The 'Rapid' Story: Trains, Planes, and the Making of a City

By John Tierney


James Fallows


As our journeys go on, my wife (Deborah Fallows) and I will be reporting what we've seen, learned, wondered about, and been corrected on. Meanwhile John Tierney, from his base in Boston, will be adding historical and cultural perspectives from time to time, starting with this one.  

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Atlantic readers know John Tierney from his popular and trenchant posts as an Atlantic correspondent, many of them about education. For example: one about AP courses, and another on the dramatic changes in store for public schooling. He taught American government for many years as a professor at Boston College, and then became an independent-school teacher in the Boston area. For clarification, I should point out that he is not the John Tierney who has been a Congressman from Massachusetts for many years, nor the other John Tierney who has been a columnist for the NYT.  Similarly, I should proudly clarify that his wife, the energy-policy expert Susan Tierney, also is my little sister.

In this installment John begins with a discussion of how transportation systems, and their changes, have affected the location and prospects of cities, in this case "Rapid," as it is locally known.

The photo above is one I took yesterday in town. It illustrates nothing like heartland Orientalism but instead a fascinating, emerging theme in the places we are visiting.

That theme is the amount, and the diversity, of the efforts people are putting into reviving their downtowns. As a citizen I've become used to this depressing iron law of small town life: The big-box malls move in, and the downtown dies out. But we've been hearing about places where downtowns have fought back. Rapid City has a significant tourist economy, for visitors to nearby Mount Rushmore, and over the past decade it has pushed a tourist-oriented downtown revival with its Rushmore-related identity as "City of Presidents." Thus there are life-sized statues of presidents #1 through #43 on corners through the downtown, many in surprising or whimsical poses. Some of them are hard to identify until you peer at the plaque. The one above is easy; the one below might be a test.


James Fallows

I turn it over to John Tierney, below and after the jump, for background on why Rapid deserves note.

By John Tierney

One of the things that makes it worthwhile to visit small American cities away from the busy urban centers of the coasts is that in many cases the history of the place still stirs the imagination: questions about settlement have not been rendered all-but-invisible by development. So one wonders, How was this place settled? Who came here? Why? How?

When you tour Washington, DC, New York City, San Francisco, or Los Angeles, those aren't the kinds of questions that come to mind. But when you're in a place like Rapid City, SD, they do. Pushed up against the eastern slope of the Black Hills, Rapid City (known as just "Rapid" to the locals) is a long way from big cities -- 800 miles to Chicago and about 325 to Denver. The logistics of transportation long figured prominently in the calculations of people who wanted to go to South Dakota, settled originally by the Lakota Sioux Indians.

Getting to a relatively remote place like Rapid City is no longer an ordeal. But you pretty much have to get there by air, bus, or automobile. (Getting there on bicycle or on foot is also a possibility, of course, but is not recommended for the faint-hearted.) Motorcycle is still another possibility. Every year, hundreds of thousands of motorcyclists descend on Rapid City as they gather in nearby Sturgis for one of the world's largest motorcycle rallies


Wikimedia Commons

Getting to Rapid City by air is probably the easiest way for most people. Amazingly, the first regular air service in South Dakota was established in 1928, serving Rapid City, Pierre, Huron, and Watertown. That service was discontinued within a few years as the Great Depression deepened, leaving Rapid City without commercial air connection. Now, of course, the Rapid City Regional Airport (pictured below) is a busy center for general aviation traffic and has commercial connections to airline hubs like Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago, Las Vegas, and Salt Lake City. Unfortunately, as with many cities that are locked into the airlines' hub-and-spoke model, airfares to and from Rapid City can be pricey. 


Wikimedia Commons

If you do fly into Rapid City, you'll probably be treated to a view of the Dakota Hogback, a mountain ridge that splits the eastern and western parts of the city into two. See below: [JF note: yes, indeed. I was too busy looking at the runway as we were coming in, mainly to make sure we didn't head to the nearby and similarly situated Ellsworth AFB, but my wife confirms this is how it looks.] 


Google Earth

While South Dakota bears witness to the glory of American aviation, it also bears witness to the mixed record of its railroads: nationwide, freight rail is vigorous, while passenger rail is moribund in all but a select few metropolitan corridors. As anyone who travels in the great middle of the United States knows, there is an enormous amount of freight-rail traffic out there. One of the most common sights on a long road trip is of incredibly long freight trains snaking across the landscape. [JF note: And, yes, they roll through downtown Rapid City these days too. As visitors, we found the bells and loud horns interesting. The local people I asked about them said they no longer noticed, much as I barely hear the planes that pass over our house in Washington every 60 seconds on their way into National Airport.]

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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