The Final Chapter in Capa, South Dakota

The Final Chapter in Capa, South Dakota

We visited Capa in July of 2015, near the end of a four day trip to explore some abandoned places in North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota. So many times, when visiting vacant, out-of-the-way places on the high plains, we find a regular, criss-cross grid of gravel roads, intersecting every mile or two, and we can easily drive right up to our desired places, but that was not the case in Capa.

The road we traveled to Capa began nine miles to the west, outside of Midland, and it rolled pleasantly through the South Dakota prairie without any major crossroads — it was our first clue that we were in for something special.

For much of the nine mile drive to Capa, we were alone. We passed one or two farmsteads, and a group of cowboys on horseback, but saw very little traffic. Just as we pulled into Capa to photograph the old stucco school, we realized there was a black pickup behind us, right on our bumper. We got out to take photos and waved at the people in the pickup, but they drove around us and proceeded down the road about fifty feet, where they stopped for some time while we took photos, then eventually drove away.

Capa, South Dakota

Capa has been the recipient of quite a bit of press as a near-ghost town with a single resident, Philip O’Connor, who lives in the same house (not shown) where both his parents and grandparents lived. He is reportedly a quite friendly gentleman and sometimes comes out to greet visitors and tell stories about the good old days, but unfortunately, we did not see him or his dog, Midnight, on the day we visited.

Capa, South Dakota

The sound of Capa is the distinct ambience of the plains. The sound of swishing prairie grass was interrupted only occasionally by the squawk of birds, or the creaking of a piece of tin, peeled-back from the roof of a vacant house and yet to be weighted-down with a rubber tire.

Capa, South Dakota

The former Catholic church in Capa has collapsed. According to this genealogy blog, it was last used in 1940. This is also a perfect example of why we photograph the places we do, and publish books like Churches of the High Plains, to create some kind of visual record, because time always wins.

Capa, South Dakota

Capa, South Dakota

As we wandered Capa, lost in photographic heaven, Terry was drawn to a building at the east end of town with peeling yellow siding and a sign that read “Capa 1907.” We later discovered it was once the Capa Hotel, built by Alexander Thorne. The hotel featured some highly-regarded hot mineral baths, with waters piped-in from an artesian well.

Capa, South Dakota

Capa even had a newspaper at one time. “The Capa Hustler” was published out of the hotel by a gentleman named Ary Byl (spelling corrected, see comments) who was also the postmaster.

Capa, South Dakota

Capa, South Dakota

Capa, South Dakota

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Capa, South Dakota

Capa, South Dakota

When we had finished photographing Capa, we drove east, just to see what we would run across, and discovered two sets of bridges — the railroad bridges were still in pretty good shape, the auto bridges, not so much.

Capa, South Dakota

In the end, we were very happy to have made the trip to Capa, South Dakota and to photograph it in its final chapter, before the book closes on this beautiful place.

If you enjoyed this post, check out another place we visited with one lone resident — Monowi, Nebraska.

Capa, South Dakota

Photos by Troy Larson and Terry Hinnenkamp, copyright Sonic Tremor Media

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24 thoughts on “The Final Chapter in Capa, South Dakota

  1. What an amazing place! So much history behind it, what with the fancy hotel and the newspaper. I’m grateful you guys capture these buildings while they’re still standing and “living.” Another state I love – Upper Michigan – has a similar fate with fading ghost towns and many, many historical buildings and towns. It is amazing to see the far-reaching places people have traveled to, and what they leave behind.

  2. Have you been to Walker South Dakota?? It still has residents, but there are a couple of old buildings on the south side of the highway. It is on Hwy 12 between McIntosh and McLaughlin.

  3. Love your journey and explorations! Having lived in ND these pictures and narratives are dear to my heart! Our family traveled many of these areas, of course we did not see your off the beaten path treasures.

    1. Curt,
      Who are your parents? I am Joe Thorne’s granddaughter and Oliver’s youngest child. Any information that you have would be welcomed. Thank you, Judy

  4. I just attended a Martin family reunion the end of June and remember driving down into Capa back in the 60s. There was much more then and we’re losing a lot of these old towns. Thanks

  5. I loved reading this story. Capa is a part of my family’s history. My dad stayed in one of the houses pictured here (sixth one up) with his Grandmother Thomas his first year of high school in the old gray stucco school. I taught school in that same building in 1967-68. I had seven students and it is nice to read a comment from one of them. My dad’s family homesteaded North of Capa and they considered it their home town. There are two cemeteries near Capa and many family members are buried in each of them. I see one of my sons is with the group of cowboys you met on the road that day. Good memories.

    1. Barbara – I’m working on a documentary about ghost towns in SD and I’m trying to find someone to share some history about Capa, either about their family or the towns itself. Could I chat with you?

  6. The 12th image is the home of my great grandfather, Joe Thorne, who was known as Diamond Joe for the diamond J brand he employed. The house once had a veranda and was ordered from a catalogue and shipped to Capa by rail in segments. My late grandmother, Esther Thorne Howard, told me about having to flee to higher ground when the “horseshoe bend” of the nearby Bad River flooded when she was a small girl.

    1. This is awesome! I recognized the house from a picture I have when it was new. Joseph Thorne is also my Great-Grandfather! My Grandmother was Mary Elizabeth Thorne. I have a poem written by a school teacher about the “Diamond J O Ranch”, Elma Scheel Rearss. Visited Capa 3 times in the 90’s.

      1. Kathy, Jeremy’s is my cousin. Our Grandmother Esther was the school teacher at Capa for several years before she was married. I wonder if she was the one that wrote the poem? Incidentally portraits of the Thornes hang in my mother’s dining room. I know we have Thorne cousins in Portland, zi really think we should gift the portraits to them at some point. Thank you all for reminding me to get on it.

        1. Hi Kathy,
          I have read your post. I am Joseph Thorne’s granddaughter and Oliver Thorne’s daughter. My siblings and I live in the Portland Oregon area. I would love to see pictures of the portraits that you have of the Thorne’s. How are we related? Thank you Judy

    2. Hi Jeremy,
      Your grandmother Esther was my dad’s sister. I am Oliver’s youngest daughter. I would love any information that you might have of the Diamond JO ranch. Thank you, Judy

  7. My grandparents, Edward Sr. and Elizabeth Nemec were married in the Capa Catholic church in 1929. My dad, Edward Nemec Jr., told stories that as a boy they would visit friends in town and play in the concrete pool at the mineral baths. He called it the “Capa Plunge”.

  8. I am sitting here with goosebumps because I just saw on this site that Ary Byl (note spelling – it’s printed Bly under the picture), MY GRANDFATHER (!!!) published that newspaper in Capa. I sometimes do a random search about Capa; my grandfather and grandmother had two children while living there, Elizabeth Johanna (my mother) and David Ary. They had a third child, Johanna Gertrude who is in her nineties and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The family apparently moved to Grand Rapids after Grandpa Ary’s tenure as post master ended. I am THRILLED to see the information and photos on your site. You may be interested to know that my grandfather was a Dutch immigrant who came to this country as a farm supervisor/ farm hand, and after marrying my grandmother, Anna Schurink, purchsed 240 scres south of Prairie Dog Creek, east of highways 14 and 63. The old survey, also found online, specifies section 24 T2NR26E in what was them Lyman County but is now Jones County. Only a few photographs of that land survive; I have one that shows mother and her brother in 1917 tending to the chickens. I am so blessed to have found this information! I am going to keep digging. Wish I knew which house had been theirs —- the house that my grandfather built in Grand Rapids still stands, but it is in pretty poor condition. THANK YOU FOR THIS POSTING! You truly blessed me today! Sincerely – Mary Ann Potter in Oxford, NC (And I am a farmer! My husband and I bought this property a few years ago after retirement. I was a high school English teacher for 37 years, and my husband was in the corporate world. I am following my grandpa’s footsteps!)

      1. Thank you so much! This whole experience has meant a great deal to me. Perhaps some day I’ll be able to see what’s left of Capa. Folks need to know that there were great Americans in those places! Have a most blessed and bountiful day. You have a wonderful blog here; feel free to come visit mine.

    1. My grandparents, Jack and Margaret Huston, owned a ranch in South Creek Township – between Midland and Capa. Grandpa Jack came to the area at age 9 by covered wagon from Holt County, Nebraska. His parents were Arthur and Susan Huston. At one time, Jack and Margaret owned a grocery store in Capa. My father, Rex Huston, won a railroad car in a poker game in Capa in the mid 1950’s. As of 2010 it was still sitting along the road where the Huston ranch once was.
      My aunt, Marguerite (Huston) Dennis, who passed away in 2013, said she went to school with the one remaining man in Capa. My uncle, Huey Huston, also owned a ranch nearby. These photos brings back fond memories of spending the summer on Huey and Ruby’s ranch when I was 10 (1965), and at my grandparents’ ranch. I was born in Pierre and lived in Midland as a small child.

  9. I have been through Capa several times. I developed the Trans South Dakota Adventure Trail (TSDAT) a 750 + mile off pavement route across South Dakota. I have visited with Mr. O’Conner & he is a delightful gentleman! Full of life & a pleasure to sit back & listen to. I have a picture of him if you would like.

  10. We have been to Capa in May this year. Great place. And we could talk to Philip, who told us a lot of the old times.
    We could take many photos of course. And then went on to Owanka. We love these ghosts …
    Greeting from Germany
    Ellern and Udo

  11. I love these pictures! My fiance and I got engaged on the bridge pictured near the end of the end of the post, and returned this fall to take our engagement pictures. With permission, we took a few at that big, beautiful house. It truly is a beautiful place!

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