Did Jesse Jump Devil's Gulch?
|Unlike Jesse James, modern visitors don't have to worry about the 70-foot-drop at Devil's Gulch, thanks to an iron footbridge. Photo by SD Tourism.|
Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the July/August 1994 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call 800-456-5117.
The sheer beauty of quartzite cliffs towering above Split Rock Creek are enough to attract visitors to northern Minnehaha County near Garretson. But the scenery is only part of the magic. Most come to see the spot where legendary outlaw Jesse James supposedly jumped an 18-foot-wide gorge in 1876 to escape a posse after robbing a Northfield, Minn., bank.
That same year, gold was discovered in the Black Hills. Custer's cavalry was obliterated by Indian warriors. And Wild Bill Hickok was murdered in a Deadwood saloon by Jack "Broken Nose" McCall. Considering all the goings-on in western Dakota Territory, Jesse James' flight through the region wasn't particularly important at the time. But James, a Missourian who turned to crime to support his family when he was refused amnesty from the Civil War, had a Robin Hood image to many pioneer Midwesterners who weren't especially fond of most bankers and railroaders, anyway.
He stole enough horses and scared enough people to create stories that have been passed down from generation to generation by Minnehaha County families, but the storytelling always returns to that 18-foot chasm over Split Rock Creek. Did he jump it? Like the No. Ten Saloon in Deadwood, only on a smaller scale, travelers come from around the world to take a gander. They look across the gulch and grin to one another. How could it be?
Local people are too honest to maintain that the jump absolutely occurred. There's room for doubt, they'll agree. But it could have happened. And they provide supporting evidence. In 1991, the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution built a cabin near the jump site and stocked it with memorabilia about the gulch and the James brothers — photos, news articles and other historical exhibits, all of which support the theory that Jesse may have jumped the gulch to safety.
Volunteers staff the cabin in the summer months and they do their best to answer questions, even from Japanese and European visitors. Foreigners are especially interested in the Jesse James legend. "A guy from Belgium asked me if I thought he could have jumped that and I told him sure, but it wasn't a Belgian horse," grinned Melvin ''Buck'' Jones, one visitor center volunteer. "He got a big kick out of that."
Elaine DeBates, another former volunteer, heard numerous family stories about the James brothers. "Local people are convinced of it from the stories that have been passed down." She said the terrain leading up to the gulch had changed since she came to the area in 1932. "When we first moved here, there were no trees and it was smoother. Now it is a lot rougher because of erosion," she told us when we visited in 1994.
Perhaps visitor center workers have a vested interest in perpetuating the myth. So we asked others in the Garretson community if the legend stands on solid ground.
We found Charles Bonte about a half mile southwest of the gulch. Bonte farmed and owned horses before he retired and moved to town, so he seemed a credible source. "A good horse could have made it if the rider took him up first and showed him the place," he said. "Otherwise he might have just slid into the creek."
Gregg Kringen, a farmer and horse trainer from rural Garretson, agreed. “Everybody thinks a saddle horse couldn't jump that. But if he was riding a good one he could have made it. If trees could talk, we'd know what really happened." Kringen said the terrain is so rough now that it makes the jump seem impossible. But he said old pictures of the gulch make the approach look reasonable.
To get a West River perspective, we called Dale Lewis of Martin, an expert on Old West lore and good horses. He thought the 18-foot jump was physically possible. "A big horse would be up to eight feet in length, and I would think he could jump twice his length," said Lewis. Human athletes can jump over 20 feet in a long jump, Lewis noted. "Horses have four-wheel drive, and they've got those strong back legs to leap with, so I would think a horse could jump at least that far. I bet it would scare the hell out of you. But if the posse was coming hard, maybe you'd be scared already."
So the legend continues. Did Jesse James jump the gulch when he escaped into Dakota Territory? If only cedar trees could talk.
|Nearby Palisades State Park. Photo by Chad Coppess.|
If You Go…
When you visit Garretson to see Devil's Gulch, allow some time for other stops.
A walking tour of the gulch has been established which is about an hour or more in length. It is an opportunity to not only enjoy the scenery, but also learn about the wildflowers, trees and shrubbery of the river valley.
Don't let the peaceful river fool you. Some areas of the canyon are reported to be "near bottomless." Local people dropped 600 feet of plumb line just under the bridge and still could not find the bottom.
Camping, picnicking, hiking, canoeing and fishing are welcomed at Split Rock Park, a scenic spot highlighted by a waterfall of native blocks built by WPA workers in the 1930s.
On the south side of town, beautiful rock formations can be found in Palisades State Park. It may be one of South Dakota's best-kept camping secrets.
For information on Garretson, visit www.garrestonsd.com or call 605-594-6721.