Gold In Them Thar Hills!
by Dawn Graves
When gold was discovered in the Black Hills, Sidney had the fortune of being the closest rail head to the region. Although the Black Hills in the Dakota Territory was reserved for the Sioux Indians by treaty, the military stopped enforcing it, resulting in throngs of people streaming through Sidney to get to the gold.
Sidney's population grew from fewer than 500 to about 1,000 in 1876.
Other towns vied for the status of having the best route to the gold, including Cheyenne and Kearney, but Sidney proved to be 60 miles closer to to the region than anyone else.
In 1876, When the Camp Clarke toll bridge over the North Platte river in Morrill County was completed, travel from Sidney became even more popular. It was the last stop before crossing the river and continuing north.
The wagon road to Camp Robinson in northwest Nebraska was extended to Deadwood, South Dakota, becoming the Sidney-Deadwood Trail.
Newspapers throughout the state touted the superiority of Sidney's route to the Hills, and between 1876 and 1877 about 1,500 people bustled through Sidney on a daily basis as they made their way toward Deadwood.
West of Sidney on Highway 30, a historical marker indicates where trail ruts from the gold seekers are still visible.
When gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1875, the resulting rush to the region brought many gold seekers through Sidney.
With up to 1,500 people per day passing through the town, Sidney became a very lively and busy place. Hundreds of people walked through the streets, stepping off the trains and getting onto coaches to reach the Hills.
Freighters, stage lines, private wagons, people on horseback and on foot all made their way to and from Sidney constantly.
Business boomed. At the height of the gold rush, Sidney's population swelled to 5,000 people.
A million pounds of freight would leave Sidney each day, and wholesale goods were shipped all over the country. Gold was transported by rail to banks on the coast. Numerous six-horse mail coaches were in use on the Sidney-Deadwood Trail.
Merchants, blacksmiths, confectioners, gambling houses, saloons and dance halls filled the town, and at one point, 87 separate establishments were licensed to sell liquor. The world's first 24-hour theater opened in Sidney at this time.
Business was so good, a massive fire which destroyed most of the business district in 1877 wasn't even enough to cause more than a hiccup in operations. Owners quickly rebuilt, and the people kept coming.
People from all over the country were captivated by the possibility of getting rich during the Black Hills gold rush in the 1870s.
Many people sought to cash in on the boom through respectable means – by opening shops, starting freighting companies and stage lines, or by actually finding gold in them thar hills.
Others, unfortunately, decided to use less respectable means.
With so much gold pouring out of the Black Hills, the Sidney-Deadwood Trail became haunted by gangs for whom the temptation of stealing the gold from others was just too great.
Coaches carrying bullion from Deadwood to towns on the rail line were regularly robbed after 1877.
In 1880, a stagecoach called “Old Ironsides” arrived in Sidney with a big shipment of gold to be transferred to a Union Pacific train.
The train was running late, so the gold was stored in a freight office overnight. The next day, the man who was staying with the gold went to get some lunch, and like a scene out of a movie, came back to find an empty room with a large hole in the floor.
480 pounds of gold had been stolen – in daylight, over the noon hour. It was the largest and most daring gold robbery in the United States up to that time.
After a search, most of the gold was found hidden under a pile of coal nearby, but about 12,000 dollars worth was still missing … and has never been found.
Sidney's stature as THE place from which to access the Black Hills during the gold rush in the 1870s meant hundreds of people passed through the town each day.
With so many strangers, cowboys, soldiers, desperadoes and adventurers filling the town, there was bound to be trouble.
Sidney acquired a reputation for being a lawless place. Newspapers all around the region delighted in reporting on the sordid and fascinating happenings of the town – particularly papers from places like Cheyenne which competed with Sidney to be the favored route to the Black Hills.
Newspapers labeled Sidney with many unflattering titles: “Wicked Burgh,” “Sinful Sidney,” the “Hardest Hole,” “Toughest Town on the Tracks.” These harsh labels were not based in fantasy.
Murders were frequent, robberies and gunfights were commonplace, and lynching was a preferred means of settling grievances.
Sidney was such a rough place at the time, that when the train would make its stop for fuel and water, it began to keep the passengers locked in due to the high potential for being mugged. Travelers from the east would stare aghast at the lynched men hanging from telegraph poles, plainly visible from the tracks.
It has been said that if passengers wanted to get off the train, they had to do so a mile out of town and ride a wagon in.