My ghost story is a little bit different then what we have had so far, it’s like most ghost stories, not documented, but instead passed down through legends and told around the camp fire. It doesn’t come from a National Park, but instead a City Park in the heart of Rapid City, SD.
When traveling through South Dakota you might see a common theme, flat and boring. Most of the state is grasslands, cattle ranches, and farms. Many of the cities that you come across are the type that you see out of the corner of your eye from the interstate, but if you blink you miss them. It’s a rather unimpressive drive until you hit the Rapid City, the gateway to the Black Hills.
Spared from the start of the Rocky Mountains, the Black Hills are a beautiful cluster of mountains that are filled with beautiful Pine and Aspen Trees. Their snow covered peaks glisten in the winter and radiate an iridescent glow of amber and evergreen in the summer. The hills are believed to be sacred by the Sioux Indian Tribe and have been full of legends and stories for thousands of years.
As the gateway to these gorgeous mountains, in the middle of Rapid City, a large hill separates the west side of town from the east side. For many years construction on this hill was limited; however, the city could not allow this beautiful property to go undeveloped, prohibiting people from seeing the beauty of the gorgeous 100 mile views that overlooks the badlands to the east and the Black Hills to the west. Instead they built a City Park on top of the mountain with a spiraling scenic drive so people could enjoy its beauty.
The Park at the top of the mountain is known as Dinosaur Park, as along the ridge of sandstone, dinosaurs of the late Jurassic age have been found there. To celebrate our history and to attract tourist seven dinosaur sculptures are on display, with a towering Apatosaurus, that is able to be seen from anywhere in town. The entrance to the park is a giant steep flagstone stair case that is located next to the parking lot and visitor center.
Now to the scary part, located roughly 300 feet from the base of this giant stair case and displayed as soon as you hit the top of the mountain is a large, mostly dead tree that looks like it should have been torn down years ago. However, the owners of the property that the tree is located on refuse to remove it due to of the tales that surround it.
According to legend, in the old days when cowboys and Indians still roamed the plains, Rapid City was a small community filled with mostly farmers and ranchers. One rancher had just purchased several new beautiful horses that he was very proud of, and had to display all over town. His enthusiasm was quickly crushed when one morning he woke up to discover that one of his new horses was missing. He believed that due to the beauty and caliber of these horses, something sinister had to have been involved and that someone had to have stolen it while he was sleeping.
At the same time, on the other side of town, a solo traveler had just stopped in the area to rest and recuperate from his journey. He was a quiet individual that didn’t associate with too many people, as he didn’t need to for Rapid City was not his destination it was only a stop along the way.
Outraged by the loss of his prized stallion, the angry farmer demanded justice for the thievery. He combed the town looking for anyone suspicious enough to have committed this devilish crime. His eyes quickly turned to this lone traveler who came into town on a horse that looked very similar to the one the farmer had lost.
Convinced that this had to have been the culprit, the farmer collected the people of the town to form an angry lynch mob, and capture the traveler. They demanded he be punished for this despicable injustice, and they were determined to set an example for everyone who thought thievery was an acceptable practice.
The enraged mob quickly located the traveler in a local pub. He refused to confess to the crime stating that he couldn’t have possibly stolen the horse as the animal had been taken before he had gotten into town. He also cried out to them asking “How could I have gotten into town without a horse to ride here on?”
Frustrated and so enraged with anger the town’s people refused to listen to his plea, and rejected any of his plausible reasoning to how he could not have been the culprit. They then tied him down and threw him in a carriage that would bring him to the tree that towered over the town. He would be hung where everyone in town, as well as any visitor, would be able to see how crimes are punished and how locals treat those to treat them wrong.
Once they arrived to the tree, the angry farmer tied the noose that would eventually lead to the travels unfortunate demise. The furious crowd scattered around the tree, screaming and taunting the traveler. In the farmer’s frazzled state, he fumbled to tie the rope on a low hanging branch, placed the rope over the travels neck and placed a box under his feet. Over the towns peoples cries the traveler was then asked for his final words.
In tears, he again pleaded the people for his life, but his cries went unheard. The box was kicked out from under his feet, and he hung there struggling for his life. The next event that happened shocked everyone. The traveler didn’t die instantly as many people do in this situation. As the farmer was so frazzled while tying this noose he didn’t tie it correctly and the traveler was not suffocated on impact. Instead he hung there, still pleading for his life as he had done prior to the box being removed.
Dismayed the town’s people were so enraged by the crime that they refused to correct their mistake and believed that he should suffer, and they left him there to die of starvation and dehydration. So it was, the traveler hung on the tree at the top of the mountain, crying to everyone that past him by, begging for his life and their sympathy, but it was not received. Four days he hung, blistering in the hot sun and slowly dying from dehydration.
The worst part of this sad story was the role played by the mayor of the town. Two days after the traveler had been hung they discovered that, in fact, the traveler had not stolen the horse and he was without a doubt innocent from the crime he had been found guilty. Fearing from retaliation the mayor and his officials did not tell anyone he was innocent, instead they watched him as he suffered solely for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
After the travelers passing, the people of the town refused to take the body down and give the traveler a proper burial. Thus, the unfortunate soul hung there, treated as a spectacle for months while crows and insects gnawed at the decaying body. During that time, the farmer as well as the mayor and his officials were murdered in their own beds; they appeared to have been strangled, with visible rope burn around their necks. Week after week a new victim was discovered, shortly after the town’s people discovered the fact that the traveler was innocent and that the mayor had deliberately covered up the truth.
Fearing that the disgruntled ghost was the cause of the unsolved murders, and scared that they or their families would be the next victims; the towns people gave the traveler a proper burial, next to the horse that was believes to have been stolen. Flowers and trinkets were put on his grave, asking the spirit to forgive them for their errors. Anyone that refused to give homage to the spirit suffered an untimely and tragic death shortly after the funeral. Soon after the murders stopped, but it is believed that his frustrated spirit still roams the mountain, searching for family members of the injustice.
Since then the tree has been named the “hanging tree” and is believed to be the center of all the evil within the city of Rapid City. There is a small cult following of self-proclaimed witches and warlords that give offerings and preform rituals in front of the tree in order to appease the traveler’s evil and angry spirit.