A Note from Cottonwood Corners

During the thirty-six years and five months that Fort Randall stood on the west bank of the Missouri River, the establishment and subsequent maintenance of that post was only possible by the aid of the steamboat, freight wagon, and stagecoach.  Fort Randall was not the terminus or destination for any railroad which entered South Dakota.

The first railroad to enter and operate in South Dakota was the Dakota Southern from Sioux City to Yankton in late 1872.  Whenever a town was reached by the railroad and roads had been established, stage companies maintained connections with all the near-by towns not reached by rail.  The Concord coach was used and could carry ten people.  It was drawn by four horses at a speed of from three to five miles per hour.

Towns near Fort Randall which had railroad service were:  Running Water, 1879; Chamberlain, 1880, and Armour, 1886.  The railroad did not reach Platte until 1901; nine years after Fort Randall had been abandoned by the Army.

The military trail followed the Missouri River on the Dakota side and became the first regularly used road in South Dakota.  In 1866 and 1867 the government graded and improved the Sioux City – Fort Randall Road.  Bridges were built over the Big Sioux, Vermillion, and James rivers.  They were the first bridges built in the state.  The ferry at Fort Randall was in constant use because of the community of White Swan being located on the east side of the river.

The Press and Daily Dakotaian reported that South Dakota was hit by a genuine blizzard on October 15, 1880 which lasted for more than twenty-four hours.  The snow was damp and tenacious and clung to everything it touched.  The average depth of the snow was about sixteen inches; however, because of the vicious wind, the drifts reached a depth of five to six feet.  The railroad and all wagon roads were impassable.

This storm was the severest of October storms experienced in Dakota and it was the initial performance of a winter unprecedented, and never succeeded in severity, in the history of Dakota and the northwest.  Heavy snows and severe storms came at frequent intervals, rendering train service and travel on the wagon roads unreliable.

Early in January on many lines train service became utterly impracticable.  More than eleven feet of snow fell during the season and it all remained in the country, there being no thawing weather.

On February 2, 1881, when it appeared that nature had exhausted all of her resources in supplying material for drifts, a snow storm set in which continued without cessation for nine days.  In the towns the streets were filled with solid drifts to the tops of the buildings and tunnels were required to secure passage about town.  Farmers found their homes and barns completely covered.  They were compelled to tunnel down to reach and feed their livestock.  It finally warmed up and the prairie soon became one vast lake.  As the water drained away, the streams and rivers became torrents sweeping everything before them.

The Missouri River suddenly became clogged with huge chunks of ice, some more than three-feet thick and an acre in size.  At about four o’clock on the 27th of March, the ice began to move.  Directly after the ice commenced moving, and before it had time to break up, an immense cake struck the Western near her stern and opened a leak in her about twenty feet long through which the water poured into her hold with great rapidity and force.

A large group of men were immediately put to work at the pumps and with buckets.  For a time it was thought that the steamer could be saved; however, it was soon found that the water in her hold was increasing notwithstanding the utmost exertions of the men at the pumps and buckets, she settled to the bottom of the river.  The Western was cut down by the ice at Yankton in the great gorge of March 29, 1881.

The April 21st edition of the Press and Daily Dakotan reported:

“The Steamer Western lies where she was cast by the flood a crushed and disintegrated mass of wood and iron.  Through the melting mass of ice can be seen enough of the wreck to convince the explorer that the Western was completely chewed, in the jaws of the gorge.”

The paper concluded:  “The forward part of her hull lies upon the bank right side up and the stern projects over and against the bank apparently in an inverted position.  The ice has not melted away sufficiently to establish the fact that the hull of the Western broke in the center and the stern half turned bottom side up.”

A half dozen other boats at the Yankton wharf or nearby were roughly handled; however, they were not stuck by large chucks of ice like the Western.  Most of them were repaired within reasonable cost.

The “hard winter” of 1880 – 81 was without parallel in the history of the territory.  In addition to the bitter cold which those living in the territory at the time had to deal with, supplies and fuel were urgent needs.  Their flour was soon gone, but there was wheat in abundance and it was ground into a sort of graham in coffee mills.  They were forced to create their own “graham crackers.”

The winter of 1880 – 81 is depicted in the 1940 novel The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder.


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on June 19, 2024