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Remembering a lost neighborhood


This photo by Keith Johnson shows one of the 770 homes destroyed by the 1972 flood. Photo courtesy of the Rapid City Public Library. Bottom: (Photo courtesy of the State Historical Society)

RAPID CITY—Thousands of stories have been and will be written about the June 9, 1972, Rapid City Flood, and there are ten times that many which will never be told. One story is that of 19-year-old Jerry Clarke, who raced the rushing wall of flood water east through the Gap, in his 1962 Ford Falcon, down Omaha Street, whipping a hard left to escape to the high ground of North Rapid.

“I heard the water behind me hit the grain elevator (on Fifth Street),” he told his brothers. Clarke described the sound of the collision as a “loud boom,” and the overall sound of the rushing water as a “huge roar.”

Every year fewer and fewer people remain who lived through the night of June 9, and Clarke himself passed onto the spirit world in 2015. The neighborhood that Clarke escaped through, a neighborhood of thousands of people, did not escape the Flood. It was shattered, swept away, and the swath of destruction that people woke up to the next morning, however jarring and unforgettable a sight, could not wash away the memory of what had been there on June 8. This lost neighborhood remained fresh in the minds of the people alive at that time. Only they recognize the bits and pieces still lingering of that neighborhood. Like the big white chicken at Storybook Island. Once it stood right beside the Fifth Street grain elevator, but when that restaurant was swept away, the chicken bravely remained.

Storybook Island itself could not do what the chicken did. It was mostly destroyed. The parts that survived were moved over to the new location. Many times when people are victims of such destruction and tragedy, they wish to not only replace what was destroyed, but create an even better version, to honor the memory of what was lost, to help heal the wound and provide closure. Some parts of the old Storybook Island were not transferred to the new location. The Wizard of Oz swing set can be found at a park up in Spearfish.

The old Sioux San Indian Hospital building was recently demolished despite its historic significance and sentimental value to the Rapid City Indian Community. On that night in June, 51 years ago, there was no better vantage point to watch the torrid, debris bristling waters rip across Sioux Park. It is doubtful any Hollywood destruction scene could have equaled it for graphic impact, to have exclusive ringside seats to the monstrous destructive energy.

But like the lost neighborhood, that Sioux San vantage point has been erased by time and tone-deaf tunnel vision. There is no specific memorial to the lost neighborhood. A limb amputated at the hospital must be buried respectfully, somewhere, but the lost neighborhood was a North Rapid limb, amputated. How can its memory survive when there is no specific monument to its existence, when it does not even have a name to share with those who were born after it was destroyed?

In that neighborhood was the old Mother Butler Center. The impact of Mother Butler on the fledgling Rapid City Indian Community cannot be overstated. The post-war Indian community coalesced around this building, and the nearby community building with its gymnasium, fundamentally altered the lives of two North Rapid generations. Those who walked through its doors can stand on the spot where it once existed and hear the squeak of sneakers on the gym floor, recall great players like Marty Waukazoo, Rich Garry, Steve Withhorne, Jack Tennyson, Lenny Dismounts. These players were the heart and soul of Dave Strain’s legendary Rapid City High School Cobbler dynasty.

Also in that lost neighborhood was the Boy’s Club. It had moved to that location seven years before, and there was a translucent brick placed in the wall with the year “1965.” Before this building was built, kids had been crammed into the old railroad building across Omaha Street. But this new building had everything. A library, a cafeteria, a gymnasium, and that is where Dave Arguello perfected his tumbling skills before he went on to become one of the star performers for the Rapid City tumbling team.

The community watched as a huge stockpile of donated concrete blocks arrived, multi-colored, taken from many different buildings. When the walls were completed, the multi-colors made the building look shabby enough to be a candidate for demolition. But Shorty Davies was one of the painters contracted to put a fresh finish on a Frankenstein spare parts creation, and when they finished, the building was beautiful to behold, and the community was very proud of it. Movies were shown on Saturdays, folding chairs lined up before a white projection screen, the room packed to watch color movies like Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island. But all of that was swept away during one dark night in June.

There is a new Mother Butler Center, a good safe distance from Rapid Creek on North Rapid high ground, and for those alive before 1972, it can still trigger memories of the old Mother Butler, both sweet and sad. There is a new Club for Boys, but it is not like the old Boys Club. Kids have far too many distractions nowadays, but between 1965-1972, boys from all over Rapid City from ages seven to high school, congregated at the Boys Club every day, to play in pool tournaments, shoot hoops in the gym, bounce on the trampoline, read books and play board games in the library.

No one in the lost neighborhood realized what a threat Rapid Creek posed. Every hot summer its waters were cold, with dozens of prime fishing holes. Kids waded in it almost every day, and it was seldom deep enough or dangerous enough to threaten many lives.

On the day of the Flood, the morning was bright and sunny, but uncharacteristically hot and humid. People remarked on the humidity, as it rivaled that of a swamp. High on the Rimrock Highway, dark clouds churned, towering ever higher, until their blackened summit rose beyond what any eye could see. When these clouds rolled over the city, they dropped a relentless deluge the likes of which no South Dakotan had ever seen. There were no camcorders or cell phones to capture it live. Unchronicled, it survives only in the memory of those who lived through it, and can never forget those who did not.

(Contact James Giago Davies at skindiesel@msn.com)

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