Memorial to 'mother of Rapid City' abandoned, deteriorating

A monument to Alice Gossage a founder of the Rapid City Journal that was originally on Skyline Drive in Rapid City is shown in this July 30, 2019, photo. (Adam Fondren/Rapid City Journal via AP)

RAPID CITY (AP) – A large concrete memorial that was created in 1937 to honor a Rapid City pioneer has been abandoned, forgotten and left to deteriorate behind a communications tower for the past 62 years, according to recent discoveries by local historical sleuths.

One of the people involved in locating the memorial, Jean Kessloff, said she is saddened by the memorial's fate.

"Is that the way we treat our history in this town?" she asked. "That's kind of how I feel about it."

Kessloff and others now hope the memorial can be salvaged and placed somewhere it can be appreciated again.

The memorial honored Alice Gossage, who arrived from Vermillion during Rapid City's official founding year of 1882 "to find a rough appearing western village which was to become the field of her life's work," according to her 1929 obituary in the Rapid City Journal.

Gossage's husband, Joseph, founded the Journal in 1878. His chronic health problems soon propelled Alice into a long-lasting leadership role at the paper, where she became a pioneering female publisher and editor who was involved in every aspect of the operation, from writing and typesetting to sales and delivery.

Her newspaper work made her a central figure in the city's early growth and history, but it was her charitable work that endeared her to Rapid City residents who later took great pains to memorialize her.

Gossage founded a charitable group called the Sunshine Society and devoted a portion of the Journal's building to the storage and distribution of shoes and clothing for the needy. According to her obituary, Gossage took "almost the entire responsibility for giving relief" to Rapid City's poorest residents during its earliest years.

Gossage sold the paper in 1925, her husband died in 1927, and she died in 1929 at the age of 68. Later tributes to Gossage referred to her as the "mother of Rapid City."

Gossage's contributions to Rapid City were so great that when local leaders conceived an idea during the early 1930s for a scenic drive atop a high ridge adjacent to the city – what became today's Skyline Drive – a local businessman named Horace Gambrill proposed the creation of a memorial to Gossage at the road's highest point, the Rapid City Journal reported.

Land for the memorial, which was designated as a park, was donated by George Mansfield and John Haines. Gambrill, along with the Fortnightly Club, of which Gossage had been a member, and other community leaders spearheaded a multi-year effort to raise money for a memorial structure. An architectural firm from Sioux Falls volunteered to design it.

The nation's economy was crippled by the Great Depression, but money trickled to the fundraising committee in amounts ranging from 50 cents to $10, along with touching written tributes to Gossage. Archives maintained by the Minnilusa Historical Association and Pioneer Museum, which is housed at the Journey Museum and Learning Center in Rapid City, include some of the letters and checks that were received.

U.S. Rep. Francis Case, who went on to become a U.S. senator and formerly worked for Gossage at the Journal, sent $3 and wrote, "I want you definitely to know that if you are short on funds for this particular Memorial, I want to contribute again." Recalling his time working for Gossage, Case wrote, "I think I have an admiration for her courage, her humanity and her determination and self-sacrifice that no one can exceed."

The Minnilusa records and the Journal's archives indicate that about $300 was raised over the course of several years. Then, in 1937, the Works Progress Administration, a program begun by President Franklin Roosevelt to put people to work during the Depression, agreed to contribute labor to construct the memorial.

In the final tally, according to a recollection published by the Journal in 1948, the WPA spent $2,992 on the memorial and the fundraising committee contributed $326, for a total of $3,318, which would equate to nearly $60,000 today.

Construction of the memorial proceeded while Skyline Drive was being carved into the ridge and graveled, and also while statues of dinosaurs — today's Dinosaur Park — were being erected farther north along the same ridge.

"The memorial itself is a shaft four or five feet high, square and concrete, on a large concrete base," the Journal reported at the time. The memorial site was a flat, treeless spot atop the ridge from which could be seen "Rapid City to the east, Cowboy hill to the north, western Rapid valley to the west, and to the south the Harney range of the Black Hills."

A bronze plaque affixed to the front of the memorial read, "Dedicated to the memory of Alice Gossage, pioneer, newspaper woman, humanitarian, friend, 1861-1929." In tribute to Gossage's Sunshine Society, a sundial was set into the top of the memorial.

During a dedication ceremony on June 5, 1938, dozens of people gathered in the Congregational Church to hear several speeches about Gossage.

"The community owes a debt to such a person, a debt that cannot be paid – the only thing we can do is to build a memorial to her," Mayor Robert Hill said during his remarks.

After the speeches and several musical performances, attendees drove up Skyline Drive in a procession and gathered to watch one of Gossage's lifelong friends place a wreath on the memorial.

Despite the solemn respect paid to Gossage that day, her memorial would suffer a sadly surprising and unceremonious fate only 20 years later.

To the chagrin of many in the community who witnessed the expense and labor that had gone into Skyline Drive's construction during the 1930s, the road fell into disrepair during the 1940s. In 1947, a Journal editorial said the road "is now blocked off and is growing up to weeds."

The city made repairs to the road, but its condition continued to lapse. In 1940 and 1956, lawsuits filed by the original grantors of city parkland along Skyline Drive succeeded in returning some of the property back to private ownership on the grounds that the city had neglected to adequately care for it.

One of the lawsuits was filed by Richard "Dick" Mansfield, son of George Mansfield, one of the men who had donated land for the Gossage Memorial in the 1930s. Mansfield won his lawsuit against the city in 1956.

Archived notes of 1955 and 1956 meetings of the Minnilusa Historical Association indicate Mansfield was awarded ownership of the Gossage Memorial site and agreed to donate it to the association. The notes also say a company hoping to erect the second television transmitter tower in Rapid City came forward and offered the association $800 for the land, which was a conveniently flat and high place for a tower. The association – which had been raising money for an addition to its museum in the building now occupied by Rapid City's Parks and Recreation Department in Halley Park – accepted the offer, according to the meeting notes.

Real-estate records show that Mansfield deeded the Gossage Memorial land to new owners in 1957. That same year, the new owners, Harry Daniels, of Deadwood, and Eli Daniels, of Rapid City, joined with John Daniels, of Deadwood, to construct a 450-foot tower for a new KRSD-TV station on the memorial site. The TV tower has since changed ownership and affiliation and is now the tower for KELO-TV and multiple radio stations.

The Journal, which published numerous stories during the 1930s about the planning, construction and dedication of the memorial, appears to have devoted less coverage to the memorial's fate in the 1950s. A 1957 story and photo package about the TV tower said it was "at the site of the old Gossage Memorial" without explaining what happened to the memorial. In 1958, a Journal story about the Minnilusa Historical Association reported that Mansfield had been elected its vice president, and "the Alice Gossage Memorial had been relocated to Halley Park from its former site on Skyline Drive."

But that was not entirely true. Only the memorial's small bronze plaque and sundial had been relocated and affixed to a pillar of quarried rocks and mortar in the southeast corner of Halley Park. That memorial still stands today, but it's largely unknown to the community.

The large concrete memorial structure that had been so lovingly placed atop Skyline Drive only 20 years earlier was left there, for reasons that do not appear to have been disclosed in the historical record.

Whether the concrete structure was pushed over before or during the erection of the TV tower, or whether the old memorial fell over then or sometime later, is also unknown to the local historical sleuths who have investigated it. However it happened, the memorial lies on its side today, cracked and deteriorating and nearly overtaken by vegetation, behind and just outside a fence that surrounds the TV tower. The old memorial is out of view to motorists on Skyline Drive, but is easily accessible by a gravel road that leads behind the tower.

The community's collective memory of the old memorial faded over the decades. Last winter, Pat Roseland, a local history buff, saw a 1930s picture of the memorial in a book about Pennington County's history. He did not recognize the memorial and wondered if it still existed.

Another local history buff, Jean Kessloff, joined the search and communicated with the city's Parks and Recreation Department, which had a picture on file of the concrete memorial's remains but possessed little further information. From the picture, Roseland determined the location of the memorial and found it last month.

Roseland and Mark Slocum, the executive director of the Minnilusa Historical Association and Pioneer Museum, subsequently located records in the Minnilusa archives that shed light on the memorial's creation and demise. The Journal found real-estate records pertaining to the old memorial site with the assistance of the Pennington County Register of Deeds Office.

Roseland now hopes the memorial can be resurrected.

"In my mind, it's still recoverable and reusable," he said.

There are still Alice Gossage relatives living in the Rapid City area, including her great niece, Laura Tonkyn, of Nemo. Tonkyn was aware of the modern memorial to her great aunt in Halley Park but was only vaguely aware of the earlier memorial to Gossage atop Skyline Drive. Tonkyn, who formerly worked for the Journal, said her family would welcome efforts to rescue the old concrete structure.

"If anybody gets a notion to do something with it," she said, "that would be nice."


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