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Why “Johnson Siding?”

Jan 9, 2018

Johnson Siding lies just west of Rapid City along Highway 44.

Have you ever driven west from Rapid City on Highway 44 and thought, “Gee, I wish there was a remote vinyl siding outlet around while I'm out here exploring the beautiful Black Hills?” Then you round a corner and there's Johnson Siding?

If you did, you soon realized that Johnson Siding is the name of a town, not an out-of-the way home improvement center. Hopefully you weren't too disappointed. So, why "Johnson Siding?"

The answer — like the answer to so many town etymologies — has to do with the railroad, and a sawmill built on Rapid Creek in the 1890s by a Swedish immigrant named John Johnson. You might have guessed correctly that Mr. Johnson is the namesake of the Johnson in "Johnson Siding."

A "siding" in railroad lingo is a short section of track where trains can pull off to load or unload, and allow others to pass. In 1906, the last spike was driven on the Crouch Line — the rail spur that conveyed passengers and freight through the heart of the Black Hills from Rapid City to Mystic until 1948. The Johnson mill provided much of the lumber used in constructing the many bridges and trestles the Crouch needed to cross the rocky terrain. The siding also allowed the Johnson mill to fulfill lumber orders from Rapid City or anywhere else on the line. Over time, "Johnson Siding" evolved from an informal to a formal town name.

The Big Bend Powerhouse in 1920.

The Johnson family provided lumber to the Dakota Power Company when it bought the flume built by the Dakota-Placerville Mining Company — delivering water from Pactola to the Placerville mine — and extended it to the Big Bend Powerhouse, near Thunderhead Falls.

The line dropped more than 300 feet along its course to generate enough pressure to turn the turbines of a generator that helped supply power to Rapid City. The Flume Trail is built along the old flume bed. Hikers can still see remnants of the flume, and the adjacent catwalk used by maintenance workers, along the trail.

Johnson Siding isn't the only town with "siding" in the name. Tie Siding, Wyoming is so named because in the late nineteenth century "tie hacks" — lumberjacks who felled trees and hewed them into vast numbers of ties for western railroad expansion — would float logs harvested in the Colorado Rockies down the Cache la Poudre River to Laporte, where they were hauled in ox-drawn wagons to the siding.

Tie hacks felled trees through summer and winter, stripping and hewing them with a broadax. Their river shipments sometimes created enormous logjams that had to be cleared with dynamite.

The Tie Hack Memorial near Dubois, Wyoming commemorates the efforts of the tie hacks. There are no worker-hero monuments in either Johnson or Tie Siding. Johnson Siding has a church, gas station, community center and bar. Tie Siding has an antique/fireworks store and a post office.

Building railways from sea-to-sea was temporary work, so there may have been more "Sidings" that have faded into unmapped memories with a faint scent of sawdust and steel.

Michael Zimny is the social media engagement specialist for South Dakota Public Broadcasting in Vermillion. He blogs for SDPB and contributes arts columns to the South Dakota Magazine website.

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