South Dakota has no shortage of historic “tourist attraction” ghost towns, complete with gift shops and tour guides. But if you’re looking for a unique glimpse into the history of the Black Hills, take a walk off the beaten path and go hunting for these ghost towns hidden away in the hills.
The small graveyard from the ghost town of Carbonate is marked with a wooden sign. The wooden grave markers have faded decades ago and are unreadable. There are at least 11 graves, but knowing the certain number of people buried here is now impossible. The grave marker that faded last was for John Tripp, a man born in 1835 and died in the winter of 1888. His grave told a short, but sad, story that John died “with no property or valuables.” The graveyard is the story of prospectors and settlers who were plagued by dangerous mining conditions, infant mortality, a devastating diphtheria outbreak, and violence of all sorts. But life in Carbonate was not all bad.
In 1880, James Ridpath staked his claim to the West Virginia Mine and began to settle what would become Carbonate. The town was named after the carbonate (mixture of silver and lead) ore that was found at the West Virginia Mine that would lead to the town’s prosperity. By August 1881, 200 miners had constructed a makeshift town and a wagon road from Carbonate to Spearfish was completed!
The town grew to include several saloons, shops, restaurants, two barber shops, two laundries, an office, and a drug store. The town’s first newspaper, The Carbonate Reporter, was founded in 1881.
The town’s prosperity was halted in 1883, when the local roads degraded, making transportation impossible. Other mines like the Iron Hill Mine and the Seabury-Calkins Mine found success and brought the town out of the slump. William Hugginson’s Black Hills Hotel, the largest hotel in the Dakota Territory, was built here. It was three stories high and housed a saloon and banquet room. A school, church, bank, and post office were also constructed during this boom period. In August 1886, the first class was held in the schoolhouse.
But the prosperity did not last. A smelter was built here, and would ultimately bring disease and death to the prosperous town. The smelter fumes killed all the cats in town, and rat populations increased dramatically. The vermin spread illness and a devastating diphtheria epidemic struck Carbonate. Signs reading “Keep out: Black Diphtheria!” were erected around the town and stayed in place until 1910. The town was largely abandoned. The last resident, “Raspberry” Brown died in 1939. Carbonate had a more dramatic and tragic demise than most other mining towns that simply faded away.
“Diphtheria, mine accidents, suicide, infant mortality of undetermined causes — heartache of more than one sort was in Carbonate, but what a rip roaring camp it was,” said Frank B. Bryant, a famous Deadwood pioneer.
Today, there are still some remains of the lively mining town including the cemetery, a house, a bus, and some mining structures. It can be found by going about four miles west from Maitland.