Devil's Gulch: Jesse James Jumped Here
Garretson, South Dakota
The most famous thing that ever happened in Garretson, South Dakota, was a meeting of the outlaw Jesse James and a ravine named Devil's Gulch.
According to Garretson lore, Jesse evaded capture just outside of town by spurring his horse to leap the ravine -- a feat that everyone agrees is nearly impossible. Most historians believe that it is impossible. The town thinks that its impossibility only makes its reality more wonderful. Signs and plaques at the site, now named Devil's Gulch Park, are written with the pro-jump position in mind.
Jesse found himself in out-of-the-way Garretson in September 1876 after his gang had tried and failed to rob a bank in Northfield, Minnesota. For the next two weeks he fled west, staying ahead of his pursuers by stealing horses. Only Devil's Gulch stood between him and freedom. As a sign at the Gulch breathlessly describes it, Jesse "spun his horse and sprinted towards the chasm. With the lawmen watching with mouths agape Jesse's horse hurled itself across the 20-foot gorge."
There are more holes in this story than would eventually be in Jesse James. The posse was reportedly just a group of about 20 poorly armed local farmers, probably in no mood to get too close to a crack shot like Jesse. His horse was not Pegasus, but a half-broken-down farm nag, probably incapable of jumping even a fence. And Devil's Gulch is only a half-mile long. Jesse could have simply ridden around it, which is probably what he did -- but we'll never know for sure.
Devil's Gulch Park ignores the naysayers (as have generations of movie and TV westerns, which have embraced the law-evading gulch jump as an evasive maneuver). A plaque on a rock states firmly that "the only way to evade the posse was to jump the chasm." Beyond it, an open-grill metal footbridge crosses the ravine, allowing you to look straight down at the water 60 feet below and better appreciate Jesse's derring-do.
"Don't let the water below the bridge fool you," cautions a sign. "There are areas in the canyon reported to be so deep, they are bottomless. Just under the bridge is known as Bottomless Pit. Many years ago a 600 foot plumb line was lowered and no bottom was found."
We scrambled across the bridge and down the steep "Devil's Stairway" to the water's edge, to better gauge the awesomeness of Jesse's accomplishment. Twenty feet across doesn't sound like much, but when you look up at the gap you realize that Jesse's jump really is something worth bragging about, especially since failure would have sent him tumbling into water without a bottom, his bones eventually washing up in China or whatever is on the opposite side of the planet from Garretson.
Devil's Gulch Park is free and tours are of the guide-yourself variety (with many helpful signs). An iron pipe sunk into the ground near the bridge acts as a donation box, its open end capped by a block of iron with a coin slot, secured with several padlocks. Perhaps the relative remoteness of the Park inspired its construction, which looks like something that not even Jesse James could break into. But, then, Garretson didn't become a travel destination by underestimating Jesse James.