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Sully Springs, A Badlands Ghost Town


When you think of “Ghost Towns,” you think of empty buildings and lost hopes. Interestingly, the State Historical Society of North Dakota has an actual “Ghost Town Index.”

This index has a file-card for a place named “Sully Springs.” If anyone would travel to the Billings County location, one would, logically-enough, find nothing there – except for a sign, held up by two posts, with the words: “SULLY SPRINGS.”

What happened to this ghost town?

Sully Springs was once a “flourishing frontier town,” located along the Northern Pacific Railroad tracks. It became famous as the place where railroad travelers first reached the rough buttes of the famous Badlands – even the London Times mentioned “Sully Springs” in an 1882 article about the American West.

The town was named after General Alfred H. Sully, who had camped there during his 1864 military campaign against the Dakota tribes, “near a spring which produced very good water.”

Situated in a little valley only five miles long by three miles wide, Sully Springs was 30 miles west of Dickinson and 8 miles east of Medora.

After the Northern Pacific laid its tracks through the Badlands in 1880-81, it built a large section-house at Sully Springs. It was home for the section foreman, his family, and a ten-man section crew. The crew inspected the train tracks daily, cleared snow, and fixed washouts.

Buffalo hunters made Sully Springs a major shipping point for buffalo robes and buffalo hides until they ran out of buffalo in 1883. At its most-prosperous, Sully Springs boasted a railway station, three saloons, a general store, and the sizeable section-house.

A few settlers eventually came to semiarid Sully Springs, after 1909, with misbegotten hopes of growing wheat there. A post-office opened in 1911. Sully Springs initially lacked its own schoolhouse, so children traveled by train to Medora or nearby Fryburg. But finally, on this date in 1933, Sully Springs residents completed construction of their very-own school building.

Sadly, the farmers abandoned the schoolhouse and Sully Springs by 1939. Drought, dust, grasshoppers, and desperation forced their departure. The Sully Springs post-office closed, forever. The reason: “No one wanted it anymore.”

The Federal Government eventually bought up all of Sully Springs and put it into the “Little Missouri National Grasslands.” Today, nothing remains, no buildings, no foundations, no ‘nothing,’ except the forlorn “Sully Springs” signpost in an uninhabited valley.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.

Sources: “Sully Springs School to Be Completed Today,” Billings County Pioneer [Fryburg, ND], August 31, 1933, p. 1.

“Sully Springs,” in “Ghost Town Index; Place Name Index (ca. 1935-1942),” N.D. Writers’ Project Records, SHSND, Bismarck, ND, Series No. 789, 26 F5, Box #2, p. 1.

Ray W. Lingk, “The Northwestern Indian Expedition . . . The Sully Trail (1864),” North Dakota History 24, no. 4 (October 1957): 184.

Echoing Trails: Billings County History (Fargo: Knight Printing Company for Billings County Historical Society, Medora, 1979), p. 61.

“West of the Missouri,” Dickinson Press, August 20, 1931, p. 2.

“From the Missouri to the Yellowstone,” The Times [London], August 7, 1882, p. 3.

“New School House Near Sully Springs,” Billings County Pioneer, August 10, 1933, p. 1.

Steven R. Hoffbeck, “Sully Springs: Saga of a Badlands Railroad Settlement,” North Dakota History 58, no. 3 (Summer 1991): 16-31.