Custer State Park History

Custer State Park is South Dakota’s first and largest state park, its history dates back to 1897. Just eight years after South Dakota joined the union, Congress granted to the state, sections 16 and 36 in every township as school lands. South Dakota had difficulties attempting to administer the scattered blocks of state school lands within the Black Hills timberland. In 1906, negotiations opened to exchange the scattered lands for a solid block. In 1910, South Dakota relinquished all rights to 60,000+ acres of timberland within the Black Hills Forest Reserve in exchange for nearly 50,000 acres of forest in Custer County and about 12,000 acres in Harding County. Together, these two parcels were designated Custer State Forest in 1912. After action by the State Legislature, having been prompted by the urgings of “prairie statesman” Governor Peter Norbeck, Custer State Forest became Custer State Park. 

  • 1914: 36 Bison were purchased from the Scotty Philip’s herd near Pierre
  • 1916: 12 pronghorn were added
  • 1919: On July 1, Custer State Park was officially a state park
  • 1921: C.C. Gideon opened the Game Lodge on August 8, it burned on October 19 and was reopened on June 15
  • 1922: Needles Highway was completed and 8 Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep were introduced
  • 1924: Bison herd totaled 100 animals
  • 1925: Badger Clark completed his cabin “Badger Hole”
  • 1927: President Calvin Coolidge and Mrs. Coolidge spent three months at the Game Lodge, “Summer White House”
  • 1933: The Civilian Conservation Corps completed Iron Mountain Road, connecting State Game Lodge and Mount Rushmore National Monument.  (Construction started on Mount Rushmore in 1927 and was completed in 1941.) The Civilian Conservation Corps completed multiple projects within the park
  • 1946: Black Hills Playhouse productions began in a tent near Legion Lake
  • 1951: 60 bison were purchased from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation herd
  • 1953: President Eisenhower visited the State Game Lodge
  • 1960: $1.00 windshield sticker vehicle permit was introduced
  • 1961: Visitation reached 1,000,000 people
  • 1966: In February, the first live buffalo auction was held with 100 animals sold to the highest bidder
  • 1979: The park museum and welcome center, built by the Civlian Conservation Corps, was dedicated as the Peter Norbeck Visitor Center
  • 1988: The Galena Fire, started by lightning, burned 16,002 acres
  • 1990: The Cicero Peak Fire, stared by a spark from logging equipment outside of the park, burned 4,510 acres within the park and 14,203 acres total
  • 2016: The new Visitor Center was unveiled
  • 2017: Legion Lake Fire was one of the largest wildfires in South Dakota history.