City founders billed the community as the “Gateway to the Black Hills,” and it quickly lived up to the moniker. Originally known as “Hay Camp,” Rapid City soon became a staging ground for wagons hauling supplies to miners in the Black Hills. Later it would also serve as a hub for rail traffic.
The population grew and shrank with several booms and busts between 1880 and 1920. The South Dakota School of Mines, formally established in 1889, provided a focus for higher education and after 1920, Rapid City population began to steadily rise. President Calvin Coolidge drew the nation’s attention on western South Dakota when he relocated his White House staff to the Black Hills in 1927. That same year Gutzon Borglum began carving Mount Rushmore, helping to spark a tourism industry that still powers the local economy.
During World War II, the War Department created the Rapid City Air Base (later renamed Ellsworth Air Force Base). After the war, the base and a growing economy fueled Rapid City’s development.
What may be the seminal event in Rapid City’s history began with a raindrop. On June 9, 1972, heavy rains caused massive flooding of Rapid Creek which would become the Rapid City Flood of 1972. The worst natural disaster in South Dakota history, the flood claimed 238 lives. As documented on the Rapid City Public Library's Flood website and by National Weather Service, the flood caused $160 million in property damage.
The city rebuilt, creating a 12-mile-long bike path and public greenway along the creek’s banks that serves as both a memorial to the lost and a means of ensuring such a tragedy never happens again.