Belle Fourche means “beautiful forks” in French the term was used to describe the forks of the Redwater and Belle Fourche rivers. The Belle Fourche River, a tributary of the Cheyenne River, runs through South Dakota. The town of Belle Fourche lies on the same river. A major dam on the river is called the Belle Fourche dam.
The Belle Fourche River starts in Wyoming, flows past the famous Devil’s Tower National Monument (famous as the scene for first contact with aliens in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) before flowing into South Dakota. It passes the town of Belle Fourche before joining the Cheyenne River.
Belle Fourche Region Economy
The area was settled during and after the Gold Rush of 1876 to provide food for hungry miners. The town of Belle Fourche grew around a stage line stop at that point, though the area was a well known meeting place for trappers before that. The area has been a center of farming and ranching since the late 1800s. With the Redwater River is nearby, the entire area is filled with irrigated farmland and ranches.
The Belle Fourche dam was plagued with construction problems since the beginning, requiring frequent repairs and interventions. Land that was originally irrigated by the dam was poorly managed, with a large portion becoming water logged and unusable. This led to several influxes of workers. For example, Camp Fruitdale, a Civilian Conservation Corps camp during the Great Depression, was built at the south end of the dam to try to build a berm and improve the dam’s upstream face. The Civilian Conservation Corps camp was vacated when the World War 2 effort became a priority in 1942. From 1944 to 1946, the camp became a holding location for German World War 2 prisoners. These prisoners of war worked for local farmers.
Around 4,500 live in the town of Belle Fourche. The town’s largest employer is the school district. American Colloid and Bentonite Corporation, mining and material processing companies, are major employers. Lumber and agricultural products processing provides some employment. The area has historically been one of the biggest livestock shipping railheads in the western United States, a point where cattle are loaded up in cattle cars and shipped west. The town regularly hosts livestock auctions and wood shipping.
Belle Fourche Dam
The Reclamation Act of 1902 funded construction of irrigation works like dams to capture water for irrigation, canals and reservoirs. Because the Belle Fourche area was already utilizing irrigation to tap into the Belle Fourche river and Redwater River, the area was selected in 1903 for construction of a dam and related irrigation works. The Belle Fourche Dam was the largest rolled earthfill dam at the time it was built in 1905. A major modification of the dam in 1976 and 1977 installed a better berm and spillway. The dam currently irrigates almost 60,000 acres. Most of the crops are oats, barley, clover, alfalfa and other feed crops for local cattle.
Belle Fourche in History
The town of Bell Fourche was put on the map when Sundance Kid and four others robbed the Butte County Bank located in Belle Fourche, South Dakota on June 28, 1897. They only escaped with $87, worth around $1500-$2000 in today’s money. This was a fraction of the expected take because the town processed cattle every month and usually had many times that much money. The botched robbery is a famous story in its own right.