Pierre — An Unusual Capital City

History, Iconic Communities, On the Road
on October 5, 2003

On Friday afternoons, pickup trucks sit in the state Capitol parking lot loaded for outdoor adventure, some with Labrador dogs in back wagging their tails in anticipation of sniffing out pheasants. Elected officials and bureaucrats spotted whispering in Statehouse corridors are just as likely to be discussing hunting, or where Missouri River fish are biting, as political gossip.

“If you live in Pierre, it’s almost a prerequisite that you own a pickup, a Labrador dog, and a boat,” says Toby Morris, who moved to South Dakota’s capital city in 1997 to accept a state government job. Now he can’t imagine living anywhere else, “because I fish nine months a year. The other three are for hunting.”

Few state capitals match Pierre (pop. 13,876) for geographic isolation and rural lifestyle—qualities residents boast of at every opportunity.

Viewed from across rolling brown prairies, Pierre is a patch of green along the Missouri; from that distant perspective the town’s structures, mostly one- and two-story buildings, are hidden in the trees except for the towering Capitol dome. No interstate highway links the capital city to the rest of the state, and getting to other towns of comparable size means driving two-lane roads a couple hours through grain and cattle country.

The town was named for Pierre Chouteau, a Frenchman who built a trading post and fort just across the river in 1832, but visitors today learn no one locally pronounces Pierre like a Frenchman. It’s said “pier,” like a platform for docking boats or fishing, and that’s entirely appropriate when you understand Pierre’s true character. Sure, state government happens here, but pulling walleyes and northern pike from the river, and from the vast waters behind Oahe Dam immediately north, always seems Pierre’s first order of business. Hunting pheasants, ducks, and grouse might be second, along with catering to sportsmen from across the nation.

Pierre people “might be Republicans and Democrats Monday through Friday, but we all get together on the water Saturday and Sunday,” Morris says. “I think that makes Pierre a friendlier place than some people might guess a capital city to be.”

Teacher Frank Curnow agrees. “Even in election years, you don’t hear much bad-mouthing of politicians, because these people are your neighbors in a small town,” he notes. “You know them on a first-name basis, you’re involved in community projects with them, and it becomes natural to think you should be able to access top government officials one-on-one.”

During the legislative session each winter, state Sen. Marguerite Kleven always appreciates Pierre’s welcoming ways. She drives to the capital from Sturgis, 175 miles west, via lonely state Highway 34; there’s not a single town of more than a few dozen or so people between Sturgis and Pierre.

South Dakotans voted isolated Pierre their capital in 1890, a year after statehood, citing its central location. Despite appearances on the map, rival towns unsuccessfully argued that Pierre was hard to reach and had a reputation as a rowdy cowtown. In those years, cowboys herded cattle from as far away as Montana to the west bank of the Missouri, and the animals were ferried across the water to Pierre and its stockyards on the east bank. Fourteen saloons served cowboys celebrating the trail’s end, and those businesses gladly welcomed lawmakers, too.

The riverside stockyards are long gone now, replaced by parks and a remarkable system of walking and bicycling trails. Pathways run along the river and over a causeway to La Framboise Island, where the sounds of cars and boats give way to the kinds of bird calls Meriwether Lewis and William Clark heard while passing through in 1804. Another popular walk begins just east of the Capitol building, winding alongside Capitol Lake, past memorials to soldiers, policemen, firefighters, and other South Dakota heroes.

“You see people walking at Capitol Lake year-round,” says Twila Merkwan, who lives nearby. “It’s a beautiful spot with flowers and geese, but not everyone is walking for recreation. Pierre’s small enough that lots of people choose to go to work on foot.”