All too often, remaining ghost towns have deteriorated to the point that it is difficult to imagine what it had been like. Galena is an exception. Only a couple miles from Deadwood, it is very well-maintained by the couple remaining residents and the Galena Historical Society. On the second Saturday in June, tourists are invited to visit Galena and enjoy live music, food, and self-guided hikes to remaining structures to get a glimpse into the life of the early settlers of the Black Hills.
Around 1875, the gold rush to the Black Hills drew a number of illegal settlers to the area. The Black Hills had been promised to the Lakota people with the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, but settlers were too busy trying to carve out their fortune to worry about any laws or treaties. The town of Galena was established in 1876.
The history of Galena reads like a Western drama, but it was all too real for the hopeful prospectors, merchants, and families that called the town home. At its height, the population was about 1,500 to 2,000 people with boarding houses, general stores, saloons, a barber shop, sawmills, a meat market, and a newspaper.
Galena was named after the lead compound that was common around the area. These galena deposits also contained silver.
One of the first claims filed in the area was by Sarah Campbell, also known as “Aunt Sally,” who was likely the first non-Native woman in the Black Hills. She first came to the area with Custer’s 1874 Expedition as a cook.
During this time, another fortune-seeker named Thomas Francis Walsh came to Galena to sell tools to those looking for gold and silver. He later became a multimillionaire from his stake in Colorado’s Camp Bird Mine. His daughter, socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean, was the last private owner of the Hope Diamond. While she never attributed her misfortunes to the well-known Hope Diamond curse, her first son died in a car accident; her husband ran off with another woman, and he later died in a psychiatric sanitarium; her daughter, also named Evalyn, died of a drug overdose at the age of 25; and her grandson was killed by enemy fire in Vietnam. Thomas Francis Walsh’s cabin still remains in the town.
One of the main mines was Sitting Bull mine, which in December 1876, a local paper wrote “is a new discovery at Bear Butte, and prospects as well as the best previously located, and from appearances is a true mine.” In 1879, the mine shipped out $14,000 in silver and lead.
In 1877, Galena’s McDonald Smelter was built, making it the first in the Black Hills. The number of mines grew to include others like El Refugio, Florence, Merritt, and Washington.
In 1882, a Catholic church and a Methodist church were built, but the methodist preacher ran off with the church funds. Thus the Methodist church never officially opened and was instead used as a dance and social hall.
A wealthy businessman by the name of Col. John H. Davey came into the Galena mining scene from Chicago. His life before appearing in Galena is murky, but his impact on the town is crystal clear. He purchased the Florence Mine, which was directly across the gulch from the prosperous Sitting Bull Mine. His costly shopping spree continued, and he bought the Sitting Bull Mine, the Yellow Jacket Mine, and shares in other mining claims. By 1883, he was making about $500 per day, mostly from silver and employed 125 miners.
Like his father, Davey’s son Frank wanted to take a swing at the mining industry. He partnered with Patrick Gorman and purchased the McClellan Claim. A disagreement had occurred between the two and they ceased partnership. In 1882, Frank and his escort Billy Thatcher went to the post office to pick up mail and ran into a drunk Patrick. An argument began and Patrick began manhandling Frank, who then withdrew his pistol. Billy stepped in and shot Patrick, who died minutes later. The elder Davey provided a large sum for Billy’s legal fees, and he was found not guilty and left the area after the trial.
A dispute with the nearby Richmond Claim escalated to a trial in front of a judge, and the town took sides. After 95 witnesses were questioned, the judge ruled in favor of the Richmond Claim. From legal expenses and other costs related to the trial, Davey lost a good portion of his fortune. He was exhausted from the drama of the town and with the Black Hills mining business, so he packed up his family and moved to Idaho.
This claim dispute in addition to the murder of Patrick Gorman led to the decline of Galena. There were several periods of revitalization and decline, like in 1902 when a rail line came through the town. The line was abandoned by 1912. By the end of the Great Depression, all Galena’s mines had closed, with the exception of the Double Rainbow Mine. The schoolhouse closed in the summer of 1943.