Written Memory


It started raining in the early afternoon. That wasn’t unusual and for the tourist shops that lined the road to Mount Rushmore on the “strip”, it meant more business as campers left their tents to escape the rain.

By 7:00 that night, the Keystone House was packed and the player piano in the back of the restaurant was cranking out honkey-tonk music. By 7:00, it was raining hard and this wasn’t our usual summertime shower. Rena, my wife, wanted me to go home and bring our three year old son and her sister to Keystone House. Ester, her 16 year old sister, just arrived from Pennsylvania that day and she didn’t think she should spend her first night in a heavy rainstorm. I didn’t want to venture out into the rain, but I agreed to go…reluctantly.

When I returned, Abner Hunter George, a local radio announcer, called to ask how Keystone was faring the storm. Minor flooding started in Rapid City. Thing were still normal in Keystone, but that changed about 9:00. We noticed red flashing lights outside our door and saw a Highway Patrol car moving slowly south down the strip. Battle Creek, near the 1880 Train, was flooding and out of its banks and the main road across the bridge was closed.

Keystone sits on Battle Creek and Grizzly creek and campgrounds line the creeks, just as campgrounds should. Battle Creek was the larger creek and Grizzly was shallow and only 3-4 feet wide as it flowed through the strip. Grizzly Creek was still in its banks about 10:00, but Battle Creek now flooded all the tourist shops on the strip.

I went downstairs to the basement with my dad, Tom McKiernan, and a couple customers to move merchandise to higher shelves because the basement was flooding through the sidewalk entryway we used for deliveries. We weren’t down there very long when Rena called down to tell us to get upstairs, “Water is coming through the doors and the store is being flooded.”

We hurried upstairs to the main floor and looked outside. The water outside was three feet high. Grizzly Creek had become a raging torrent and the little creek now stretched across the narrow valley containing the strip. Water was moving rapidly.

Suddenly, the Keystone House trembled. The basement delivery doors collapsed under the weight of the water and the basement flooded instantly as the water poured in just like water being flushed down a toilet. The entire portion of the Keystone House heaved as water slammed into the center building supports and raised the floor over 12 inches. Electric power went out.

We quickly herded the employees and customers upstairs to our second floor apartment. The first floor quickly flooded, but the building was holding. We didn’t know how long it would last and looked for escape routes to higher ground. We could escape over the Opry House rooftop and climb the hill behind the store. But, we didn’t want to leave before we had to.

Looking out the front window, we saw the flood at its full fury. Cars, tents with tourists screaming for help, debris and water swept downstream on the main road. There was nothing we could do to save them. The memory of tourists being swept downstream haunted us for years and we used to carry 100 feet of rope in our car for years afterwards to prevent the feeling of being helpless.

We survived, but the Keystone House was wrecked. So was my trailer located on Grizzly Creek. It was destroyed. If I hadn’t gone home to bring Ester and Curt to the Keystone House, they would both be dead. It appears a slag pile upstream on Grizzly Creek contained flood water, but finally failed and released a wall of water that wiped out the tourist campers along Grizzly Creek…and my home.

It’s been reported people found recording tape from our reel-to-reel tape collection over 10 feet high in the trees below Keystone.

By the next day, the storm was gone, but Keystone was destroyed. Old Keystone received the brunt of both Battle and Grizzly Creeks. Everything was buried in a thick cover of mud and clean-up took over a year. But, thanks to the Mennonite Disaster Relief group, the Red Cross, and many other organizations, lives were brought back to normal.

A lot of people died during the second worse flood in American history. For those of us that have lived it, these words don’t adequately describe the terror, heroism and resolve of those involved. I would say to those that read this: “Cherish life and live it as best. Events happen that will change your life, but accept them to make you better and stronger.” The 1972 flood will never be forgotten, but it has made us better and stronger. We wish you the best.



“A NIGHT TO REMEMBER,” Flood of 1972, accessed January 31, 2023, https://1972flood.omeka.net/items/show/623.