Hikers on the Skyline Wilderness Trail in Rapid City frequently pass the remains of the Amphitheater, a strange relic of civilization slowly dissolving into nature. In the past, there were high hopes for the amphitheater as an epic ceremonial stage. Today, the opera itself has become the phantom.
In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) initiated several projects in the Hangman’s Hill area – where three suspected horse thieves were killed by a mob in 1877. The projects included Skyline Drive itself, Dinosaur Park and the lesser-known amphitheater. . All were intended to capitalize on the tourism brought to the area by Mount Rushmore, then under construction.
Local sculptor Emmet Sullivan made a lasting impact on the region’s iconography through his dinosaur sculptures at Dinosaur Park, Wall Drug, and a now-abandoned attraction in Arkansas, as well as his massive Christ of the Ozarks in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.
The amphitheater project seems to have sprung from the “Pageant of America” concept. The competition is the brainchild of Kenneth M. Ellis, a New York writer who worked for the National Mount Rushmore Committee. Ellis apparently envisioned the construction of Mount Rushmore as a catalyst that would drive the masses to theatrical paroxysms of patriotic fervor for months on end.
Pages of American history will come to life next summer in the flesh as the moving scenes of 400 years of national life are transformed into a creation recreated in the bold design of the Pageant of America, to be held in the Black Hills outside of Rapid City, ”predicted the Argus chief.
“On the stage of a huge open-air amphitheater, on the edge of the plains of South Dakota and on the threshold of its mountains, casts of 5,000 people will evolve in the allure and color of De Soto’s Spanish troops, the the gloomy calm of the Jesuit pioneers, the tattered splendor of Washington’s troops, and the grim tragedy of fraternal civil war states. “
Damon Matter, a local student and civil engineering student at the South Dakota School of Mines, designed the open-air amphitheater as his main project. There isn’t much information on the construction process, but erosion has exposed terraces of native stone stacked under the stepped “benches”. Most likely, some of the terraces collapsed for a long time. Standing at stage level, one can draw the bench lines through several perpendicular dividers or “stairs” between the seats.
The grand ambitions of the Pageant of America appear to have been dashed by the financial insolvency traitor dakota. Proponents of the pageant abandoned the outdoor amphitheater for lack of seating on a harder surface and lack of available parking. The Queen City Mail reported that the contest will take place in Spearfish, although it appears that it never came to fruition either.
Perhaps Damon Matter’s main project never achieved its goal, but it may have left behind Hangman Hill’s most sublime work of art – an edifice built for humans in close contact celebrating a unitary patriotic ideal – gradually sinking into a miasma of nature and time. .
On the trail, solitary hikers pass the bleachers without being observed. Curiosity is offstage, in the permanent absence of a scenic gaze.