded, the company started buying out families to grow their operation. Matt’s family was bought out. The family did well on the sale, but Matt’s childhood community is now an open pit. To be clear, Matt has nothing against mining; he just knows what it’s like to lose your past—twice. The second time was when Homestake closed. Like others in his town, he want through denial, anger and depression, all part of the stages of grief. 

Mark: Astrophysicist/poet whose dad was a miner working for over a decade at Homestake before it closed. Born in Utah, Mark grew up in Sturgis, just about 20 miles away. Finally moving to Lead in 2013, as a permanent scientist, Mark had the amazing opportunity to work along side his dad, who oversaw daily operations within the shafts. The stories Mark shares about the relationship he shared with his dad and their lunchtime talks about philosophy, spirituality, and life purpose, made me envious. I wondered, what it have been like to work alongside my own father, I man I deeply respected.

 Without a doubt, Mark should be the poster-boy/man for Lead, inspiring others by showing them that you can live your dreams in small, tucked-away places. He’s able to bridge the Lead of the past to the Lead of today. At one point, Mark and his dad both worked for the science laboratory. Mark was a scientist, while his dad oversaw the operations team (ex-miners who maintain the miles and miles of tunnels).

Whatever preconceived notion you, like me, might have of miners, Mark broke every one. He is open-minded, progressive, self-effacing, brilliant. Oh, and on the side, his dream is to use art, poetry, math and science to share the dynamic yet elusive nature of dark matter science. 

Constance: Communications Director at Sanford Underground Laboratory. Someone asked me the other day how I would describe Constance. She is just about the most driven and outspoken ambassador for science and technology that I have ever met! As Sanford and Lead seek to gain more visibility and strengthen their image, it’s essential to have a Constance on your team. 

Jamie: Owner of Lotus Up Espresso & Deli and founder of Souper Starz. In cities overflowing with cafes, it can be easy to underestimate their importance in small towns. Many say having a good cafe that serves as a community hub is vital to a town’s success. Lotus Up serves that purpose. Jamie’s mission: “I created a space to invite everyone in with open arms, to let them know that there is a place in the world free of judgement in which you feel safe.” Also check out Souper Starz, her program to promote community-based development through crowdfunding, creativity, collaboration, democracy, trust and fun: http://www.souperstarz.com/community-events

I could go on for pages about the power people in this town. Like all other rural regions, they are constantly looking for ways to build economic stability. 

Is the science laboratory saving the town?
When I first heard about Lead from the ex-reporter, I expected that the town and the laboratory would have a symbiotic relationship that fosters long-term economic security while developing a labor force mirroring our more technologically based millennial era. Within the town, there is much debate about how all this will occur and what role the science lab actually plays. What the future holds is still unclear. The mayor of Lead said it best when he commented to the press, “We hope that this place starts to become a business district again, around science,” said Mayor Everett. “Homestake was here for a long time. They provided jobs, security. The lab is going to be here for a long time. There’ll be jobs, there’ll be security. What those jobs are? Don’t know.”

As debate around Sanford’s economic contribution swirls through town, the international science center has created a Cultural Advisory Committee to promote cultural awareness in all functions at the Sanford Lab. This includes advising on diversity, education, educational outreach, sacred status of the Black Hills area, and incorporating cultural awareness into the daily operations of the Lab.

With the construction of the neutrino experiment soon to be underway, there will be employment opportunities. Everyone I spoke with is wise enough to know that they’ve got to build economic infrastructure within the town. They’ve got young innovators bring great things to life.

To do all of this, they need investors.

Know any?  

If so, let me know, I’d gladly get them to the right people.  

Other than the snow in winter, Lead is my one of my most favorite places in America!  




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