A Note from Cottonwood Corners

One of the major factors influencing the growth and development of South Dakota socially and economically was the opportunity to travel without difficulty from one area of the state to another.  The Missouri River was an obstacle which challenged those who were planning for the ease of getting from one side of the river to the other by wagon or automobile.

As early as 1907, an Edmunds County representative in the South Dakota Legislature proposed a bill enabling counties to begin substantial road projects by annually collecting taxes and contracting the work.  This idea nearly got him laughed out of Pierre; however, he persisted.

By October 9, 1912, an ambitious project for an improved road from Minneapolis to Yellowstone Park was proposed by representatives of various communities meeting in Lemmon.  The Yellowstone Trail association promoted the road heartily and by 1923 operated thirteen travel bureaus between Walla Walla, Washington, and Cleveland, Ohio.

Free maps and information about garages, lodging, and restaurants was provided to more than two hundred fifty thousand summer tourists.  However, one major problem still existed.  The Missouri River remained unbridged.

In August of 1922 during a single fifteen-day period more than seven hundred cars crossed the river via ferry at Mobridge.  That was the same number of cars which crossed the river during the entire year of 1913 at the same site.

Mobridge with one ferry, the Evelyn, carried more automobiles than any other in the state.  That boat transported 10,512 autos during the year.  This was due largely to the tourist travel over the Yellowstone Trail.

Finally, the South Dakota Legislature provided for a bridge fund in 1921 and the appropriation of it in 1923.  This appropriation provided for five bridges to span old muddy.  They were located at Mobridge, Forest City, Pierre, Chamberlain, and Wheeler.  The cost was $1,759,911.03.  They would cost of citizens of South Dakota $31,741,899.42 today!

The dedication of the Mobridge bridge symbolized the uniting of East River and West River, American Indians and non-Indians, and farmer and city dwellers into a single people who celebrated a shared purpose, however briefly.  The completion of the first Missouri River bridge within South Dakota was a unifying moment in the state’s history.

“The East and West Are One,” was the headlines in the press.  Newspapers reported that the people and businesses benefited as tourism expanded and agricultural markets opened up.  This all contributed to a general sense that South Dakota was now one state, no longer divided by the “Big Muddy.”  Yet today, we still discuss and debate the East River, West River topic.

Though the Missouri River divides both Dakotas, the regional differences between East River and West River are especially marked in South Dakota.  West River considers itself Western: Cowboys and Indians (in capital letters), ranches, dry land farms, and large reservations.  East River considers itself Midwestern, at least the farther east you go.  Corn and soybeans are topmost instead of prime rib.

East River folks regard residents of the western portion of the state as “less sophisticated” and believe West River is a “nice place to visit.”  West River residents consider East River people “snobby” and that end of the state “a place to only do business when absolutely necessary.”

Stanley Vestal, author of The Missouri, wrote that the the Missouri River was “the great divide, where the West begins, a social barrier between two cultures, two climates, two ways of life.”  He went  on to say the “boundary between the woodland lakes, and farms  on the east bank and the buffalo plains and ranches on the west.”  According to Vestal, the Mandan word for Missouri River is Mata, meaning “boundary between two pieces of land.

Located on highway U.S. 14, one mile west of Blunt, South Dakota is marker number 128 of the South Dakota State Historical Society marker program.  It was erected in 1955 to inform citizens that “YOU ARE NOW ON THE 100th MERIDIAN”.  It recalls that lending and insurance companies at one time refused to loan money west of the meridian because it was considered the eastern edge of the Great American Desert.”

South Dakotans can take some comfort in knowing that we are not the only Americans who have, for whatever reason, developed strong opinions on the differences between communities and the best place to live.  Some out-of-towner visiting Cleveland, Ohio, with a vague knowledge of the geography of that city might say, “Oh, you guys have the East Side / West Side thing going on, right?”

Citizens of Cleveland do admit that there is a dividing line (Cuyahoga River) between east and west, but they can all meet in the middle–downtown–and have a good time.  The differences are in architecture, housing options, and lifestyles.  At one time, those living on one side of the river would not visit with those on the other.

And so it goes . . . . .


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on March 13, 2024