John Culberson

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I was in Custer in 1972, age 25 years old. I grew up in Custer and had just graduated from college in 1971. I came back every summer when I was in college and when I was teaching school until 1973 then we moved to Pierre. Summer of 1971 I was the summer city police officer in Custer. I loved the job and had met Bill Morgan, highway patrolman, and he and I had worked together. In 1972 the night of the flood , what first happened was I was working as a Park Ranger at Jewel Cave national Monument and that day I happened to have the historic tours at Jewel Cave and I had two young men from California. We came out of the cave about 3:30 in the afternoon. Caves breathe opposite of the barometric pressure, atmospheric pressure, so when there’s a low pressure system coming in the cave will breathe out. When we got out to the entrance we had to move to the side because the wind was just ferocious coming out of the cave. You could see the dark clouds on the horizon and these two kids from CA said a few choice words and that storm had been following them for the last two days and told about the heavy rains the couple nights before. I went home and I had a tunable radio monitor listening to the police band. I could tell there were problems up north; they were talking about it; so I went down to the police station and Morgan was there, he said come on lets go to Hill City They’re having high water. So I got in the patrol car with him and when we left Custer it was not raining in downtown Custer, but when we got to the top of the hill right at the entrance to the cemetery it was just like driving into a carwash. So we drove, and it took an hour for us to get to Hill City and back on what would typically be a half hour drive. When we came back, we didn’t find anything, and the radio was starting to get a little active and we drove out of the rain. Virtually within fifty feet exactly the same place again, it was only sprinkling in Custer and pouring right on top of the hill at the cemetery entrance. We just got back to town (Custer) and the state radio in Rapid calls Morgan and says Joe Pine needs help in Keystone, and can you guys go and help. We came up (Hwy) 224 and we got to the area were you see George Washington’s profile and the guardrail was gone. Morgan said someone’s driven off the road up here; sure as the devil, right in the middle of all of this we’re going to have to signal one car wreck with injury, take this six-cell (flashlight) out there and see if you can see them down there. I got out of the car and the rain was so heavy you had to face away, you couldn’t breathe, and I had the six-cell looking down into this and I turn around and shine it back underneath. Nobody had driven off the road, what was happening was water was coming down off the monument and coming across the road and undercut the road and we were just sitting on top of asphalt. I got back in the car and said let’s get out of here because this is going to give way, and it ultimately did later that night. When we came down into Keystone, talking to Joe Pine on the radio, he said don’t come down here, we’re in trouble, I can’t get these people out of the campgrounds, and nobody wants to go. We didn’t pay any attention. We came down to the Discount Gas Station, which is where the gas station is still today but configured differently, and met with Pine; all of the sudden Morgan said we got to go. I turned around to see the water was coming down the road, crossing it and going into Grizzly Creek. We got in the car and immediately stalled out, there were big rocks coming down the road. We got out; the water was over my knees. I yelled at Morgan to get the hell out of the car. Fortunately the whip antenna was on the right side of the patrol car, which I later found out that we were the only district to put the whip antenna on the right side, I grabbed the antenna and flipped myself over the patrol car. We managed to go over that motel behind the old Copper Room and started beating on all the doors on the lower level, the water was breaking up around us. The motel cabins located in that area were on shale foundations, there were at least 20 kids down there. The water was coming so fast like a locomotive running by, we thought “oh my gosh those kids are dead,” we heard propane tanks exploding as they were going down the creek. We were soaking wet and there was nothing we could do. Then there was a whole period that was just a blur. It was strange the water went down as fast as it came up. I couldn’t believe it but every one of those kids that we saw earlier were still on the roof of the cabin, so we helped them off the cabin. Joe Pines car was okay so we got into the car and started loading people up to take them to Mt. Rushmore, all this time all I could think of was this only happening in Keystone? As it was getting lighter we continued to work our way back down the Main Street. By then a Pennington County Grader operator was coming into town. We contacted Custer Dispatch, to let them know we were okay. And unbeknownst to me, my wife, her mother and grandmother were on the other side of Sign Mall; they were in Rapid Friday to pick up my sister from the airport and got stuck in Keystone. They tried to call me. And at that time no one knew for sure if I was alive or dead. Then though out the morning of Saturday we were looking for survivors up and down Battle Creek. While sitting in the car on KIMM radio we heard that half of Rapid City was underwater. Later General Duke Corning from the National Guard, which at that time he was a legend in South Dakota. Anyway he saw me when he crossed the creek and asked, “Who was in charge?” I said, “No one, we have just been running the radio” and told him that this town did not have any form of government at the time. I was only 25 years old. And he said son, “You look like you know what you’re doing. What would you like from me?” I said well we are getting a lot of looky lou’s coming into town, we need the road blocked coming into town and Mt. Rushmore. So that’s what they did. Now by this time it is about 10:00am Saturday morning, and we had our shots, food was brought in, and dry clothing was coming in. We picked up the other patrol car out of the creek, and it wasn’t damaged, just full of water. A wrecker hauled the patrol car back to Custer and I went home to sleep for a few hours. Morgan and I came back into Keystone later that afternoon and parked our patrol car in the middle of the street sideways to guard the businesses from the looters that were still trying to come into town.

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Citation

“John Culberson,” Flood of 1972, accessed May 15, 2021, https://1972flood.omeka.net/items/show/621.