Not quite six miles south of Interstate 90 in the undulating green hills of Pennington County lies Owanka, South Dakota, a near ghost town with a story of bad luck and bad deeds that led to its present depopulated state. According to a number of sources, the present population of Owanka is two, although there are two more residents who ranch on the outskirts of town, effectively doubling the population.
Owanka began as a Native American settlement known as Wicota, a term that meant “a crowd.” The name eventually became Owanka, which had two meanings, but the one which is accepted by present day residents is “a good camping place.”
Owanka is located along Box Elder Creek which was a good source of water originally, but Owanka’s misfortune would begin when mining interests in the Black Hills to the west began to monopolize water supplies. By the time the railroad arrived in 1907, the water in Box Elder Creek slowed to a trickle and became unfit for both humans and livestock. Nevertheless, the residents of Owanka made do, and the town thrived for a time.
If the literally dry landscape wasn’t challenge enough, Owanka was also a dry settlement. Joe Waterston, the landowner who donated the plot for the depot, insisted no alcohol be served in Owanka. Anybody who wanted a drink had to get it somewhere else, and no saloon was ever built in Owanka. In spite of the challenges, Owanka swelled to 200 residents by 1925.
Owanka once had a school, too, but the long-abandoned structure was torn down in the 1970s. The demise of the school was reportedly hastened by a superintendent who, in 1928, married one of his ninth grade students. Disapproving parents decided to take their children to other schools. The school scandal, together with an unsolved bank robbery (brick building, pictured top) and subsequent bank failure, sent Owanka down a spiral it would never recover from.
A series of bad developments eventually drove Owanka to the edge of ghost town status. The cemetery was abandoned. The railroad stopped hauling water to Owanka. The highway was built too far from town. All contributed to a slow decline in Owanka.
The primary source for this post is a town history written by Connie J Mickelson. We found reference to the document online, but the link was broken. Luckily, we were able to recover it from a web archive, and we have re-uploaded it for your review.
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Photos by Troy Larson and Terry Hinnenkamp, copyright Sonic Tremor Media