Surrounded by rugged canyons and pine-covered hills, the town of 3,700 boasts the Mammoth Site, mineral water health spas, Evans Plunge, Wind Cave National Park, Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, lake resorts, history museums, the award-winning Southern Hills Golf Course and unique accommodations, shops and restaurants. Hot Springs is home to the VA Black Hills Medical Center and the State Veterans Home. While relying on the tourism industry, the town’s beauty also lends itself to a growing artist community.
Called Minnekahta (warm waters) by the original white settlers in 1879, the town’s name was changed to Hot Springs in 1886. Earlier, the Lakota and the Cheyenne Indian tribes fought for control of the natural warm waters. Legends tell of a hostile encounter waged in the hills high above the gurgling springs on a peak called Battle Mountain.
Spurred by a vast range and tall grass, ranchers staked their bankroll on cattle and helped build the town of Hot Springs. Merchants sold their wares, and by 1890 local residents such as businessman Fred Evans and others of entrepreneurial spirit embarked on an ambitious plan to turn the whole town into a health spa. Evans built the Evans Plunge over a group of small springs and one giant thermal spout of warm mineral water.
When the railroad began unloading passengers at the Hot Springs Train Depot in 1891, the town’s future was secured. From the mineral water’s mist rose elaborate sandstone buildings, and proprietors provided all manner of services and goods.
Meanwhile, members of the Grand Army of the Republic, an early veteran’s organization, found their way to Hot Springs and became so enamored with the refreshing lifestyle offered in Hot Springs that they lobbied the government and secured funds for the South Dakota State Veterans Home in 1891. Spurred on by the success of the State Veterans Home, the GAR lobbied, and succeeded, in creating Battle Mountain Sanitarium, the last of the original facilities created as part of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers program originally signed into law by President Lincoln.
However, unlike the other homes across the country dedicated to long-term retirement & care, Battle Mountain Sanitarium was specialized for short term stays, making it the first dedicated national veterans’ hospital in the country, making it the predecessor to the entire Department of Veterans Affairs today. Battle Mountain continued through the 20th Century and into today as an active healthcare facility for veterans. For this reason, Battle Mountain Sanitarium was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2011, one of only 16 in the state of South Dakota.
Today’s residents of Hot Springs are proud to carry on both legacies – that of the early pioneers who made Hot Springs the original Black Hills tourism destination, and that of those dedicated to fulfilling the promise to “care for him who shall have borne the battle.”