Things to do in Pierre, South Dakota, if you like history

Pierre, the capital city of South Dakota and Hughes County’s administrative hub, weaves a rich tapestry of history and cultural heritage. This beautiful city invites you to delve into its past through a myriad of historical attractions, each a chapter in its narrative.

From the stately South Dakota State Capitol to the poignant Fighting Stallions Memorial, the city echoes with stories of valor and progress. The elegant St. Charles Hotel whispers tales of a bygone era, while the South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center paints vivid pictures of the state’s heritage.

Explore the annals of military history at the National Guard Museum, and witness the grandeur of the Methodist Episcopal Church and Pierre Masonic Lodge. The Karcher Block, Central Block, and Hilger Block stand as testaments to the city’s commercial evolution.

A journey wouldn’t be complete without a glimpse of architectural marvels like the Chicago and North Western Railroad Bridge, and the historic houses including the Farr House, Karcher–Sahr House, Crawford–Pettyjohn House, and I. W. Goodner House. Welcome to a captivating encounter with Pierre’s past and its treasured landmarks.

A brief history of Pierre, South Dakota

Established in 1880 on the eastern bank of the Missouri River, facing the former trading post of Fort Pierre, Pierre’s history is interwoven with the development of its neighboring community. Its significance was cemented as it became the chosen state capital upon South Dakota’s attainment of statehood on November 2, 1889.

During the capital selection process, Pierre triumphed over Huron due to its strategic location at the heart of the state. Fort Pierre, which had emerged earlier, dates back to around 1817 when it evolved around a fur trading post. Fort Pierre Chouteau, predating the city, was named after Pierre Chouteau, Jr., a colonial French-descendant fur trader from St. Louis, Missouri.

Pierre’s growth was further propelled by the construction of the Rapid City, Pierre and Eastern Railroad, which intersects the city along an east-west trajectory. This railroad significantly expanded regional market access and facilitated passenger movement. Notably, the Chicago and North Western Railroad Bridge facilitated the railroad’s crossing of the Missouri River.

However, the city experienced a measure of isolation in the post-World War II era, a period marked by the surge of federally supported highway construction. As automobiles and trucking gained prominence, the city found itself less connected, a phenomenon intensified by its absence from the Interstate Highway System, making it one of the four state capitals not served by this extensive network.

Despite these challenges, Pierre’s historical legacy and strategic position continue to shape its identity as an enduring center in South Dakota’s landscape.

The South Dakota State Capitol

The South Dakota State Capitol, located at 500 East Capitol Avenue in Pierre, is the heart of the state’s governance. Built from 1905 to 1910, the design by Minneapolis firm Bell & Detweiler echoes elements of the Montana State Capitol.

This monumental structure serves as the hub for the South Dakota State Legislature and key governmental functions, including those of the Governor.

An intriguing legend surrounds the capitol’s terrazzo tile floor, believed to have been laid by 66 Italian artists. Each artist supposedly placed a blue stone in the floor, but only 55 of these tokens have been found, with some speculated to lie hidden beneath walls, doors, or carpets.

Inside, a marble staircase leads to a captivating rotunda on the second floor, adorned with symbols of government’s enduring nature. The dome features sixteen images of the Tree of Life, alongside acanthus leaves representing wisdom and the state flower, the pasque flower.

The building’s three floors host significant spaces, such as the state’s House of Representatives and Senate chambers on the third floor. The fourth floor galleries offer the public an opportunity to witness legislative proceedings.

The Capitol grounds boast four poignant memorials, including the Fighting Stallions Memorial, the Flaming Fountain Memorial honoring veterans, the Law Enforcement Officer Memorial, and the World War II Memorial with its six bronze figures. The Trail of Governors, featuring bronze statues of former state governors, further enriches the site.

The Fighting Stallions Memorial

The Fighting Stallions Memorial stands as a testament to the resilience and sacrifice of eight South Dakotans who tragically lost their lives on April 19, 1993, during a mission to secure the future of a vital agricultural processing employer in the state. Their state plane, N86SD, met its fate due to propeller assembly failure in adverse weather conditions near Dubuque, Iowa.

This memorial, unveiled on the anniversary of the crash in 1994, pays tribute to these individuals who made the ultimate sacrifice for South Dakota’s betterment.

Created by the skilled hands of Polish-American sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, renowned for his role in the Mount Rushmore Memorial carving, the Fighting Stallions sculpture was magnificently recreated in bronze from Ziolkowski’s original 1935 mahogany carving.

This monumental artwork symbolizes South Dakota’s tenacity in overcoming challenges, its unwavering pursuit of progress, and the courage to envision a brighter future.

Authorized and funded by the special session of the 68th session of the South Dakota legislature, the Fighting Stallions Memorial also stands as a testament to the collaborative spirit of the community.

Hundreds of South Dakotans, driven by a shared reverence for these fallen individuals, contributed their labor, resources, and financial support to realize this project.

Situated adjacent to the Capitol Building and facing the Capitol Lake, the Fighting Stallions Memorial stands as an enduring reminder of the state’s resilience and the indomitable spirit of those who strive to shape its future.

St. Charles Hotel

The St. Charles Hotel, situated at 207 E. Capitol Ave. in Pierre, South Dakota, is a historic establishment with a rich and varied legacy. Constructed in 1911 by Charles Hyde, a prominent local businessman and key figure in Pierre’s business district, the hotel has served as a hub for political and social activities in the state.

Governor Robert S. Vessey inaugurated the hotel’s grand opening, setting the tone for its significant role in South Dakota’s political landscape. The St. Charles became a central gathering place for state legislators, hosting debates, discussions, and legislative activities.

Notably, the building welcomed illustrious guests such as President Calvin Coolidge, Dale Carnegie, Bob Hope, and Clark Gable.

Adding to its historic significance, the hotel was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on May 7, 1980. The St. Charles Hotel’s architectural charm is evident in its five-story yellow brick structure adorned with elegant Neoclassical details in glazed terra cotta.

While once the residence of governors and political figures, the hotel now houses a restaurant and lounge on the first floor, with offices, businesses, and apartments on the upper levels.

Charles Hyde, its builder, played a pivotal role in Pierre’s growth, erecting business blocks and anticipating the city’s prosperity. Despite a controversial period due to mail fraud charges, Hyde’s legacy is intricately woven into the hotel’s storied history.

The South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center

The South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre stands as the headquarters of the South Dakota State Historical Society, an institution dedicated to preserving and interpreting the history and culture of the state.

Established in 1989, this landmark houses administrative offices, historic preservation, research and publishing divisions, and serves as the abode of the State Archives and Museum, including the South Dakota Digital Archives.

Originating as the Old Settlers Association of Dakota Territory in 1862, the South Dakota State Historical Society officially took shape in 1890, catalyzed by the state’s union in 1889. The Society’s role in preserving the state’s history solidified further with the establishment of the Department of History in 1901.

The museum, founded in 1901, boasts a vast collection of over 30,000 artifacts, illuminating various facets of South Dakota’s history. The 15,000-square-foot Museum gallery encapsulates Dakota Territory and South Dakota’s history, including the primary exhibit ‘The South Dakota Experience.’ Three galleries within this exhibit traverse the state’s story from its earliest days to the present.

‘Oyate Tawicoḣ’aŋ’ delves into the heritage of the Oceti Ṡakowiŋ (The Seven Council Fires), while ‘Proving Up’ explores the establishment of the state. ‘Changing Times’ reflects 20th-century shifts, from railroads to technology.

The Museum also hosts rotating displays in the Hogen and Observation Galleries. Open seven days a week, the Museum offers insights into South Dakota’s rich heritage.

The State Archives, initially rooted in the State Historical Society of 1891, now encompasses more than 12,000 cubic feet of records, a treasure trove documenting the state’s heritage. Since 2012, the South Dakota State Archives has digitally archived primary sources, including photos, maps, and manuscripts, in the South Dakota Digital Archives.

The Center offers a glimpse into the state’s past and is open for public exploration, serving as a cornerstone of historical education and research.

The National Guard Museum

The National Guard Museum, situated in Pierre, South Dakota at 301 East Dakota, serves as a repository for historical artifacts and documents associated with the South Dakota National Guard.

Originally established as the 147th Field Artillery Historical Society in 1975, it gained official recognition and control by the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs through legislation in 1983.

The museum’s mission is to preserve and exhibit military equipment, records, relics, and memorabilia representing the legacy of the Dakota Militia, South Dakota Army, and Air National Guard.

Serving both National Guard members and the public, the museum educates about the state’s National Guard heritage in times of peace and conflict. Being among the nation’s 20 authorized National Guard museums, it operates as a non-profit entity and is partially funded by the state. The museum is managed by a curator and knowledgeable local volunteers.

The expansive exhibit area includes outdoor displays featuring an A-7-D Jet, Sherman Tank, 75mm Cannon, 105mm Howitzer, Anti-Aircraft guns, and an Armored Personnel Carrier.

Indoors, diverse collections showcase the evolution of the South Dakota National Guard and Militia through the years, highlighting their accomplishments and heritage. From artifacts of the 1860s Dakota Militia to contemporary items, the museum provides a comprehensive historical perspective.

The Methodist Episcopal Church

Constructed in 1910, the Methodist Episcopal Church stands as a historical treasure in Pierre, South Dakota, gracing 117 Central Avenue, North.

With its roots tracing back to 1880, the original congregation transitioned from rented halls to their inaugural building on Fort Street in 1881. By 1883, the congregation found its home on the present-day Central Avenue site, marking the foundation of the church’s enduring presence.

Architected in the captivating Late Gothic Revival style, the current building, a masterpiece of architectural elegance, was erected in 1910. The design was the brainchild of John P. Eisentraut, hailing from the esteemed Black Hills Company, renowned for their work in Deadwood.

The construction itself was skillfully executed by devoted parishioner F. Turner. Notably, the structure encompassed various amenities, including a pioneering library in Pierre, a gymnasium, and even a plunge pool, reflecting the church’s multifaceted significance within the community.

Recognizing its historical and cultural importance, the 1910 building was rightfully added to the esteemed National Register of Historic Places on May 9, 1997. Presently known as the Pierre First United Methodist Church, this venerable establishment continues to hold its place as a spiritual cornerstone.

The Pierre Masonic Lodge

The Pierre Masonic Lodge, stands as a testament to architectural grandeur and historical significance. Designed in the Classical Revival style by architects Perkins & McWayne, the lodge was erected in 1928 to house the esteemed Pierre Lodge 27 A.F. and A.M., established in 1881.

Distinguished by its Neoclassical features, including Ionic columns at the entrance, a crowning pediment, and intricate ornamentation, the building was listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 2009.

This lodge, positioned a block west of the Upper Pierre Commercial Historic District, has three floors, each serving a distinct purpose. The lodge room, lounges, and auxiliary spaces are spread across the levels, showcasing the multi-faceted role the Masons play in the community.

The roots of Masonic activity in South Dakota trace back to 1862 when the Grand Lodge of Iowa received a petition for Dakota Lodge #1, although a charter was never issued. The Pierre Lodge 27 A.F and A.M. was established in 1881, exhibiting a high standard of moral values in its selective membership.

Meetings were initially held in various locations, culminating in the construction of the Masonic Temple in 1928, which has since served as the lodge’s home.

The lodge’s involvement in civic affairs is notable, with cornerstone-laying ceremonies for the State Capitol in 1908 and the Hughes County Courthouse in 1934. Community service and charity programs remain integral to their mission.

The Karcher Block

The Karcher Block stands as an enduring symbol of Pierre’s commercial history. Commissioned by businessman Henry Karcher in 1884, this Italianate-style building, an early work of architects Proudfoot & Bird, played a pivotal role in shaping the city’s business landscape. Its strategic location at 366 S. Pierre St. solidified West Pierre as the epicenter of commerce over East Pierre.

During a crucial juncture when Pierre’s commercial center was uncertain, Karcher’s decision to decline a tempting offer of $6,000 from an East Pierre landowner in favor of building in West Pierre proved pivotal. The Karcher Block and the Central Block, both erected around the same period, cemented West Pierre’s status as the bustling business district.

This historic structure, added to the National Register of Historic Places on August 17, 1993, not only boasts architectural significance but has also been a constant hub of activity.

With its prime location at the crossroads of Pierre Street and Dakota Avenue, it has hosted diverse businesses like retail stores, legal offices, real estate agencies, and even housed the Dakota Poster newspaper.

The Karcher Block’s legacy reflects the resilience and foresight of Henry Karcher, whose visionary decision helped shape the destiny of Pierre’s business community.

The Central Block

The Central Block, an iconic commercial edifice located at 321–325 S. Pierre Street, stands as a testament to the city’s rich history and architectural heritage. Constructed in 1884 in the Italianate style, this masonry building, an early creation of architects Proudfoot & Bird, remains a proud survivor of Pierre’s original commercial district.

Reverberating with historical significance, the Central Block was the elegant host of the 1884 Republican Territorial Convention Ball, graced by the Rochester Orchestra, marking its grand opening.

Over the years, this architectural gem has witnessed a multitude of businesses and professionals, including Pierre’s pioneer female doctor, Alice Baird, and Henry R. Horner, a prominent figure in South Dakota’s legislative and legal arenas.

Adding to its historical accolades, the Central Block was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on January 19, 1989. Its enduring legacy encompasses not only architectural significance but also a role in shaping Pierre’s commercial landscape.

Comprising two stories adorned with Italianate features, this commercial masterpiece features stone foundations, masonry walls, and captivating details like carved stone plaques and a pressed metal cornice.

As one of the city’s few surviving landmarks from its early commercial development, the Central Block continues to captivate with its history-laden walls, offering a window into Pierre’s vibrant past and its role as a foundation for the present and future.

The Hilger Block

The historic Hilger Block at 361 S. Pierre Street, narrates a story of evolution. Constructed in 1883 by J.D. Hilger, it’s a pioneer brick commercial building, emblematic of the city’s growing economic dynamism.

Designed in the Italianate style, the facade features a bracketed cornice, ornamental hoods, and a parapet crowning the roofline.

During the booming Dakota era (1878-1887), Pierre became an economic epicenter due to favorable conditions and the Black Hills gold rush. J.D. Hilger seized this momentum to erect the Hilger Block as a clothing store.

This led to the Hilger and Hengel Clothing Company, occupying the first floor, while upper levels hosted offices. By 1890, twelve tenants graced the directory, spotlighting its pivotal role in commerce.

As West Pierre gained business prominence, the Hilger Block flourished. Central location and inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places (2006) solidified its stature. The Italianate style, popular from 1870 to 1900, endowed the block with long, narrow windows, ornate hoods, and an embellished cornice. While storefronts evolved, the essence of its history persisted.

The east facade, a testament to craftsmanship, boasts a recessed entry, expansive windows with stone sills, and segmented hoods. Corbelled bricks lead to an adorned cornice, exuding elegance. The south side showcases a display window and discreet garage door on the first floor. This legacy stands as a tribute to Pierre’s evolution, enriching the city’s narrative.

The Chicago and North Western Railroad Bridge

The Chicago and North Western Railroad Bridge holds a distinct position on the National Register of Historic Places in Pierre, South Dakota. This bridge marked a significant milestone by becoming the very first permanent crossing of the Missouri River in central South Dakota, a feat that reshaped the region’s connectivity and progress.

This monumental Pennsylvania through truss bridge spans an impressive 2,200 feet (670 m) and encompasses two spans. Notably, the bridge’s second span adopts the form of a swing span, a distinctive feature that sets it apart as the sole surviving swing bridge in South Dakota.

The story of this bridge unfolds in the early 20th century when the Pierre and Fort Pierre Bridge Railway, a subsidiary of the Chicago and Northwestern Railway, took on the ambitious task of constructing the bridge in 1906 and 1907.

The bridge was a vital link, designed to join the Chicago and Northwestern line on the river’s eastern bank with the Pierre, Rapid City, and Northwestern railroad on its western counterpart in Fort Pierre.

Recognizing its historical significance, the bridge earned its place on the National Register on November 19, 1998. Today, the bridge stands as an integral component of the PRC Subdivision railway line, which is under the stewardship of the Rapid City, Pierre and Eastern Railroad.

The Farr House

The historic Farr House, nestled at 106 E. Wynoka St. in Pierre, South Dakota, stands as a testament to architectural elegance and cultural significance. Constructed in 1904 under the skilled guidance of architect E. J. Donahue, the house is a fine representation of the Colonial Revival style, seamlessly marrying Georgian and Adamesque influences.

Donahue’s design showcases commanding Ionic columns gracing the porch, imposing two-story Ionic pilasters at the front corners, Palladian windows, and a meticulously crafted dentillated cornice.

Originally owned by Colonel E. P. Farr, a distinguished veteran and banker, along with his wife Mary Noyes Farr, a trailblazing female doctor, the Farr House is steeped in historical prominence. Beyond its captivating facade, the home boasts an original mural by Y. Edward Soderberg, adorning the dining room with artistic allure.

Governor Peter Norbeck, the ninth leader of South Dakota, resided within these walls from 1917 to 1921, later ascending to the United States Senate and leaving an indelible mark on the region’s development. Similarly, Governor Carl Gunderson briefly graced the home with his presence.

Designated on the National Register of Historic Places on December 4, 1980, the Farr House preserves its opulent interior and unique historical connections. After a transformative restoration initiative that began in 1993, the house has evolved into a vibrant bed and breakfast establishment, welcoming guests to relish in its storied charm and timeless elegance.

Karcher–Sahr House

Nestled at 222 E. Prospect St. in Pierre, South Dakota, the Karcher–Sahr House stands as a vivid testament to timeless architectural grandeur. Constructed in 1910, this house is a remarkable embodiment of the Classical Revival style, boasting a stately dentillated cornice embellished with modillions and moldings.

Notable features include commanding two-story Ionic columns gracefully supporting a pediment over the front entrance and a front and side porch.

Henry Karcher, a prominent settler and entrepreneur in Pierre who also held the city’s mayoral office, originally owned the house. A visionary who sensed the town’s potential, he constructed one of its first brick commercial buildings, the Karcher Block. His dedication to Pierre’s development is evident as he built this residence in 1910, showcasing his influence in shaping the city’s growth.

Adeline Karcher, his wife, also left an indelible mark on Pierre’s landscape. She co-founded the Women’s Club, played a role in establishing the Carnegie Library, and contributed to the Riverside Cemetery’s creation.

Their daughter Marguerite married Fred Sahr, initiating a family legacy tied to the home. Marguerite’s involvement in the Women’s Suffrage Movement, through her writings in the feminist newspaper South Dakota Messenger, remains a testament to her activism.

Designated on the National Register of Historic Places on September 22, 1977, the Karcher–Sahr House preserves its original Neo-Classical architectural allure.

The Crawford–Pettyjohn House

Positioned at 129 S. Washington St. in Pierre, South Dakota, the Crawford–Pettyjohn House reverberates with historical significance. Constructed in 1885, this remarkable dwelling is a quintessential embodiment of the Queen Anne architectural style.

The residence’s façade showcases a captivating blend of elements, including a hip roof adorned with cross gables, an asymmetrical design, and an expansive porch wrapping around the south and east sides. A corner turret adds a touch of enchantment to the structure.

Originally owned by Coe I. Crawford, who would later ascend to the role of South Dakota’s governor, the house offers a tangible connection to the state’s political heritage. Crawford’s tenure as State Attorney General from 1893 to 1897 marked his early political involvement.

His governorship, which commenced in 1906, ushered in significant reforms, including a direct primary, anti-lobbying measures, and campaign contribution regulations.

Following Crawford’s legacy, Robert S. Vessey took the gubernatorial reins, potentially residing in the house during his term from 1909 to 1913. Notably, the dwelling experienced a phase of decline, but a subsequent restoration in 1969 by the Neilan family breathed new life into this historic gem.

The Crawford–Pettyjohn House’s legacy is cemented by its inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places on September 22, 1977, as a distinguished example of Queen Anne architecture in Pierre.

I. W. Goodner House

The I. W. Goodner House, situated at 216 E. Prospect Avenue in Pierre, South Dakota, stands as a testament to both history and transformation. Constructed between 1881 and 1885 for I. W. Goodner, the first clerk of the South Dakota Supreme Court, the house initially showcased a Gothic Revival design.

Although often referred to as the “Goodner” house, it was Henry J. Siems who actually oversaw the house’s construction in 1881. Siems, a wholesale liquor businessman, played an active role in Pierre’s burgeoning community. In 1892, the house transitioned hands to Colonel Ivan W. Goodner, marking the dawn of its true association with the Goodner family.

In the 1900s, Goodner undertook a significant remodeling, steering the dwelling towards a Colonial Revival aesthetic. This shift introduced a new second story, an attic adorned with three gabled dormers, and a wraparound porch upheld by Tuscan columns.

The transition to the Colonial Revival style brought about an asymmetrical facade, a spacious wraparound porch with unassuming Tuscan columns, multiple-pane windows, and an unadorned railing with spindles. This transformation not only met the Goodner family’s spatial requirements but also aligned the house with a modern architectural trend.

Throughout its existence, the house hosted individuals who left indelible marks on the region’s history. Colonel Ivan W. Goodner held positions ranging from city attorney to state’s attorney. Subsequent owners like William Summerside, a legislator, and his wife Sarah Harriman Summerside, a notable community activist, continued to infuse the dwelling with significance.

As the house exchanged hands over the years, its narrative intertwined with Pierre’s own story, rendering it a cherished piece of local heritage.

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