Visitors to Custer State Park will see traces of Peter Norbeck—South Dakota’s first governor and U.S. senator hailing from the state. A notable conservationist, he was an advocate for the state park system and a driving force behind the Mt. Rushmore monument, a number of scenic roads in the area, and lodges at the resort.
When Governor Norbeck took office in 1917, Custer State Park was still the State Forest and Game Preserve. Efforts to populate the game reserve had already begun, including the construction of an eight-foot-tall, game-tight fence to hold elk, beavers, antelope, mountain goats, big horn sheep, wild turkeys, and buffalo from a settler’s herd at Fort Pierre. Norbeck worked to protect the animals and expand their numbers. In memory of his efforts, the 56,000-acre wildlife preserve now bears his name: the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve.
In 1918, the State Game Commission voted to create a meeting place in the State Game Preserve. Following the official dedication of Custer State Park, plans were drawn up for the addition of a game keeper’s home in the Park. Norbeck hired workers to build the lodge using native lumber and rocks from the area and it officially opened on August 8, 1921—only to burn down 72 days later. However, it was quickly rebuilt and reopened on June 15, 1922, and it still stands today as the State Game Lodge.
Construction on the Sylvan Lake Hotel near Harney Peak was completed many years earlier in 1893. It experienced enormous success drawing tourists from across the country and inspiring praise from the famous conservationist John Muir. Under Norbeck’s tenure, the Hotel and Lake area were added to the Park in 1921. The original building burned down in 1935, but was rebuilt at a site designated by Frank Lloyd Wright where Sylvan Lake Lodge still stands today.
Norbeck didn’t just build buildings. With the rise of the automobile and increasing travel to the area, the Hills needed roads—but these roads shouldn’t destroy the land or wildlife. His efforts—and a whole lot of dynamite—resulted in Needles Highway and the Iron Mountain Road. These two famous scenic routes are now part of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, another testament to his many works.