City of Yankton Seal City of Yankton Seal
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Yankton's History

South Dakota MagazineThe following article was furnished courtesy of

South Dakota Magazine. The story speaks to Yankton's Historic past and touches on today.

River City

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.

South Dakota MagazineWhen 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.

South Dakota Magazine 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 pedestrian walkway.

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.”

South Dakota MagazineA 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 occasion.

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 caught.

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.

South Dakota Magazine


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 it.”

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 music.

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 him.

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 feel.”

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 lake.

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.