Always an eye to industry: Original on Falls Parks, Part 1 Original

NOTE: The namesake of Sioux Falls has had many transitions over the years. Since the city’s founding in 1856 to present day, the falls of the Big Sioux River have remained the focal point of the area. Development at Falls Park started with the creation of the Queen Bee Mill, which opened in 1881. Falls Park transformed from an industry hub to a neglected park. While remaining an area for family picnics and a popular swimming hole for kids, it also became exploited as a homeless camp and was adjacent to a salvage yard. In the past three decades, the city’s namesake has been refurbished to become a top tourist destination drawing thousands of visitors each year. This Original series looks at this history and redevelopment of Falls Park in five parts.

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — An Iowa company named Sioux Falls back in 1856, according to “The Falls of the Big Sioux River” published by the Siouxland Heritage Museums.

The Western Town Company beat a St. Paul company when it claimed 320 acres below the falls and named the town Sioux Falls in May of 1857. This was just a few days before The Dakota Land Company could make its planned claim in the same spot. The Dakota Land Company had to choose land above the falls.

But the new town didn’t last long as it became a casualty of the 1862 Dakota Conflict.

The remnants of a fort built during the conflict sparked a new Sioux Falls led by a name familiar to long-time city residents, Richard F. Pettigrew. In Sioux Falls, there is an R.F. Pettigrew Elementary School, Pettigrew Museum, Pettigrew House and other buildings and spots with the Pettigrew name.

The new Sioux Falls opened for settlement in 1870.

While people admired the falls for their beauty, the economic possibilities were of higher interests.

“It was common to dump raw sewage and dead animals in the river,” the Siouxland Museum publication said.

Successful crops and desire for potential prosperity drove the desire to use the falls for economic benefit.

Historical markers dot the campus of Falls Park. They tell stories of some of the first arrivals to the Falls and of industry that was once fueled by the moving water.

‘The first (marker) is for the Queen Bee Mill,” Jim Carlson, past president of the Minnehaha Historical Society, told KELOLAND News. Carlson is now in charge of maintaining the historical markers placed throughout the city. Nine of those historical markers are at Falls Park.

The remnants of the Queen Bee Mill stand at the edge of the falls in Falls Park. Construction of the mill was finished in 1881. While the falls can churn with speed and imposing force as water cascades over the rocks, it can also slow to steady streams with few ripples.

The inconsistency of the falls caused the short life of the Queen Bee Mill, according to historical publications.

Construction started on the mill in 1878 and was completed in 1881, according to “The Falls of the Big Sioux River” from the Siouxland Heritage Museums. The first wheat was ground on Oct. 25, 1881. The mill closed in 1883.

A company tried to revive the mill in 1911. It was converted to electric power in 1916 but by then, the Minnesota-based company decided it was cheaper to ship the wheat to Minneapolis.

About 13 years later, a company used it for a farm implement warehouse and another used it for storage. The mill building was severely damaged by fire in the 1950s.

Legend, folklore or fact tells the story of how Pettigrew duped investors who made the Queen Bee Mill possible, according to “The Queen Bee Mill Legend: Did Pettigrew Trick the Eastern Investors?” by Gary D. Olson and available online through the South Dakota Historical Society.

The story says that Pettigrew dammed the Big Sioux River shortly before investors arrived to view the mill site, according to Olson’s paper. Lots of water was released when the dam was broken, which convinced the investors of the potential of a mill.

The Queen Bee Turbine House at Falls Park. KELOLAND News photo.

Olson wrote that Pettigrew had added to a small dam near the Cascade Mill in order to create more falls for a visit by out-of-state newspaper editors. This was a dry year and Pettigrew told of how the editors needed to be impressed so that people would learn of the falls.

Apparently, the buildup of the Cascade Dam and the Queen Bee incident happened in the same year.

The city’s first stone house was built there in 1857. It was called the Dubuque House. A marker tells of its history.

The Falls Overlook Cafe is housed in the former Sioux Falls Light and Power Company building, which was built in 1908. The company had three 500-kilowatt hydroelectric generators. Like the mill, it was built from quartzite.

The former Sioux Falls Light and Power Company and the former Northern States Power buildings at Falls Park. The building in the foreground is the Falls Overlook Cafe now. Photo courtesy of the Irene Hall Museum Resource Center.

Although the Queen Bee Mill was closed, the power company used the dam. The name of the company changed to Northern States Power in 1916.

The plant was closed in 1974 and the property was purchased by the city of Sioux Falls in 1979 for $1, according to former mayor Gary Hanson.

Hanson served as Mayor of Sioux Falls from 1995 to 2003 and before becoming mayor, he served six years on the Sioux Falls City Council as utilities commissioner from 1989 to 1995.

“It then cost us about $800,000 to clean up the asbestos in the building,” Hanson said. “It was still a good deal. We were able to stabilize the building and it’s a restaurant now.” 

Historical society member and past Minnehaha County Commissioner Bob Kolbe said officials imposed their will on the river to help manage the flow for electricity.

The exposed rock in the falls is quartzite. Prisoners quarried the rock used to construct buildings. Rock was used to build the mill.

“That changed the way the falls looked because of removing the rock from there for construction,” Kolbe said.

Visitors who look out over the falls from the old electric plant building may see sharp angles in the rock. Those sharp angles were created by quarry work, Kolbe said.

Experience Sioux Falls says the horse barn on the north end of Falls Park was built in the late 1800s. There is a theory it housed the horses used in quarry operations at the falls.

The building was an arts center from 1999 to 2010. The barn is now the Stockyards Ag Center. The center shares the story of the Stockyards area in Sioux Falls, which operated from 1917 to 2009.

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