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Pennington County’s Harney Peak at 7,242 ft. is the highest point in North America east of the Rocky Mountains. A well-worn hiking trail leads to its top where a wonderful panoramic view rewards those who make the climb. During Custer’s Expedition in 1874 into the Black Hills, history records that on July 31st Custer and some of his officers made the strenuous climb to the mountain’s peak. At the top, they made a toast to General William S. Harney for whom the peak was named.
The 1874 Expedition’s reports of gold brought thousands of miners into the Black Hills over the next few years. In spite of the 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty with the Sioux Nation, small mining camps sprang up in the Black Hills; many in what would become Pennington County.
In 1875, Pennington County was formed. It was named for John L. Pennington, the governor of the Dakota Territory at that time.
The first county seat was located at a mining camp called Sheridan. Sheridan and Pennington County, SD hold the distinction of hosting the first Federal Court west of the Missouri River. In 1878, the county seat moved to Rapid City. Sheridan eventually became a ghost town and in 1939 a dam was built covering the former county seat with what is now Sheridan Lake.
In 1927, with the dedication speech by President Calvin Coolidge, the work on Mt. Rushmore began. A dream that began in 1923 with Doane Robinson, superintendent of the South Dakota State Historical Society, was now a reality. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum started the work of art that would bring visitors from around the world to the granite cliff known as Mt. Rushmore in Pennington County, South Dakota. The work he began that day would consume the last 14 years of his life. Borglum’s selections for the Mt. Rushmore monument include George Washington, the nation’s first president and the “father of our country”, Thomas Jefferson who envisioned a United States spanning from coast to coast, Abraham Lincoln “the Great Emancipator” who steered our country through the Civil War and Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, who Borglum saw as the embodiment of the American spirit. On October 31, 1941, the work on the sculpture was done.
Located in Pennington County just east of Rapid City, Rapid City Army Air Base was established in 1942 to train B-17 crews. In 1947, after World War II, the base became the Rapid City Air Force Base for the B-29 Superfortress. In the following years, renamed in memory of Brig Gen Richard E. Ellsworth, Ellsworth AFB evolved with the country’s strategic needs. During the Cold War, it became known as the “Showplace of SAC”. It has been home to the B-36, B-52, Strategic Missile Wing and B-1B.
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