November 6, 2023 in South Dakota

The Wild and Rugged History of Keystone, South Dakota

Early History

The Black Hills region of South Dakota has a rich history spanning thousands of years. Long before European settlers arrived, the area was inhabited by various Native American tribes including the Cheyenne, Crow, Kiowa, Arapaho, and Lakota Sioux.

Archaeological evidence shows that Native American tribes were living in the Black Hills as early as 7000 BC. These tribes subsisted through hunting bison, deer, elk and other game that was abundant in the area. They also gathered wild fruits, seeds and roots.

The Lakota Sioux have the longest documented connection to the Black Hills, arriving in the region around 1775. The Lakota called the Black Hills area “Paha Sapa”, considering it a sacred part of their spiritual tradition. Various bands of the Lakota frequented the Black Hills for vision quests, sun dances, and to gather food and materials.

By the early 19th century, the Lakota Sioux had become the dominant tribal group in the Black Hills. Their culture and way of life was deeply intertwined with the land and resources of the region. However, this long history would soon be impacted by the arrival of European and American settlers.

European Settlement

The area near present-day Keystone was originally inhabited by Native American tribes, including the Lakota Sioux. It remained largely unexplored by European settlers until the early 19th century.

In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase brought the land under American control. Soon after, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the Lewis and Clark Expedition to explore the newly acquired territory. While Lewis and Clark did not travel directly through the Black Hills region, their journey represented an important step in American exploration of the West.

It wasn’t until the 1820s and 1830s that fur trappers representing French and British trading companies like the American Fur Company first ventured into the Black Hills in search of beaver pelts. Men like Jedediah Smith, Jim Bridger, and Hugh Glass were among the first European Americans to explore and map the Black Hills area.

These mountain men helped open the region to future settlement, but had frequent violent encounters with the Native American tribes of the area who saw the fur trade and loss of lands as a threat to their way of life. Their journals and maps provided early written accounts of the Black Hills before permanent white settlement.

Founding of Keystone

Keystone was founded in 1892 when gold was discovered in the Black Hills region of South Dakota. The town’s name comes from its location near the “keystone” of the Black Hills region.

The early economy of Keystone was centered around gold mining. Many prospectors came to the area looking to strike it rich after gold deposits were found. Several small mining camps popped up in the hills surrounding what would become Keystone.

Two key founders of the town were Henry Reese and Alonzo Powers. Reese owned some of the most profitable gold claims in the area and convinced the railroad to build a spur line to Keystone to transport ore and supplies. Powers opened the first general store and post office in Keystone in 1893.

The influx of miners led to rapid early growth for Keystone. By 1894, there were over 1,000 residents. The town was officially incorporated in 1895. In its early days, Keystone had over 40 operating gold mines nearby. While mining remained the central industry, the town also became a supply hub and popular getaway destination for visitors to the Black Hills region.

Growth & Development

Keystone experienced rapid growth and development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The population grew steadily as the mining and timber industries expanded.

New railroads were built connecting Keystone to major transportation routes, allowing the mining and timber resources to reach broader markets. The increased mining activity led to the founding of new towns and settlements in the surrounding area.

As the mining operations grew larger in scale, Keystone became home to several corporate offices and headquarters. The banking and financial sectors expanded as well to support the growing mining and timber industries.

The creation of Mount Rushmore National Memorial in the 1920s further spurred tourism and service industries in Keystone. Hotels, restaurants, shops and other businesses opened to serve the influx of visitors to the area.

Keystone’s population swelled from just a few hundred residents in the late 1800s to several thousand by the 1930s. The town invested in public infrastructure like schools, parks and municipal buildings to serve the needs of its growing community.

Overall, Keystone’s growth and development from the late 19th through the early 20th centuries transformed it from a small pioneer settlement into a thriving hub supporting the key natural resource industries in the region. The prosperity and expansion of this era laid the foundations for Keystone’s future growth into the 21st century.

20th Century

The early 20th century brought continued growth and development to Keystone. The town was officially incorporated in 1930, solidifying its status as an established small town in the Black Hills region of South Dakota.

One of the most notable developments in Keystone’s history came in 1927, when construction began on the Mount Rushmore National Memorial just outside of town. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum was commissioned to carve the 60-foot granite faces of U.S. Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt into the Black Hills mountainside.

The Mount Rushmore project brought an influx of workers and tourists to Keystone, spurring the growth of new businesses and facilities. Boarding houses, cafes, gift shops all opened to serve the growing numbers of visitors coming to see the monumental carvings take shape.

Work on the Mount Rushmore sculptures continued for 14 years, finally reaching completion in 1941. The famous landmark firmly put Keystone on the map as a destination for history lovers and outdoor enthusiasts. Through the mid-20th century, tourism continued to expand as people flocked to see the monument and take in the beautiful Black Hills scenery.

Keystone also became known for its strong skiing culture. With its prime location in the forested hills, Keystone was a natural place for winter recreation and ski resorts. Ski jumping competitions were held starting in the 1930s, establishing Keystone as a hub for winter sports.

So while still maintaining its small-town charm, Keystone grew into a bustling tourist destination and thriving community during the 20th century thanks to developments like Mount Rushmore and the rise of the ski industry. The town embraced its role as the gateway to some of South Dakota’s most prized historical and natural landmarks.

Recent History

Over the past 50 years, Keystone has undergone significant changes to its economy and way of life. Whereas the town was once primarily supported by the logging and mining industries, today tourism and outdoor recreation drive the local economy.

In the 1970s, new environmental regulations restricted logging and mining operations. Many businesses were forced to close, leading to high unemployment. Keystone had to reinvent itself to survive. Local leaders decided to leverage the town’s proximity to Mount Rushmore, the Black Hills, and other natural attractions to bring in tourist dollars.

Tourism marketing campaigns promoted Keystone as the “Heart of the Black Hills.” New hotels, restaurants, shops, and other amenities catering to visitors were constructed downtown. An emphasis was placed on showcasing the town’s Wild West mining heritage. Attractions like reptile gardens, mini golf courses, go kart tracks, and theme parks opened along the main highway into town.

While tourism continues to expand, Keystone has also attracted some tech companies and entrepreneurs. The low cost of living and access to outdoor recreation make it appealing. In the 2000s, a business incubator was opened to support startups. However, the town still struggles with a declining and aging population. Efforts are underway to attract more young families and professionals to live in Keystone year-round.

The economy today is far different from the past, when timber and minerals drove everything. But Keystone has proven resilient, leveraging its natural beauty and heritage to stay vibrant.


Keystone has a Mayor-Council form of government. The mayor serves as the chief executive and administrative officer of the city. The mayor is elected to a 4-year term. The current mayor is Randal Morris, who was first elected in 2018.

The City Council is the legislative and policy-making arm of Keystone’s municipal government. The Council consists of 8 elected members who serve 4-year terms. Two council members are elected from each of the city’s 4 wards. The City Council is responsible for passing ordinances, adopting the city’s budget, and establishing policies.

Some of the main departments in Keystone’s municipal government include Police, Fire, Public Works, Parks & Recreation, and Planning & Development. The department heads are appointed by the mayor.

The city operates its own municipal court system with a presiding judge. Traffic violations, misdemeanors, and municipal ordinance violations are handled in the Keystone Municipal Court. More serious criminal cases are referred to the county or state court system.

Keystone utilizes a City Administrator who oversees the day-to-day administrative functions and operations of the various city departments. The current City Administrator is Jessica Watkins.

Culture & Arts

Keystone is home to a thriving arts and culture scene. The town’s remote mountain location has attracted many creative individuals over the years.

The keystone Center for the Arts is the main cultural institution in town. Founded in 1981, it hosts art exhibits, musical performances, lectures, and classes year-round. The Center includes a 500-seat theater, art gallery, and arts education studios. Annual events include a 3-day arts festival each summer and a classical music series in the winter.

Music is an integral part of the culture in Keystone. There are frequent concerts held at venues like the Keystone Amphitheater and Keystone Brewing Company. Musicians across genres like bluegrass, folk, country, and rock perform throughout the year. The town is known for its vibrant live music culture.

Keystone is also home to a thriving community of visual artists. Many painters, photographers, sculptors, and craftspeople live in the area and sell their work locally. There are several galleries that showcase local talent, such as Mountain Art Collective and Keystone Fine Art. The town’s natural mountain beauty provides endless inspiration for artists.

Annual cultural events draw visitors from across the region. The Keystone Bluegrass Festival in July and Keystone Oktoberfest in September are popular music events. The Keystone Plein Air Festival each June attracts landscape painters to capture views of the surrounding peaks and valleys.

From concerts and exhibits to craft fairs and cultural festivals, Keystone has developed a strong arts and culture presence. For a small mountain town, it boasts a surprisingly diverse array of creative offerings and activities. The arts are essential to the character of the community.

Notable Residents

Keystone, South Dakota is the hometown of several notable individuals who have made impacts locally and beyond. Here are some of the most famous people originally from Keystone:

  • Laura Ingalls Wilder – One of the most famous former residents is Laura Ingalls Wilder, the beloved author of the Little House book series. She lived in Keystone as a child and drew inspiration from her experiences for her books. The family’s surveyor’s house where they lived is now a museum.
  • Harvey Dunn – Renowned painter Harvey Dunn was born on a homestead near Keystone in 1884. He went on to study art and become known for his impressive paintings depicting pioneer life and WWI combat. Several of his works are displayed in the South Dakota Art Museum.
  • Adam Vinatieri – Pro football kicker Adam Vinatieri grew up in Keystone and attended the local high school before launching his storied NFL career. He played for the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts, setting numerous records along the way.
  • Dick Termes – Artist and inventor Dick Termes is another famous former Keystone resident. He pioneered new artistic techniques and created the Termesphere, a revolutionary spherical canvas. His art studio and gallery are now open for tours.
  • Ernest Lawrence – Although not from Keystone, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Ernest Lawrence graduated from Keystone High School in 1916. He invented the cyclotron particle accelerator and has a display about his work in the town’s museum.

Keystone may be small in size, but it has produced numerous individuals who went on to achieve great things and become famous both in South Dakota and beyond. The town rightly takes pride in the accomplishments of its most notable former residents.


Keystone is a popular tourist destination in South Dakota’s Black Hills region. The town offers a variety of attractions and activities for visitors.

Some of the major sites and attractions in Keystone include:

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

  • The famous monument featuring the carved heads of four U.S. presidents – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. It’s located just south of Keystone.

Keystone Wye

  • A large letter Y intersection where trains can change tracks. It’s a popular spot to watch trains passing through town.

Big Thunder Gold Mine

  • An old gold mine from the 1890s that offers tours where visitors can pan for gold.

Rush Mountain Adventure Park

  • An adventure park with attractions like a roller coaster, go-karts, mini golf, and an alpine slide.

Presidential Trail

  • A scenic driving route through the Black Hills featuring stops related to presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt.

Keystone has plenty of lodging options, from hotels and motels to cabins and campgrounds. The city’s visitor center provides maps and information to help tourists plan their stay. Popular activities include hiking, biking, golfing, horseback riding, and exploring the local shops and restaurants.

The city hosts special events throughout the year like the Red White & Blue Fourth of July Celebration, Bike Rally, Railroad Days, and Gold Discovery Days. Peak tourism seasons are spring through fall.

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