After six face-offs between 1861 and 1890, each becoming more intense and costly, one might come to the conclusion that the location of the capital was settled once and for all in 1890. Nothing could be farther from the truth! With 45% of the voters opposing Pierre as the capital, voters should have expected that the issue had not definitely been settled.
In the early part of the 1890s, the hefty debt acquired by the contesting towns was a deterrent to any immediate relocation conflict. The panic of 1893 resulted in an adverse financial condition for the local units of government. The bonds which had been sold were excessive.
The bonded indebtedness of all the counties in South Dakota in 1880 was less than $870,000. By 1890, the indebtedness had increased to almost 7.5 million. Since new counties were being established during that time, it could be expected that the debt would increase. That was natural; however, the real problem during that ten-year period was that barely $30,000 (.004%) of the principal was reduced.
Many of the bonds which had been sold by the contesting cities in the capital fight of 1890 were later refinanced for as low as thirty cents on the dollar. Even with being unable to pay the interest on their loans, there was talk of relocating the capital.
During the nineties there were threats in the legislature to introduce the removal question from time to time to force legislation on other issues of doubtful support. In 1897 the election of a United States Senator was determined because of the threat of the removing the capital from Pierre.
In an attempt to elect a Senator, the legislature in joint session balloted twenty-nine consecutive days. The Republican nominee received a plurality vote consistently, but never a majority. When it became obvious that he could not be elected, the Republican committee conferred with the Populist Party. Their candidate was up for reelection and he indicated that he favored the political view of the Republicans as well as those of the Populists. On the thirtieth day of balloting, they joined forces and reelected the Populist candidate as Senator.
Up to this time, the removal question had not been taken seriously. Now there were charges and counter-charges of fraud and corruption in the senatorial election. These charges, together with the dissatisfaction of 45% of the 1890 voters resulted in a desire for revenge on the part of Huron.
A capital removal resolution was introduced during the closing days of the 1897 legislature and referred to the State Affairs Committee. It was passed out of committee with a “do pass” recommendation. Immediately an amendment to postpone was introduced. Because of a sharp and cutting filibuster, the amendment was passed.
With strong sentiment favoring relocation, Pierre officials, on the eve of the 1899 session made plans to prevent such efforts. When the legislature convened in January, friends of Pierre nominated an individual from Grant County to be Speaker of the House. He was a former Pierre resident and was opposed to moving the capital. That year, the issue never came up for a vote.
With the capital location issue being defeated in four legislative sessions — 1895, 1897, 1899, and 1901 — it was thought that the fight had been settled. That was not the case.
The James River Valley communities took a clue from earlier Pierre tactics and made plans for passage of the removal resolution in 1903. During a meeting of the three towns — Redfield, Huron, and Mitchell — they agreed to promote a caucus to be held by the whole legislature to decide by ballot which town would oppose Pierre.
When the legislative caucus assembled on January 7th to determine Pierre’s opponent, the vote was: Mitchell, 81; Huron, 19; and Redfield, 7. Later Redfield and Huron supporters learned about some questionable Mitchell tactics. Mitchell had done more than secure support for a resolution to submit the relocation question. Some members of the legislature had been solicited to pledge support to Mitchell. This angered the Beadle and Spink County citizens so much that in the final election an overwhelming majority of both counties supported Pierre.
The organization for the 1904 campaign was more thorough than in any of the previous campaigns. Pierre had a distinct advantage because of their earlier campaign experiences. As was expected, the Chicago and Northwestern railroad supported Pierre and the Milwaukee railroad promoted Chamberlain.
Each of the railroad companies supplied their officials with “books” of tickets which were given to the Pierre and Mitchell leaders to distribute to voters who wished to visit their city before the election. Both Pierre and Mitchell were flooded with tourists. There were times when as many as five thousand guests were in Pierre in a single day.
To say that voters were bribed is to put it mildly. Neither city trusted the other. On Election Day, Pierre had spies in Mitchell and Mitchell spies were in Pierre to report any irregularities in the voting. When the votes were counted in November, Pierre received 58,617 and Mitchell 41,155. Pierre had won by 17,462 votes.
The legislature which convened in January of 1905 was the first in twenty-five years in which there was no talk of moving the capital.
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on February 16, 2022