For several centuries, American Indians have told stories of holes in the Black Hills through which the wind would blow and howl. But the first recorded discovery of Wind Cave came in 1881, when brothers Jesse and Tom Bingham were lured to the cave by a whistling noise. As the legend goes, the wind was rushing from the cave entrance with such force that it blew Tom's hat right off his head.
A few days later, when Jesse returned to the cave to show this phenomenon to friends, he was surprised to find that the wind had shifted directions and his hat was sucked into the cave. A hundred years later, we know that the direction of the wind is related to the difference in atmospheric pressure between the cave and the surface.
J. D. McDonald was the first person to attempt to establish a tourist attraction at Wind Cave, complete with stagecoach transportation, a hotel, and a gift shop. He did this primarily because there were no valuable mineral deposits in the cave to mine. But "ownership" of the cave came into question, and the matter entered a courtroom. The Department of the Interior decided in December 1899 that no party had a claim to Wind Cave. In 1901, the department withdrew all the land around the cave from homesteading.
On January 9, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the bill that established Wind Cave as what is now America's seventh national park, and the first created to protect the underground resources of a cave. In 1913 and 1914, the American Bison Society assisted in reestablishing a bison herd at Wind Cave, through the donation of 14 head from the New York Zoological Society. Also arriving in the park were 21 elk from Wyoming and 13 pronghorn antelope from Alberta, Canada. Today Wind Cave is home to 400 bison, as well as large herds of elk and pronghorn.
Tips from an Insider
Former Wind Cave National Park Superintendent Jimmy Taylor loves this park.
"This is truly an amazing park," says Taylor. "You can see and hear wildlife here. We have 800 to 900 head of elk, more than 400 bison, 50 pronghorn, two highways, and two all-weather gravel roads that make this park very accessible and suitable to the family sedan."
Wind Cave is "an intimate park" where road-weary travelers can put the brakes on and enjoy plant and animal life at its best, Taylor says. Visitors often settle back and just watch prairie dogs building their "towns" or bison grazing on the prairie grasses. In fall, Taylor says there's nothing quite like the sound of a lonely bull elk bugling from a rocky ridge in the park.
And beneath this remarkable place, says Taylor, is an underground wilderness whose depths have only been guessed at, and whose complexity we are only beginning to understand.
"Imagine," he says, "only a few hundred feet underground there are spaces people have never seen, and perhaps may never see. Think that every time someone crawls through a hole or peeks into the next opening, they may literally be the first person in the history of mankind who has ever seen it."