Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Fort Meade Back Country Byway

South Dakota is just filled with scenic little backroads, but not all of them jam-packed with so much history that they receive official designation such as the Fort Meade National Back Country Byway.

This 4.5-mile gravel route winds through the Fort Meade Recreation Area and includes historic burial plots, Indian encampment sites, and the preserved fort itself.

On the south end, the byway leaves Interstate 90 at Exit 34, which is also the access point for the Black Hills National Cemetery. The north access to the byway is east of Sturgis on Highway 34/79, just west of the entrance to Fort Meade Veterans Hospital. Signs point the way at both ends of the road.

Fort Meade was the last active military fort in South Dakota, being decommissioned in 1944. Originally built as a cavalry outpost on the frontier, it is famous as the spot where the "Star Spangled Banner" was first played as the flag was raised each morning. The tradition caught on and eventually lead to the song becoming the U.S. national anthem. It is now a combination preserved historical site and active veterans hospital. A cavalry museum on the grounds interprets the fort's importance in the settling of the west.

Traveling the byway leads us past several remnants of the military activity here - a machine gun range and stone ammunition storage building, short rock walls used to train cavalry horses to jump, and various other ruins are scattered throughout the hils and ravines. Historic markers tell the story at strategic spots.

At a high point in the route is the Old Post Cemetery. Remains of officers, soldiers, and their families are interned here overlooking the fort and the majestic Bear Butte in the distance.



Another grave along the route is that of infamous Black Hills criminal Curley Grimes. While being transported to trial for suspected stage robbery, Grimes was killed and buried by the two lawmen escorting him. Apparently not everyone believed the story of Grimes' attempted escape, but the bounty hunters were acquitted of any wrong doing. This historic marker notes the spot alongside the road, and just a few yards up the hill is Grimes' actual grave.



Views of both the pine-covered Black Hills and grassy plains are prominent along the byway, along with a large grove of oak trees.

More info on the byway and the recreation area can be found at these sites:

http://www.blm.gov/mt/st/en/fo/south_dakota_field/ft_meade.html

http://www.recreation.gov/recAreaDetails.do?contractCode=NRSO&recAreaId=1150&contractCode=126

Bear Butte dominates the views to the north, but warrants it's own post at some point in the future. It is a South Dakota state park and an extremely sacred site to several different Native American tribes.

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