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Arts & Life

Custer's Big Rock aerial tramway

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The attached audio is from SDPB's daily public-affairs show, In the Moment.

Custer City (pop. 2000), a small, one-square-mile town nestled in the French Creek valley of the southern Black Hills of South Dakota, was born with unique qualities virtually unknown to the outside world. Geological activity had resulted in the formation of spectacular terrain surrounding the town. For decades after the town was founded in 1875, timber and minerals sustained its economy. Many mines and sawmills were established in and near Custer.

Fast forward to the 1930s, when the townsfolk decided to do something with the undeveloped south side of town. That area had rough terrain and was unsuitable for development. The town decided to designate it as a very large city park of over 50 acres. A huge monolith of exposed granite gave “Big Rock Park” its name. The park sat undeveloped for decades, used only for fireworks on July 4th and as an entertainment venue for “Gold Discovery Days, a community-supported celebration of the discovery of gold in 1874.

During the first half of the 20th century, a new economic engine began to appear as automobiles and better roads allowed the outside world to discover the drop-dead beauty surrounding Custer. Tourism arrived! Yet Big Rock Park remained undeveloped and mostly forgotten.

Around the late 1950s, many towns out west were also finding tourism profitable. Technology had advanced to the point that “aerial tramways” were established to transport tourists to high elevations, giving them birds’ eye views of the Great American West and leaving money in the pockets of locals. Custer decided to get on the tramway bandwagon, and thus was born the “Big Rock Aerial Tramway.”

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Boarding a Custer Tramway Gondola

The idea was perfect. Build a cable car tramway originating in downtown Custer that would transport tourists to the top of the Big Rock for those million-dollar views. Maybe even build a restaurant on top of Big Rock. The idea seemed like a definite money-maker for locals and some invested their money to make the dream a reality. Bad idea!

With funding available, the Big Rock Aerial Tramway was built and opened for business in the early 1960s. Unfortunately, instead of going uphill, the business went downhill from the very beginning.

Touted as having “the world’s first self-propelled aerial cable cars,” the tramway design was fatally flawed. The Chevrolet Corvair engines installed in each cable car were not up to the task. They were under-powered and there were other mechanical issues, which resulted in breakdowns. Some tourists found themselves stranded in a cable car that would not move. After two or three years, the whole money-making endeavor was shut down and investing locals lost money instead of making it.

For the next 35 years the potential of Big Rock Park remained untapped, but at the beginning of the 20th century a trail system was established in the Park, as well as a staircase built on the face of the big rock leading to an observation deck on top of the big rock. In 2014, South Dakota Magazine described the staircase as an “engineering marvel.”

Today, tourists and locals can access Big Rock Park from two trailheads.

They can ascend the staircase and see those million-dollar views for free.