After the election on October 1, 1889 for the temporary seat of government, the folks in Pierre felt confident that it would become the permanent capital. Before the October election, plans had been made for the construction of a frame capitol building. This was to be a gift from the city of Pierre to the State of South Dakota.
Once the votes were counted determining that Pierre was to be the temporary capital, the citizens went to work to erect a temporary capitol. Since construction had just started, the special session of the October 16, 17, 18 legislature met in special quarters.
The Senate met in the G. A. R. Hall, which stood where the St. Charles Hotel is located. The House of Representatives met in the court room of the Hughes County courthouse. The state officers and governor had offices in the Wells House in east Pierre.
When the regular session of the legislature met in January of 1890, the building had been completed. The wood frame building was probably the only one of its kind in the United States. It was abandoned in May of 1910.
One of the first measures presented to the regular session in January of 1890 stipulated that the permanent seat of government should be located by a majority vote of the voters at the next general election. This fight for the permanent capital furnished an opportunity for retaliation against Pierre for some of the methods they employed in 1889. As a result, those communities receiving the top votes prepared for a hot and hard-hitting fight.
The James River Valley towns, by mutual consent settled on Huron to oppose Pierre. Watertown thought it still had a chance and entered the race. Sioux Falls, because of its location withdrew. With three towns in the race, it was possible that no town would receive the required majority votes. Pierre was not concerned about the entrance of Watertown in the battle. However, Huron wanted Watertown out of the contest.
Charges were made that Huron paid Watertown $30,000 ($919,127 today) to withdraw from the race. Watertown denied the charges; however, the town soon dropped out of the contest.
In the meantime, Pierre and Huron were preparing for the biggest fight either had been involved in up to that time. Many times during the contest, the leaders of both communities met to discuss the limits the committees would go in conducting their campaign. This is probably why one committee did not bring the other to court for some of the questionable methods used. Particularly that of financing their campaigns.
Volunteers were placed in towns across the state by both committees. The best men were placed in the largest and the more doubtful localities. Some were given $5,000 to use as he thought would be the most effective. Pierre spent the most in this scheme. Both committees soon realized that much more money would be necessary if their plan was to be effective.
Pierre was the first to consider bonding of public property as a means of raising money. The Pierre Public School got involved and school warrants were issued and used for other purposes than that marked on the warrants. The chairman of the Pierre Capital Committee was also a member of the school board. It was natural that the school could be tapped for $250,000, the same as others had contributed. Later, all the school warrants were covered except possibly $25,000.
The school bonds were sold to eastern capitalists without difficulty. Enough coal was purchased in 1890 to last the Pierre schools for ten years. This was a penitentiary offense; however, Huron did the same so no one was called to account for their behavior.
It is estimated that Pierre’s total expenditures in the 1890 controversy was $1,000,000 ($32,637,582 today). At one time, Hughes County and the city of Pierre together owed more than $600,000. In 1901 an agreement was reached between the city of Pierre and the bondholders which reduced the face value of the bonds to $242,000.
Later, Supt. Rawlins of the Pierre Public Schools provided information that the last payment of $22,000 on the school debt acquired during the capital controversy was made in June of 1942. The bonded indebtedness for Hughes County in 1890 was $59,100 and by 1902 had increased to $468,199.
The methods which Huron employed in financing its campaign varied little from those of Pierre. There were a great many illegal warrants issued during the campaign. Beadle County’s indebtedness for the period 1890 to 1902 increased from $50,000 to $375,345.
In the last several weeks of the campaign, the contest became much more heated. Uncomplimentary comments became more uncomplimentary. When the votes were counted, Pierre won with 41,969 votes and Huron received 34,610. In the counties located in the James River, Pierre was only able to get about 4,400 votes. Had these voters cast their ballots for the capital location in their own territory, the seat of government would have been placed at Huron.
In July of 1938, Doane Robinson commented on the 1890 conflict:
“The capital fight was the most demoralizing influence ever at work in our state. The public workers and officials from that time on expected some reward for services which ordinarily would have been given willing and freely. A common expression in political circles was, ‘What is there in it for me.’”
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on February 9, 2022