The Wild And Scenic Middle Missouri River Driving Tour Mile 50.5 to 65.8

Fort Randall Chapel
Historic Fort Randall Chapel is covered today with a protective shelter



Mile 50.5 - Take a left onto South Dakota Highway 46

Mile 62.3 - Community of Pickstown
Pickstown was constructed in 1946 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a place for construction workers on Fort Randall Dam to live. The town was named for Lewis A. Pick, co-creator of the Pick-Sloan Plan. It was located a half mile east of the Dam and cost $10 million dollars at the time of its construction ($119.7 million dollars in 2013 when adjusted for inflation). It was owned and operated by the U.S. Government. 425 housing units were built for workers and their families. In 1948 and 1949 school buildings were completed, at one time the school had 400 students.

One of the most famous residents of Pickstown was future NBC Nightly News Anchor Tom Brokaw who spent several years of his childhood in the community while his father worked on the dam's construction. At its peak, Pickstown was the 10th largest town in the state of South Dakota with a population of 4,000. After the Dam was completed in the mid-1950's the town began to decline. Most of the housing stock was sold off, and the population declined to approximately two hundred. The houses left behind, were used to accommodate dam employees.

Mile 63.5 - Fort Randall Dam
Fort Randall was one of the key engineering projects of the Pick-Sloan Plan. Much of the current debate over Missouri River water uses stems from the Flood Control Act of 1944. One component of that piece of legislation is the "Pick-Sloan Plan." That the "Big Muddy" flooded annually was a given. Major floods occurred in 1844, 1881, 1903, 1915, 1926, and 1934. They were no novelty to the people living along the Missouri and its tributaries. But the three floods in 1943 were unusually severe. Much of Omaha was under water, including its airport, vital to the war effort. That year's flooding focused unprecedented public and congressional attention on the Missouri River basin.

Congress responded a year later by passing the Flood Control Act. This law became the guiding spirit of the Missouri River basin and has resulted in the most important and lasting alteration of the basin and its ecosystem. The chain of Missouri River reservoirs and dams from Montana to South Dakota is one of the nation's engineering marvels. Pick-Sloan reflected the prevailing certainty in large technological projects to sustain and support regional development in areas not favored by climate and geography. The dams and reservoirs have only partially fulfilled their promise—hence the continuing tension in the Missouri River basin.

Fort Randall Dam is an earth embankment dam impounding the Missouri River in South Dakota, United States and forming Lake Francis Case. It is one of six Missouri River dams, four being located in South Dakota. The dam was authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1944 and plays a key role in the Pick-Sloan Plan for development of water resources in the Missouri River basin. The Corps of Engineers began construction of Fort Randall Dam in 1946, and it was the first Pick-Sloan dam completed by the Omaha District. President Dwight D. Eisenhower threw the switch that started the first power generating unit in 1954.When completed in 1956, Fort Randall Dam and the Lake Francis Case Project cost approximately $200 million ($1.7 billion in 2013 when adjusted for inflation).The eight generating units of the Fort Randall Dam are capable of generating 40 megawatts of electricity each, with an annual production of 1.727 billion kilowatt hours. The combined maximum capacity of 320 megawatts is enough to supply 245,000 households, according to the Corps of Engineers.

After crossing Fort Randall Dam. Take a left on first road after the dam. Follow signs to Historic Fort Randall

Mile 64.9 - Historic Fort Randall
Just below Fort Randall Dam, at the western edge of the Missouri National Recreational River's 39-mile reach, lay the ruins of Fort Randall. Strategically located on the west or right bank of the Missouri River near the South Dakota-Nebraska border, Fort Randall served as an important outpost on the upper Missouri River for operations against the Sioux in 1863-65 and was one of the chain of forts that surrounded the Sioux country from 1865 to 1876. It served longer as a continuously occupied military post than any other fort on the upper river.

Established by General William S. Harney in June 1856, the post provided troops and routed supplies to serve an assortment of government ventures. Harney named it after the late Deputy Paymaster General of the US Army, Colonel Daniel Randall. The fort's primary purpose was to maintain peace between American Indians and white settlers, as well as among the tribes themselves. Its soldiers guarded against incursions by Dakota warriors following the Minnesota Sioux Outbreak of 1862. Later, troops interacted with the Ponca along with the Santee, Yankton, and Teton Sioux. Most of the soldiers lived a monotonous military life, working the same routine day after day, broken only by occasional trips into Indian Territory. But the boredom led to discontent among the soldiers, resulting in high desertion rates.

Important visitors to the post always caused a wave of excitement. These included: Buffalo Bill Cody who stopped on his way to the East with his "Wild West Show." Jim Bridger, the famous mountain man, appeared as a scout with a visiting survey crew and renowned Civil War General Phillip Sheridan inspected the post in 1879. Perhaps the most famous inhabitant of Fort Randall was not a soldier but a prisoner. Sitting Bull (Tatanka Iyotake) of the Lakota Sioux is probably best known for his contribution towards the defeat of Col. George Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn. He and his band of 158 Hunkpapa Sioux camped south of the fort and were kept under loose surveillance from July 1881 until November 1883 when he was moved to Fort Yates, in present day North Dakota. In 1877, Chief Standing Bear and his brother Big Snake, head of the Ponca warrior society, were briefly imprisoned in retaliation for opposing relocation of the tribe and for evicting federal Indian agents from tribal land. They were released by the fort commander who sent a telegram of protest to President Hayes.

The most conspicuous improvement to the fort made in the 1870s, when it was home to the 1st United States Infantry, was that of the combination chapel, library and lodge. Conceived by Lt. Colonel Pinkney Lugenbeel and designed by the post carpenter, George Bush, the cross-shaped building was erected in 1875 with the sweat from many a soldier and at a cost of about $20,000.The Army campaign of 1876 substantially ended the military aspect of the regional "Indian question." But the post continued to provide security by assuring federal presence to settlers who flocked into newly opened lands in the region. By 1880, the Great Plains had calmed considerably and the western frontier had passed over the South Dakota horizon. The end came on October 31, 1892, when Fort Randall was turned over to the Quartermaster Department. In a historic quirk of irony, the last company to leave the post on December 7th was composed entirely of American Indians, commanded by two white officers. Upon abandonment in 1892, and with exception of the chapel, the fort's buildings and contents were sold at auction and removed by local settlers.

Visitor's Note: There are multiple interpretive signs along the half-mile walking tour of the fort site. Take your time to stroll the grounds and learn more about the fort's history. Follow signs to Fort Randall Cemetery

Mile 65.8 - Fort Randall Cemetery
The Fort Randall Post Cemetery was platted in 1877. It replaced an older cemetery which had been consumed by a prairie fire that had swept over the site. Two years after the closure of the fort in 1892 the United States Government exhumed the remains of 63 soldiers and four children from the cemetery. Their remains were transported to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas for reburial. Today the cemetery is surrounded by a picket fence and contains whitewashed headboards with the names of soldiers and civilians who died while at the fort. At least 13 children and 15 adult civilians were buried at the Post Cemetery. Many of the civilians who died at the post are still interred at the cemetery. The causes of sickness and death at the fort include everything from pneumonia, typhoid fever, diphtheria, diarrhea and even insanity. Counter intuitively, few were wounded or died in fighting with hostile tribes.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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