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.
From a bank robbery, a scandalous marriage, and a murder, doomed Owanka went from being a quaint prairie town to a desolate ghost town populated with only remnants of its past.
Homesteaders decided to settle the area in the late 1880s, and a town called Dakota City was established several miles northeast of the Owanka area. But Dakota City’s prosperity was not set in stone. In 1906, the Chicago Northwest Railroad decided to avoid the town and instead build through what would become the towns of Wasta and Owanka.
Dakota City residents packed up and moved to Wasta and Owanka to enjoy the prosperity the railroad would bring. Abandoned Dakota City became a victim of the times and was wiped off the map. The railroad brought water to the dry prairie town, and the town provided a much-needed stop where the trains could replenish their fuel.
Life in Owanka was not dull, and rodeos, shows, plays, and sports games were a regular occurrence. By 1925, the town was prospering with about 200 residents along with a healthy number of businesses like two hotels, a bank, a Methodist church, a Catholic church, the Owanka Bee Newspaper, several stores, two cafes, a blacksmith, a gas station, a five-story grain elevator, and a community hall. (The grain elevator is one of the few remaining buildings in 2017.) By 1915, schools were built to accommodate the growing number of young people in town.
Interestingly, the schools helped lead to Owanka’s abandonment. In 1928, the school’s superintendent married a ninth grade student at the school, to the disgust of the community. Many parents decided to move their children to schools in different towns as a result of the scandal.
Another nail in Owanka’s coffin was a 1920s bank robbery. Robbers broke into the bank at night, blew up the safe, and made away with all of the money inside. A posse formed to chase the five thieves, but none were ever captured. Owanka locals no longer trusted their money in the Owanka bank, and moved their money and business to other towns.
However, things didn’t improve and the town only continued on a downward spiral. In 1935, the railroad stopped hauling water to the town. Locals had to bring in their own water from rural wells. The South Dakota highway was constructed five miles from town, leaving the town with declining economic prospects.
The town was rocked by the murder of Claude Hawks by his brother, Edd. On December 6, 1940, three local boys were at the grain elevator when they heard a commotion and Claude running from Edd. Claude tried to run as Edd emptied a gun into him. Claude was driven to the hospital in Rapid City but succumbed to his wounds on December 16. Despite the three boy’s testimonies, Edd was released, never having served a day behind bars, perhaps because three of Edd’s brother-in-laws testified on his behalf.
Owanka was divided by the murder as people took sides. In this divisive atmosphere, more parents took their children to out-of-town schools. The last class at the high school was in 1943, but the elementary school stayed open until 1964.
The town of Owanka is nothing but a distant memory now, after facing insurmountable circumstances. There are still some reminders of the town’s past prosperity like the grain elevator, weathered homes, and car skeletons.
Read Connie Mickelson’s “What Happened to Owanka?” for an indepth look at Owanka’s history.
By Kelsey Sinclair