The History of Belle Fourche, South Dakota

Belle Fourche is the county seat of Butte County, South Dakota.  The name is French for “beautiful fork” because it’s site on the “forks” of Hay Creek, Redwater River and the Belle Fourche River.

Beaver trappers worked the rivers in the mid 1800’s, and Belle Fourche became a well-known fur trading rendezvous point. During and after the great gold rush of 1876, farmers and ranchers alike, enticed by free lots, settled in the fertile valleys, growing food for the miners and their work animals. At the same time the open plains for hundreds of miles in all directions were being filled by huge herds of Texas and Kansas cattle as emigrants from Texas and Kansas brought large herds northward.  Towns sprang up to service the ever changing needs of the farmers and ranchers.

In 1884, the Marquis de Mores, a French nobleman and contemporary of Theodore Roosevelt, established a stagecoach line between Medora, North Dakota and Deadwood, South Dakota. The Belle Fourche way station along the route included a stage barn and a saloon.

Belle Fourche might have been nothing more than a footnote in history were it not for the railroad. When the Fremont, Elkhorn and Missouri Valley railroad reached the Black Hills, they were seeking to expand to the adjacent plains.   

The nearby town of Minnesela seemed like the logical choice, but Seth Bullock had quietly been purchasing land for about 14 years from departing homesteaders along the Belle Fourche River.  He foresaw that the cattle barons and railroad would need a place to load cattle onto freight cars for shipment to packing plants in the Midwest.  When the railroad finally came, Bullock was ready and offered the railroad a deal they could not refuse.  He offered free right-of-way, even agreeing to build a terminal for $1, if the railroad would locate it on his property, near the present-day Belle Fourche Livestock Exchange. 

Eager to save money, the railroad bypassed Minnesela in favor of Belle Fourche, and the fate of both towns was sealed.  In 1890, the first carload of cattle was shipped by rail from Belle Fourche. Within five years, the town became an important agricultural center and livestock hub, shipping as many as 2,500 carloads of cattle to Midwest packing plants and points farther east during the busiest times.

After winning a competition with Minnesela over the railroad, which now goes through Belle Fourche, Bullock’s town went on to win the county seat in the election of 1894.

Belle Fourche became the largest livestock shipping point in the world at the time and was named the county seat of Butte County in 1894. The town grew quickly, while Minnesela faded into obscurity. The first church service was held on the platform of the railroad depot, with parishioners using planks laid across beer kegs for seating.

Belle Fourche is one of the most important livestock shipping rail-heads in the West. The Center of the Nation Wool shipping warehouses are the largest in the US even today.  The city is the trading center for a three-state agricultural area encompassing 21,000 square miles in NW South Dakota, NE Wyoming, and SE Montana known as the Tri-State Area. A hub for livestock auctions and wool shipping, Belle Fourche also is the center of a bentonite mining industry.

The downtown area’s architecture retains the aura of the early 1900s; many of the buildings now contain antique shops. Belle Fourche is still the business hub for the Tri-State Area serving a large area of ranches and farmers.

With the admission of Alaska and Hawaii to the Union in 1959, the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey officially designated a point 20 miles north of Belle Fourche as the Geographic Center of the Nation.  Today, the Center of the Nation is marked by a 21-foot diameter monument made of South Dakota granite in the shape of the compass rose, at the Belle Fourche Visitor Center and Tri-State Museum.