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 KELOLAND.com Original series looks at this history and redevelopment of Falls Park in five parts.
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — There were those who valued the sereneness of the Falls Park area in the early 1900s.
An island of sorts, called Seney Island, was located just to the south of the falls.
“Eventually, there were people who liked the island for a little bit of respite,” Historical society member and past Minnehaha County Commissioner Bob Kolbe said.
The falls were also attracting visitors.
“I have a picture postcard from the early 1900s at Falls Park. A family is on the rocks,” Jim Carlson, past president of the Minnehaha Historical Society, said.
Picture postcards on file at the Irene Hall Museum Resource Center associated with the Siouxland Heritage Museums show falls scenes from the early 1900s. A postcard with an upper falls scene postmarked April 7, 1909, has C. G., or C.E., Carter of Sioux Falls asking Miss Mae Marks of Salem, South Dakota, if she would write to him. He was not working the day he wrote the card, he said, because of the weather.
Sioux Falls formed its first Board of Park Supervisors on June 6, 1915. But with E. A. Sherman an early pusher of parks, attention went to what would be Sherman Park and Terrace Park.
The resource center’s file of postcards shows the falls was a popular postcard through at least 1919.
But the attitude toward the falls changed. Carlson and Kolbe can’t specifically say when the falls and the nearby island fell from grace.
A Minnehaha County Historical booklet on parks in the city, date uncertain, says Seney Park was never a park and “It has passed oblivion, a victim of commercialized aggrandizement.” The typeface and copy technique appears to be from the 1910s or 1920s.
By the 1930s and into the 1940s and 1950s, parks such as McKennan, Sherman and Terrace were the inspiration for postcards from Sioux Falls.
A card postmarked in 1948 showed the sunken garden at McKennan Park, as did another from 1959.
The nearness of the railroad and the industrial activity drew guests to the island not looking for a relaxing day out but rather, a place to stay, Kolbe said. Hobos who rode the rails often camped on the island, he said.
Eventually, city officials filled in a channel and the island was lost, Kolbe said.
Carlson said the Falls Park area of the 1940s through the 1970s was very different from today.
“In the 1950s and 1960s, it was not looked upon with much favor,” Kolbe said.
The park area didn’t receive the attention that McKennan Park or Sherman Park did, Kolbe said.
Remember, Falls Park even fell out favor for postcards.
Still, there were a few glimmers of hope for an improved Falls Park back to the 1930s.
Newspaper clippings said the city bought land near the falls in 1933. Mayor George Burnside said some land would be used by the city. The city planned to clear away some underbrush.
On June 1, 1933, story in the Argus Leader said a “Rocky Hummock was Blasted to Pave Way for New Road” in the falls area.
But maybe like the promise that happens when the favored toy is received at Christmas, the shiny idea of improving the Falls Park area was discarded for other projects.
In 1943, an Argus Leader editorial “Let’s build a park at the falls. The roads are far from good and they are not marked at all.”
A 1951 opinion piece in the Argus Leader chided the Sioux Falls community for neglecting this “spot of rare beauty.” The Falls Park area needed renovation, according to the opinion piece.
A place for un-park like activity
Kolbe and his family moved to Sioux Falls in the late 1960s. The park was noted for “nefarious” activity.
Some of the areas that are like a lawn today were full of plum thickets and patches of brush. Those thickets and brush provided cover for those who gathered or “lived” in the park.
Former Sioux Falls Mayor Dave Munson says his early memories of Falls Park include as a kid gathering and swimming. He also remembers the area hosting campsites for hobos.
“It was just an overgrown area and it wasn’t very appealing,” Munson said. “It was a lot different then.”
Gary Hanson, who served as Mayor of Sioux Falls before Munson from 1995 to 2002, also referenced the overgrown area that had a rough nickname of “hobo road.”
“There all these shacks back there, people living in tents and using the stream for their bathroom facilities,” Hanson said. “You needed three adult men walking through there to feel safe. It was a scary place.”
The side of the park near where the community garden is today had trees and undergrowth so thick “You could drive your car and park there and no one would know it was there,” Kolbe said.
“Things happened at Falls Park; it was not (known) as a safe place to go,” said Teri Schmidt, the executive director of Experience Sioux Falls. “It wasn’t well kept.” Experience Sioux Falls operates the visitors center at Falls Park.
But something changed. And a woman helped make that long, slow change in Falls Park.
Hazel O’Connor cared about preserving the history of Sioux Falls.
O’Connor once led a fight to preserve the Phillips House in Terrace Park in 1966.
Kolbe said history shows it was a beautiful house that the city had let fall into disrepair. O’Connor, he said, was determined to save it. She even got a court injunction the morning before it was torn down, only to learn the city had already demolished it.
O’Connor turned her attention to Falls Park. She championed the restoration and the establishment of the city’s greenway. A plaque at Falls Parks tells of her work.
“That’s what I’ve always been told about her,” Teri Schmidt said of O’Connor.
“…she urged the restoration of Falls Park and continues to be its greatest champion. As a charter member of the River Improvement Society (RISE), she has worked for the realization of today’s Big Sioux River greenway. Her vision, perseverance, and dedication is an inspiration for her generation and for future generations to preserve the Quality of life in Sioux Falls,” reads the plaque.
“RISE, chartered in 1969, spearheaded the clean-up and recreational use of the Big Sioux River,” according to Feb, 7, 2018 History in South Dakota blog about the Phillips House.
O’Connor died on April 18, 1985, at the age of 87, according to Siouxland Heritage Museums online archives. This was at least several years before Falls Park was fully transformed. She did live to see some of the transformation.
Two large files at the Irene Hall Museum Resource Center contain clippings and some personal papers saved by O’Connor.
History will credit city commissioner Ed McCart, Steve Metli and Mayor Dave Munson among those who were instrumental with a vision and development of Falls Park. But it was O’Connor who really stuck with it in the early days.
Progress at Falls Park, “is slow it may seem at times but we are making progress,” O’Connor wrote in a May 15, 1967, letter to the editor in the Argus Leader.
The latest improvements at the park in May of 1967 were outlets for water and lights, O’Connor wrote.
That’s five years after McCart praised the “new good railings” at the park and 12 years after the city bought quarry land for the site of a city park.
And it’s about 34 years after the city announced a new road at Falls Park.
It’s also after the 1950s when the Sioux Falls Junior Chamber of Commerce said it would help with a park plan.
When the city started slowly turning attention to the Falls Park area with the move of the city’s asphalt plant in 1959 and the dedication of $5,000 to improve the park in 1961, O’Connor was in the mix.
Although O’Connor and others were pushing, it would be many years before Falls Park would be free of its unpleasant reputation and junky past.
Cleaning up Falls Park
When local Boy Scouts and other volunteers were pulling water heaters, tires and car parts out of the Big Sioux River or clearing litter from the park, O’Connor and RISE were there.
Yet, it seems for every two steps forward in improving Falls Park and the nearby area, a step backward was taken as clean-up and other projects continued.
“Three decades ago, the Big Sioux River was a waste dump and the falls foamed with pollution runoff,” according to a Dec. 17, 2004, story published and broadcast by Minnesota Public Radio. The MPR story said that “Then city planner Steve Metli remembered a time when visitors to Falls Park remained in the safety of their car.”
“Because it was pretty much a park where a lot of thugs and indigents hung out,” Metli said. “Now you go out down there at 9 or 10 o’clock and you’ll see lovers, teenagers, middle-agers, and seniors walking through the park holding hands.”
A July 6, 1980, opinion piece by Argus Leader Publisher Larry Fuller said he was inspired with the effort to create a greenway along the Big Sioux River and the effort to improve the river.
Fifteen years ago, Fuller wrote, there was rubble, junk and other clutter and a nearly impassable road that “overshadowed the beauty of the falls.”
A 1994 Sioux Falls Parks and Recreation newsletter said redevelopment of Falls Park would start on the east side that summer. The first phase was new roads, parking, areas, sidewalks and lights. A new improvement phase would happen over each of the next five years, the parks and recreation department said.
But there was still junk around in 2002 as a newspaper clipping told the story of the planned removal of trash that accumulated near the old Queen Bee Mill.
Kolbe said O’Connor was an inspiration but so is R. F. Pettigrew. A statue of Pettigrew is at 5th Street and Phillips Avenue.
“Pettigrew was insightful. He knew the value of (Falls Park),” Kolbe said. Pettigrew insisted the people “would come to value the (Falls Park area),” Kolbe said.
“He passed away in the 1920s. Now we are getting to the point where we value it,” Kolbe said.
Carlson said it’s a good thing so many got involved to transform Falls Park.
“It’s our namesake,” he said.