Fish on a Train: A Visit to the D.C. Booth Fish Hatchery

Through the viewing tunnel that goes below the water.

Through the viewing tunnel that goes below the water.

Recently, I visited the D.C. Booth Fish Hatchery in Spearfish with some friends.  I’d been there once before for a brief stop, was able to go into some of the museum buildings this time, but still want to go back and linger a while.  Despite proposals to close the facility and cuts in staff, it’s had a few reprieves and, at least for the time being, continues to serve the community, teach about our history and natural world, and raise 20,000-30,000 trout annually.  The volunteers who work with about 150,000 visitors each year are doing a fantastic job.  Those I met were very friendly and welcoming.  The Booth Society, the partner non-profit, seems to manage the bulk of visitor and educational services and grounds maintenance.  In the news and on Facebook, I’ve seen that the site participates widely in school group tours, concert series, fairs, and even artist paint-ins.  The tourism value makes a big economic impact (link here to 2013 study published in Tourism Management).  The visit is free (except for food to feed the trout – which is super fun), but tourists buy gas, stay in hotels, go out to eat afterwards… and places like this make travel adventures special.

On my visit, we had a toddler pulling us through the three buildings we stopped at, but what we did see I liked.  At the main hatchery building, we heard the early story of D.C. Booth through an easy-to-follow paper of walking tour, a room of period furnishings set up as Booth’s office was, and they’ve reused the large hatchery room for exhibits including models, display cases, and a video.  The hatchery was established in 1896 and the main building finished in 1899.

The D.C. Booth House at the federal fish hatchery, built 1905.

The D.C. Booth House at the federal fish hatchery, built 1905.

When Booth married and had children, a new residence was built on the property and there was a guided volunteer tour through the house.  For being new to the site for the 2015 season, the guide did a good job relating the story and answering questions. One improvement would have been to better engage the 2-year-old, even at that young age she wanted to look at the toys of puppies that Booth’s children played with, the kitchen appliances, and was excited just to name the rooms–even the bathroom.

Replica of Fish Car No. 3, was one of ten that carried fish from site to site before refrigeration.

Replica of Fish Car No. 3, was one of ten that carried fish from site to site before refrigeration.

The other structure we stopped at was the railcar, which was interesting even with our quick stop.  I had never thought about how they shipped fish around back then… From the Booth Society website:

Before the invention of refrigerated tanker trucks, fish hatcheries were faced with the problem of how to quickly move fish from hatcheries to lakes and rivers around the country.

During the Fish Car Era, ten specifically designed railcars were constructed; and by 1920, fish cars had carried over 72 billion fish across 2 million miles of railroad track. D.C. Booth displays the only federal fisheries railcar exhibit in the country, showcasing a replica of Fish Car No. 3. Visitors to this unique and beautifully-restored railcar will learn about the history of the Fish Car Era, a 66-year period that played a key role in fisheries propagation.

The D.C. Booth Fish Hatchery --

The D.C. Booth Fish Hatchery — “This Place Matters”

While the name ‘fish hatchery’ might not rank with the names of other Black Hills tourist sites like Reptile Gardens or Storybook Island, it’s really fantastic.  Kids of all ages can watch the trout jump for pellets of food, there are tours through historical and National Register-listed buildings, the setting is beautiful, and there are a couple hiking trails that run around the 10 acre site.  The story of the hatchery is interesting for its mix of science and history, and its novelty – I bet you’ll learn all sorts of things you didn’t know before.

Learn more, plan a visit, go on a tour, get updates, make a donation, or consider volunteering at the Booth Society website here.  See updates on efforts to prevent closure the hatchery on that website (direct link) and follow them on Facebook too.  Check out more history, photos, and programming on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service site here.

POSTSCRIPT: This article from South Dakota History includes a great history of how the Spearfish hatchery fits within its regional context, and highlights the importance of the railroad network for its work:

John R. Henris, “’No finer trout-streams in the world than these’: The Making of a Recreational Fishery in the Black Hills Forest Reserve,” South Dakota History 45(4) (Winter 2015), 275-304.  Link to abstract, here.

One thought on “Fish on a Train: A Visit to the D.C. Booth Fish Hatchery

  1. Hello! I am an editor at Atlas Obscura. We are publishing an article soon about the history of fish cars and fish transport, and to accompany it, we will publish a short writeup of the fish car replica. I wanted to ask for your permission to use your very nice photo of the railcar (at the top of this post) in the writeup? I’d of course credit you and link back to this page. Please let me know. I’d very much appreciate it!


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