Fort Randall, located on the west bank of the Missouri below the present dam by the same name, was one of the most important military posts on the Upper Missouri. It was destined to have the longest existence of any garrison above Omaha.
Today, the only visible reminder of the fort are the remains of the chapel and cemetery below the dam. They are now part of an environmentally sensitive management unit which is approximately ninety acres in size. It is characterized by primarily flat terrain with the exception of the most western portion of the unit that is hilly in nature and contains the cemetery.
The old Fort Randall Cemetery, which is approximately two acres in size, is located just east of the overlook below the west end of the dam. When the fort was officially abandoned in 1892, the 158-grave cemetery was left in the care of Mother Nature. In June of 1893, the remains of 67 individuals were removed and interred in the Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery in Kansas — 63 were soldiers of ranks from Major to Private, and four children.
By 1980, native grasses had covered most of the unmarked graves. The graves were identifiable only by sunken depressions in the prairie sod. Efforts to restore the cemetery used two maps — an 1879 map and another from 1891 — to survey the area, locate the grave sites and paths, and the cemetery boundaries.
The restoration was completed in August of 1989 and included the installation of gravel footpaths, a picket fence, grave markers, and interpretive sign, and flag pole. In 2001, the grave markers, picket fence, and flag pole were replaced. In 2004, the parking lot was enlarged and resurfaced.
After the fort was officially abandoned, all government buildings (excluding the chapel) and surplus equipment was sold at public auction.
In 1875, soldiers at the fort conceived the idea of building a combination church, library, and Odd Fellows meeting hall. It was their attempt to stem rampant alcoholism and provide some social, spiritual, and intellectual stimulation at the isolated post.
Since this was a nonmilitary structure, working time was voluntary and funds were solicited from those living in the surrounding area. Competent carpenters and masons were selected from among the troops.
Native material was generally used in the construction. Rock was gathered from the neighboring field for basement, foundation, and as fill for the massive walls. White chalkrock was quarried from the nearby bluffs and used as veneer for the entire building. Cottonwood was used for the rafters and sheathing; white pine for shingles and trim. The red pine for trusses and heavy members was cut locally and presumably sawed in the mill located on the military reservation.
The church was furnished very nicely. The pews were two and one-half inch black walnut. It had a large organ and a massive bell which could be heard for miles. All this was bought by the soldiers, citizens who were employed at the fort, and others in the community.
The fort was officially abandoned in 1892. But, since it was not government-owned, the chapel remained intact until 1896, when the roof was struck by lightning and caught fire. Later a severe windstorm destroyed much of the remaining roof. Following the storm, all of the chapel’s furnishings were removed. Later, a private sale disposed of the church furnishings.
Since 1900, the chapel continued to deteriorate at the hands of nature. “Christ Church” somehow withstood years of thoughtless vandalism and exposure to the elements. In 1953 an attempt was made to stabilize the structure. This action, although well-intentioned, accelerated the rate of chalkrock deterioration.
The chapel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. Then in 2003-2004, the Corps in partnership with the National Park Service continued stabilization efforts by constructing a roof structure over the ruins to halt further deterioration caused by precipitation.
The Corps and local historians in 2004 convinced the bell’s caretakers that it should be returned to its original site. Their efforts were rewarded when the bell found its way home later that summer.
Then in 2007, the Corps once again teamed up with the National Park Service to continue stabilization efforts by replacing some of the wall sections that were in immediate danger of collapse. Limestone blocks quarried from Missouri were used in these sections and over time, the limestone will weather and closely resemble the original chalk rock construction.
Restoration of the cemetery and stabilization efforts on the chapel continue and are ongoing. The Corps and the National Park Service are to be complemented for their efforts in restoring and maintaining these important and historical sites.
The next time you are traveling east on SD Highway 18, leave several hours early and stop at Fort Randall to visit both these important sites. Better yet, take a morning or afternoon and drive down to Fort Randall to view the early history of Gregory County.
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on July 1, 2020.