A Note from Cottonwood Corners

Shortly after 1900 two railroad towns – Evarts and LeBeau – appeared on the east side of the Missouri River just east of the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation.  Evarts was the first to become well-known.  It was founded when the Milwaukee Railroad continued its Aberdeen line westward in anticipation of an extension across the Indian lands.

Cattlemen in the northwestern part of South Dakota realized that is would be a direct and shorter route to the Chicago market.  Ranchers along the upper reaches of the Grand and Moreau rivers made an agreement with the railroad officials whereby they secured from the Indians a six-mile right-of-way along the northern edge of the Cheyenne Reservation.

The railroad provided stockyards and dipping pens on the west bank of the Missouri.  The Indians received a toll of twenty-five cents per head for all cattle and horses driven over the eighty-seven mile stretch across the reservation.  The watering places on the six-mile wide strip were spaced about twelve miles apart – a day’s drive for a beef herd.  Some of them were natural water – lakes, creeks or water holes – but the railroad built several big dams so there was plenty of water, even in dry times.

Sheep were excluded from the railroad.  In addition, the railroad maintained a pontoon bridge for a year and then provided ferry service to the railroad.  The six-mile-wide strip was fenced with a sturdy barbed-wire barrier.

Evarts received its name in 1900 when two Milwaukee railroad officials met at the ranch of Gene Overholser to discuss plans for the extension of the railroad to a point on the Missouri River near the ranch.  When railroad officials revealed that a town was to be founded at the terminus of the line, Overholser suggested that it be named Evarts in honor of his wife, whose maiden name was Olive Evarts.

With arrival of the first train that same year, Evarts developed overnight from a railroad camp into a young city of tents, shacks, and hastily constructed buildings. Brick and frame buildings went up everywhere, and settlers came with their families to the new city.

It never attained a population of more than five hundred permanent residents. However, during the spring and fall shipping seasons several hundred cowboys, buyers, and “drifters” swarmed the streets and transformed Evarts into a boisterous and important cow town.

It was said that on the days when beef were shipped, a trainload of cattle left the stockyards every hour.  Evarts was then the largest primary cattle market in the world!

Cattle by the thousands were trailed from the great ranches west of the Missouri River to be herded across a pontoon bridge at Evarts and shipped to Eastern markets.  As many as 128 carloads of cattle were driven across the precarious bridge and shipped out of Evarts in a single day.

When the Milwaukee railroad decided to build its Pacific coast extension, it became necessary to secure a site for a bridge across the Missouri River.  The soil at Evarts was not suitable and the engineers finally decided upon Mobridge.  The main line of the railroad was then extended from Glenham to Mobridge, cutting off Evarts completely.  As a town it was doomed.

After the railroad left Evarts, LeBeau became the shipping point for the cattle from the Northwestern part of South Dakota between 1907 and 1910.  Once a town of about 500 inhabitants, LeBeau reached its zenith during the height of the cattle-raising industry and died when plows began to scar the range.  The town was also a distributing point for Indian cattle and an important stage center.

In the fall when big cattle shipments went east, LeBeau was jammed with cowboys  fresh from the range and eager for amusement.  The cowboys believed that money was made to spend, and the town was eager to lend a helping hand.

Then in 1910 a fire swept away part of the town, and $200,000 worth of property went up in smoke.  Much of the ravaged district was never rebuilt.  By that time the Milwaukee railroad had been built through Mobridge and branch lines fingered through the west-river territory to reach the range that had previously supported LeBeau.

Furthermore, the cattle companies were going out of business.  Homesteaders were forcing them from the range and wheat farmers were invading the cattlemen’s paradise.  Many buildings in LeBeau were torn down and moved to the mushrooming towns along the new railroad.

But the ill-fated village had one more cross to bear, for a second fire in 1911 virtually wiped out what was left of the buildings.  The railroad continued to run trains occasionally until 1918 to pick up livestock.  By that time the only inhabitants were a few railroad families along with a post office and one store which remained in the business section.  After 1918 the railroad made spasmodic trips to the fate-ravaged village until in 1923 when the rails were torn up.

The once thriving and riotous town of LeBeau was suddenly left in solitude on the South Dakota prairie.



Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on February 7, 2024