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) — A park that has captured national attention was once a dump.
“It was a dump,” Jim Carlson said of Falls Park. Not only was it not a nice place, “It was an actual garbage dump,” he said.
Carlson is the past president of the Minnehaha Historical Society and is now in charge of maintaining the historical markers placed throughout the city. Nine of those historical markers are at Falls Park.
Today’s visitors will see a well-kept park with Phillips Avenue lined with shops, restaurants and services with apartments above and other housing on one side. The bike path on the greenway on the park’s eastern side leads from restaurants, shops, motels and services to another park entrance.
The park is nothing like the days of the dump or the days when industry lined the Big Sioux River shoreline.
“There was a junkyard there and business that cracked batteries,” historical society member and past Minnehaha County Commissioner Bob Kolbe said.
There is no doubt that someone digging in one of the river channels will find “a lot of stuff that wasn’t bad then but is bad today,” Kolbe said.
In fact, when the current Cascade at the Falls apartments were being built in 2018, construction continued to be delayed by the rough ground. It had been soaked with lead, arsenic, mercury and other metal and petrochemicals from use as a landfill for a coal plant before a railroad company took over. The site was a landfill before the Milwaukee Railroad Company took over the land in the early 1900s. When the railroad went bankrupt, the property was sold to Pitts, Inc., which used it as a salvage yard.
Pitts, Inc. owned an iron and scrap-metal dealership on 15 acres where Third Street and Philips Avenue would eventually connect and the site where the Cascade at the Falls apartments currently sit.
Former Sioux Falls Mayor Dave Munson (2002-2010) said the salvage yard moving was the real starting point for the changing of Falls Park. There was a brickyard business to the north of that salvage yard that also took years to move out of the area.
Gary Hanson served as Mayor of Sioux Falls from 1995 to 2002 and before becoming mayor, he served six years on the Sioux Falls City Council as utilities commissioner from 1989 to 1995. Hanson said he remembers riding along with his grandfather working on various projects, which brought him to the dump near Falls Park.
“We’d throw the trash out in the dump,” Hanson said. “The dump was only 40, 50 yards away from the stream.”
In a 2019 story by KELOLAND’s Perry Groten, Scotland native Harvey Serr remembers visiting Falls Park in the 1960s, a bygone era when the park wasn’t so scenic.
“It was a dump. It was used tires. None of this walkway. But we’re talking 1960,” Serr told KELOLAND News.
Don Kearney, the current Director of Sioux Falls Parks & Recreation, said the area around Falls Park was known as a depository for stuff people didn’t want.
“Unfortunately, our forefathers weren’t as conscience about the environment as we are today,” Kearney said, who also added Falls Park will always deal with an influx of garbage flowing from the river upstream.
An average of 7,400 gallons of water drop 100 feet over the course of the falls each day. A KELOLAND News story from 1976 shows a half-dozen men walking up and down by the old Queen Bee Mill in an effort to keep Falls Park relatively neat for tourists and Sioux Falls residents. The story reports the parks department saying it’s a full time job with a large crew to keep the parks in Sioux Falls clean all the time.
Today, Kearney said the city has anywhere from 10-12 people working at or around Falls Park each day. Picking up scattered trash remains part of the daily job tasks.
“Constantly picking up litter because a lot of trash flows down the river, unfortunately, at collection points below the falls,” Kearney said.
Teri Schmidt, long-time executive director of Experience Sioux Falls, formerly known as the Sioux Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau, remembered looking at the falls and seeing a ‘sparkle’ of what it could turn into.
“It was almost as if the park said, ‘Do something.’ We just needed to clean it up,” Schmidt said.
Hanson said old photos show huge piles of coal sat were the Pitts, Inc. salvage yard took over. He added more old photos of the area show open sewer and storm drains leading directly in the river near Falls Park.
“The old folks back in the 1900s didn’t treat the stream too well,” Hanson said. “We’ve worked very hard to clean it up.”
Gaining control of property around Falls Park
The idea of cleaning up Falls Park was around for a long time. Hanson remembers plans to clean up Falls Park back in the 1970s, but he said efforts for a major overhaul continued to fall short either for a lack of money, time and other resources. During his time on the five-member commission, before the city adapted a city council-form of government, Falls Park renovation ideas started up again.
“It took a lot of years,” Hanson said, who added the city of Sioux Falls purchased about 80% of the property surrounding Falls Park during his administration including the Pitts, Inc. salvage yard.
Dealing with the all the stakeholders who held various parts of property near the city’s namesake presented the biggest challenges. Some of the land had been federally granted for railroad use during the founding of the city, creating a lot of legal leverage to overcome.
Other businesses, like Pitts, Inc. operated successfully in areas near Falls Park for decades. Hanson said Pitts, Inc. was very reasonable to work with.
“When you are dealing with multi-generation businesses, you have an empathy towards them,” Hanson said. “You know they have to move to another location and their present location is working great.”
Difficult negotiations ensued with a brickyard business near Falls Park as well as the Burlington Northern Sante Fe railroad company, which at one point asked the city for a bridge over the train tracks near Falls Park.
“They knew we wanted the land and that’s part of the process,” Hanson said, adding he was always opposed to building a bridge over the train tracks near Falls Park.
While the city was trying to gain property near Falls Park, changes started at the park including the installation of viewing platforms, plans for a future viewing tower, new roads, new shelters and parking lots.
When Kearney returned to Sioux Falls and interviewed for his current job in 2005, he was amazed at the an impressive transformation Falls Park went through. He had visited the park many times while growing up in nearby Larchwood, Iowa.
“It’s a great testament to all the city leaders that came before us to really have the vision for laying out what the falls could be and then ultimately finding ways to make it better,” Kearney said.
One of those city leaders was longtime city planner Steve Metli. In an interview with KELOLAND News from Oct. 1997, Metli said the city finally realized the potential boost Falls Park could give the city.
“We have a resource that perhaps only 1 percent of the cities in this country have in the rapids and the falls,” Metli said.
Many people interviewed about Falls Park pointed to the removal of the Pitts, Inc. salvage yard as a key turning point for Falls Park. Hanson agreed it was a big step, but said he believed a key turning point happened after Dean Nielsen (Hanson’s chief of staff), Metli and himself walked a long loop of area surrounding Falls Park.
“Walked the entire area figuring out what needed to be done and a lot needed to be done,” Hanson said. “On the east side, it was completely overgrown with a forest of trees. We basically bulldozed the whole place.
“It was extremely important to us to clean it up and get it looking like a destination point instead of a place we were ashamed of,” he said.
Hanson said he believed Metli first had the idea of a viewing tower at Falls Park, but stressed hundreds of city employees deserve credit for all the work and ideas presented for Falls Park. He liked holding green light sessions, where plenty of ideas were proposed and different options could be selected.
With Falls Park cleaned up, the city gaining control of land surrounding the park, plans for a viewing tower and a visitors center made the city’s namesake the go-to place for visitors and native citizens alike. The final piece would continue to be addressed — increasing accessibility to the Falls Park.