The following article was furnished
Yankton may be South Dakota’s most historic town, but the river that created it
is timeless. By Jennifer L. Nielson
Life in Yankton has always revolved around the Missouri River. Native Americans
followed the river’s flow to their destinations centuries ago. They named the
land “E-Hank-Ton-Wan” meaning “people of the end village.”
Without the Missouri, Yankton might not exist. The river brought steamboats and
their captains to Yankton. Steamboats brought not only color and expansion to
the budding town; they also brought technology and skilled people.
When Dakota Southern Railway arrived in 1873, river traffic waned. But the final
blow to the steamboat industry was the Great Flood of 1881. A huge ice jam
burst, and consequent floods sunk some boats and damaged others beyond repair.
The remains of several still lie at the bottom of the river; one is visible from
the Meridian Bridge when water is low.
As Yankton approached its 100th birthday in 1957, it was designated an
“All-American City,” a title it still holds. The honor recognized a century of
building the good life in the river city –– and perhaps sweeping the bad into
dark corners. “Civility pervaded in the town,” stone mason and local historian
Bob Hanson said. “Anything that was un-nice was kept under wraps…. It was made
to show the best of everything. No obituaries were published in the paper.
Everyone acted in an Eastern civil manner.”
According to Jeff Koster at the Walnut Tavern downtown, it is rumored that an
early ordinance confined women to the south side of Third Street, whereas men
walked only on the north. That’s why all the bars are on the north side of Third
to this day, he claims. But not to worry, both sexes can now happily stroll on
whichever side they please.
Pierre Dorian was the first white settler in Yankton. He met the Lewis and Clark
expedition in St. Charles, Mo., Hanson said, and accompanied them to Yankton.
Hanson led the push to erect a marker near Dorian’s gravesite on the bluff west
of downtown, a sloping hill that was once an Indian burial ground, later a
quarry, and now a residential street. A plaque remembering “Old Dorian,” as he
was known, is affixed to a boulder Hanson brought from the river shore.
When Lt. Col. George Custer broke camp in Yankton in 1873, he left behind more
then a smoldering campfire. According to Sister Cynthia Binder, Custer left
without his horse hand, Peter Binder, Cynthia’s great-great-grandfather. “On the
night before they left, my grandfather got drunk and overslept, and when he woke
up, Custer was gone,” Cynthia laughed. Peter stayed in Yankton, and with his
sons, started the Binder Brother’s ice cream and soft drink factory. Sister
Cynthia is a member of the Sacred Heart Monastery, a communion of Catholic
sisters who have lived on a hilltop overlooking the Missouri since 1880.
The All American City certainly has had some All-American characters. People who
have made their mark on history have also left footprints in Yankton. Meriwether
Lewis and William Clark explored the area in 1804 and 1806. Jack McCall, the man
who shot Wild Bill Hickok, was hanged and buried here. The Culligan Man of
soft-water fame, Emmett J. Culligan, was born here in 1839. Professional
football player Lyle Alzado attended Yankton College, and NBC anchorman Tom
Brokaw graduated from Yankton High School. Lawrence Welk’s climb to national
recognition was boosted by live performances on WNAX radio. Wynn Speece, the
“Neighbor Lady,” is one of the longest-running radio broadcasters in the nation.
Aside from its celebrities, Yankton is rich in history, a city of firsts. It was
the first capital of Dakota Territory, which in the 1860s included both Dakotas,
Wyoming and Montana. The first high school and the first college in Dakota
Territory brought education and higher learning to the area, and the first
drive-in movie theater in South Dakota entertained audiences for years.
The city also has a rich media history. The Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan is the
longest-running daily newspaper in the four states of the region. The Freie
Presse, a German language paper published here for 80 years –– until WWII –– was
one of the highest-circulating weekly papers of its day. Regional legend, WNAX
radio, began broadcasting in 1922. Even South Dakota Magazine was founded in
Yankton, where for 19 years it has been published in Territorial Gov. John
Pennington’s home on main street.
Both the river and the town have changed dramatically over time. The
construction half a century ago of five dams, including Gavin’s Point Dam west
of town, hobbled the Missouri that Pierre Dorian knew. “The modern Missouri
bears no resemblance to the old Missouri before the dam was put in,” Hanson
said. The water used to be “the color of strong coffee with a little bit of milk
–– full of silt. The river had a sort of magical quality –– it looked like a
stream of mercury.” As a child, the river was Hanson’s favorite playground.
“When the wind would hit the water just right it produced a dirty colored foam,”
he laughed. “The foam would dry into a crust, and you could float on it.”
The dams altered the very nature of life in and along the Missouri. Navigation
was terminated, and miles of rich farm land and wildlife habitat were inundated,
endangering the entire ecosystem the Missouri fed. The dams also controlled
flooding, generated electricity and created vast recreational opportunities.
About 1.5 million people visited Yankton this year to camp, boat, swim and fish
at Lewis and Clark Lake, generating millions of dollars in revenue for the
Yankton area. Not everyone is confident that the changes in the river are for
the better. “Whether that is a good or bad thing, I don’t know,” said Hanson.
“The river doesn’t seem alive anymore. Before the dam everyone talked about the
river, had an eye on the river.”
Few Yankton citizens worry about floods today, but Yankton is at the center of a
regional and national debate about how to manage the river’s flow. Pleasing
everyone along the Missouri’s shores has been a balancing act for the Corps of
Engineers. States along the lower Missouri River want more water in summer to
keep their barge industry alive. South Dakota and other up-river states want a
lowered summer flow, more like what nature provided before the dams.
Approximating the natural cycles of the river would hold more water in the
reservoirs for fishing and other recreation and would protect three endangered
species –– the pallid sturgeon, the piping plover and the least tern –– which
need low summer flows for reproduction. A federal court directed the Corps to
more closely mimic the river’s natural flow, but the fight goes on.
Losing is nothing new to Yankton. Its assets, achievements, and colorful history
aside, few other towns in South Dakota can count as many losses. In 1883 Yankton
lost the territorial capital to Bismarck, N.D. When South Dakota became a state
in 1889, Yankton lost the state capital race to Pierre. In 1905 Huron took the
state fair from Yankton, where it had been for 10 years. Yankton College,
founded in 1881, closed 102 years later and was converted to a federal prison
camp in 1985. Gurney’s, a more than century-old, family-owned catalog company
that shipped garden seeds and nursery plants all over the nation, was sold in
1998 and moved out-of-state. The historic courthouse was torn down this year,
and the Meridian Bridge, a Yankton landmark, may soon be converted to a
The setbacks haven’t discouraged chamber of commerce director Bob Cappel.
Residents have kept the town alive, he says. “I see strong leaders that have
been and still are leaders. The one thing that impresses me most is the
progressive attitude of the community.”
Yankton also impressed Diane Norton and her husband, Brian, who lived in Denver
and Portland before moving their family here. “There really aren’t any hassles.
I don’t think that anyone can respect or enjoy that thought unless they’ve lived
in a big city with hassles in traffic,” Diane said. Besides getting away from
the aggravations of city life, the Nortons decided to move here because they saw
it as a great place to raise their kids.
“The education system is great,” Brian said. “The commitment by teachers to
education is not all about the big buildings –– the new Yankton High School and
Summit Activities Center. Those are nice, but it’s really the teachers’
commitment to education in South Dakota.”
Diane got the idea for her company, lewisandclarktrail.com, from helping her son
with a homework assignment. After struggling for hours to find quality
information on the famous explorers in one place, her Web site was born. Most of
their business is done online, but as business grew, they opened a store
downtown to sell and license official Lewis and Clark merchandise. “Downtown is
incredible –– it has so much potential with historic preservation,” she said.
“Visitors are flabbergasted at how beautiful the buildings are.”
In Yankton’s early days, a flood swept through the downtown, damaging many
buildings. Some survived the raging waters and still stand today. Many were
constructed in the late 19th century, some with sandstone or Sioux quartzite,
others with brick.
As in olden days, downtown business owners still band together. The goal of the
modern Historic Riverfront District is to return Third Street to its early
prominence. Projects include restoring historic infrastructure, bringing new
businesses to the area and promoting special events and activities. Michael
Freeman, vice president of business development of the HRD, says that the
project unites the downtown businesses. “We can get more accomplished as a unit
to bring more vitality to the area.”
Since 2000, Third has been repaved, and stoplights replaced by stop signs.
Sidewalks have benches, and light poles and medians are enlivened with plants.
“They bring an aesthetic quality to the area,” Freeman said.
Yankton native Cena Bernard and her husband, Curt, have been at the forefront in
preserving the downtown shopping district. They own several buildings downtown
and recently refurbished the historic Fantle’s Department Store building, an
early downtown anchor, creating a beautiful event center and office building.
“We are working on trying to develop non-profit organizations to preserve,
promote and protect the history of Yankton,” Cena said. She envisions downtown
Yankton with “more buildings restored… more traffic, more events and more
people. I have no doubt it’s going to happen.”
Bob Cappel of the chamber also sees the potential. “The future will depend on
what mix of businesses are unique to the downtown setting,” he said. “You have
to have businesses that are special –– that you can’t find anywhere else.”
A special mix of businesses is exactly what visitors find downtown. Several
antique stores bring historic flavor; in the largest, Road Show Antique Mall,
collectors display their treasures in 20 or so unique showrooms. Monta’s Framing
and Design, in a tastefully-painted storefront, is an artwork and framing and
gift gallery. Cooks love The Pantry, a cluttered little shop with unique baking
and cookware items. Gifts & Giggles has gifts and decorations for most any
The Yankton Chamber of Commerce has just opened a new headquarters and visitor
center near downtown. The new County Office Building has just replaced the
demolished courthouse. Other historic downtown niche shops sell pets, jewelry,
clothing and scrapbook supplies.
Rexall Drug, located in the old American State Bank Building, has been owned and
operated downtown by local pharmacists since 1923, according to pharmacist Phil
Dohn. Inside you will find everything from Advil to wine, jellybeans to Hallmark
nick-knacks. While friendly pharmacists fill prescriptions, there is ample time
to check out the gourmet hand-dipped truffles at the candy counter.
Dohn says the gift shop replaces what used to be a bank vault. The bank, which
opened in 1918, was robbed of $22,000 in 1932. The robbers left $3,000 in silver
dollars because the coins weighed down their getaway car. They were never
The Main Street Project has also brought life to downtown with seasonal events
–– a car show in June, farmers markets every weekend in summer, a Halloween
walk-through and River City Christmas. A big draw for downtown is, of course,
the river itself. There are other pleasant downtowns, but few are just two
blocks from a major river, yet protected from flooding.
A colorful riverfront business missed by most travel brochures is the Ice House,
a historic warehouse long ago converted into South Dakota’s only drive-in bar.
On sultry summer nights, motorcycles and pickup trucks park by the loading dock
and patrons order their beverages of choice, a privilege unique to customers of
the Ice House, which established this way of doing business before laws were
passed to restrict public drinking. To some sophisticated folk, the Ice House
may seem a bit crass –– with the ice machine graveyard out back and the best
seat in the house being the loading dock, but patrons don’t seem to mind. The
view across the street is beautifully-groomed Riverside Park, a replica of the
Territorial Capitol building and the river.
But Yankton is more than downtown and the river. The striking architecture of
the former Yankton College now houses minimum-security federal prisoners.
Inmates in white shirts and khaki pants manage prison grounds –– mowing,
painting, planting flowers, weeding and shoveling snow. They also perform
significant community service jobs around town, including building homes with
Habitat for Humanity. There have been few problems, and these days residents
hardly take note.
Bob Cappel wasn’t exactly shocked, but he was surprised when he arrived in
Yankton and saw such a facility in the middle of town. “When you see it face to
face –– with the beautiful flowers and the grounds kept up, you tend to look
beyond the fact that it is a federal prison camp,” he said. “If you took the
signs and fences down you would never know it wasn’t a college. It looks better
today than when it was a college. It is so well taken care of. We are fortunate
that the federal government has a vested interest in Yankton.”
Yankton is also fortunate to have a leading medical center, which began when the
Benedictine sisters of Sacred Heart Monastery arrived in 1887. The monastery is
located on a bluff west of downtown with a spectacular view of the Missouri.
Sister Cynthia Binder says the site was chosen because it was “out of town and
along the river.” Now the tiny town of 1887 has grown around the formerly
secluded site like wildflowers around a tree.
Besides the monastery, the nuns have given Yankton a stunning chapel, a
four-year college, a regional medical center and an assisted living and senior
care complex. “Healthcare has always been a concern of ours,” Sister Cynthia
said. “Yankton has attracted some very good doctors. It is comforting to have
the healthcare we have in this town.”
Mount Marty College was founded in 1936 in the back yard of the hospital. Today
the college attracts students both young and old. “It is convenient for a lot of
adults to come to college, and it adds a whole different dimension,” said
Binder, an associate professor of humanities at what many call “the Mount.” “It
helps Yankton in the sense that the opportunity is there if they want to take
Sister Cynthia is enthusiastic about other opportunities the school brings, such
as concerts and plays. “I am amazed at the amount of music that we have in this
community,” she said. “Not a week goes by that you don’t have a concert.”
Yankton, in fact, is a thriving music, art and theatre town. Besides
performances at the college and at Yankton High School, the Lewis and Clark
Theater Company performs in Dakota Theatre downtown, and on summer evenings at
Lakeside Theater by Lewis and Clark Lake. Dance troupes and musical groups,
including the Yankton Children’s Choir, entertain year around. In summer, there
is an outdoor concert every week at the amphitheater in Riverside Park.
Musicians from junior high to senior citizens fill the evening with big band
Yankton artists and art lovers meet at galleries and shows, including the
Yankton Area Arts Gallery at the restored Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.)
building, which served as a meeting hall for Civil War veterans. “Some people
see a small town as being boring,” Sister Cynthia said, “but I don’t see that.
There is so much to do here and it is right here at their doorstep.”
Aside from theater and art, Yankton offers many other recreational
opportunities. There are two golf courses, one public and one private, and two
mini golf courses for those who would rather just putt. The Summit Activities
Center at Yankton High School includes basketball courts, an Olympic indoor
swimming pool complete with waterslide, a weightlifting/aerobic center and an
indoor track. Yankton also has go-kart racing for NASCAR wannabes, a motor-cross
track, a skate park and horse, hiking and biking trails, including the new
Auld-Brokaw trail built with funds donated by Tom Brokaw and his wife Meredith.
The trail is not the only thoroughfare in Yankton named for Brokaw. In 1996 the
city renamed Broadway (Highway 81) Tom Brokaw Boulevard. Brokaw said that he was
humbled by the gesture, but that the street would always be known as Broadway to
Currently, Broadway, or Tom Brokaw Boulevard, is undergoing a two-year
renovation to make it a scenic drive through town. The optimistic slogan of
promoters is, “Worth the Wait to Make Broadway Great.” Residents who endure the
inconvenience might prefer great without the wait, but progress is rarely
without pain. “I think it’s going to be a dynamite-looking street,” Cena Bernard
said. “It’s supposed to look like a boulevard. It will create a more hometown
To encourage Lewis and Clark visitors daunted by construction, the city operates
the Lakeside Limousine. The “limousine” is a small bus that makes the rounds of
campgrounds on weekends and hauls visitors to town destinations –– for free.
The biggest influx of visitors comes on Riverboat Days. It takes a lot of
volunteer hours to make it so successful, Cappel said. “There is something for
the whole family –– arts and crafts, a three-on-three basketball tournament, a
parade, a tractor pull, music and great food.” At least 100,000 people gather at
Riverside Park every year for the three-day event.
Most of the Riverboat Days activities are held at Riverside Park –– a broad
strip of grass and towering cottonwoods on land that once was a city dump. “In
the past, having a dump by the river was a common practice,” said Park Manager
Roger Pierce. “It was long before the days of control and environmental issues.
It has been converted into a very good use.”
The reclamation of the city’s waterfront has had positive effects for the
community. Cappel sees Riverside Park as a Norman Rockwell image. “The beautiful
park, the body of water, the kids all over the park running, having fun, adults
enjoying each other, music in the the vision to take a dump and turn it into a
park, to go one step further and make it attractive for the community.”
Among the attractions at Riverside Park is a replica of the Territorial Capitol.
The white two-story building serves as a landmark of community history; it is
used for reunions, weddings and picnics. At Paddlewheel Point nearby, canoeists
launch to float one of the last free-flowing stretches of the Missouri. “You can
see it the way Lewis and Clark saw it here,” Brian Norton said. “You just have
to canoe down it. And we have one of the premium Boy Scout camps in the nation.”
Last summer, the chamber of commerce built an attractive headquarters and
visitor center at the east entrance to downtown and the head of the Auld-Brokaw
trail. From the parking lot one can hike or bike straight to the Missouri, along
the waterfront in Riverside Park, or up Marne Creek across town.
Yankton native Jacki Ellis finds plenty of reasons to appreciate her hometown.
But in her summer job as a gate attendant at Lewis and Clark Recreation Area,
she meets out-of-town visitors who tell her how much they enjoy the gorgeous
lake area and the “historical stuff” too. When she finishes college next year,
she hopes to find a teaching position here, partly so she can work summers at
The Missouri River is still the soul of Yankton. Families gather there in every
season, for boating, fishing, strolling, picnicking, baseball, concerts,
snowmobiling and ice fishing. They no longer worry that the river will wash away
their livelihoods; today the river means recreation and revenue. It is the one
constant beside the city it helped create. While life bustles along the shore,
Yankton changes with the flow.