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Chamberlain~Oacoma Area Chamber of Commerce
PO Box 638, 112 N. Main St.
Chamberlain, SD 57325
New Video Chamberlain-Oacoma Year in Review
Brule County Achievement Days August 4 & 5, 2014
American Island…Gone But Not Forgotten!
American Island…Gone But Not Forgotten!
Camping, cabins, golf course, swimming pool, fishing, horse racing, horseback riding, picnics, Chautauqua’s, the majestic Missouri River…everything you want in a luxurious vacation package. Spend time with us and this can all be yours on American Island, Chamberlain, South Dakota. Visit us today! STOP!
With the building of the Fort Randall Dam in 1953, this beautiful attraction in south-central South Dakota was lost forever – overcome by rising waters of the Missouri River. There are many accounts of this paradise dating back to the journals of the famous explorers, Lewis and Clark.
American Island was, at one time, approximately 1,000 acres of ground (two and one half miles long by one half mile wide), unattached from the mainland of the City of Chamberlain. Lewis and Clark, who camped on the west bank of the Missouri River on September 17 and 18, 1804 wrote, “passed an island about the middle of the river at 1 mile this island is about a mile long and has great perportion of red cedar on it”.
On the west bank of the Missouri River from Chamberlain, on Highway 16, heading west toward Oacoma, there is a historic marker that talks about the island. This marker states that, in 1811, the Astorians called it Little Cedar and, in 1843, Audubon called it Great Cedar Island. In other documents, it has been called Second Cedar Island, but it was Andera’s Atlas of 1884 that first called it American or Cedar Island. The marker also states that on May 2, 1889 Congress gave the island to the City of Chamberlain as a park.
In 1891, the Pontoon Bridge Company arranged with Captain King to do ferrying to American Island. “There charge was one conveyance loaded or empty, 50 cents. Passengers cost was 10 cents, cattle 10 cents a head and horses 15 cents”. In 1911, the Milwaukee Railroad was progressing across the state. At that time, the west channel of the river to the island was filled. People from Chamberlain would still get to the island by ferry boats. In 1925, the steel bridge was built connecting Chamberlain with the island – it was one of five bridges built in South Dakota between 1922 and 1927 that spanned the Missouri River.
In 1895, Park Commissioner Pickler announced that the park on American Island would be formally opened. Citizens were invited to see the national color flying in the breeze from the new flag staff. Three trains with 35 coaches brought 4,000 people to Chamberlain from Iowa and eastern South Dakota. The occasion on the island was a ball game between Mitchell and Sioux Falls. Mitchell won the game and won the $50.00 purse. The island became a wonderland until its demise in 1953. With easy access to the island, it was developed into tremendous resort.
In 1933, with high levels of unemployment and deterioration of the country because of drought and erosion, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed to Congress “to create a civilian conservation corps to be used in simple work, not interfere with normal employment and confining itself to forestry and the prevention of soil erosion, flood control and similar projects.” From this, the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) was started which included a group that lived and worked on American Island. The CCC was responsible for the improvements on the island including the construction of buildings, planting of trees, landscaping and rip-rapping, parking areas and overall appearance of American Island. Standing today at the Avenue of Flags Park and Swimming Pool Park on Chamberlain’s Main Street are a number of statues that were made by the CCC and graced the island.
The island attracted a variety of groups. A Bout Scout cabin, competed in 1933, constructed out of logs with huge stone fireplace, brought Scout Troops from all over to Chamberlain. The island sported camping cabins – The Cedar Rest Cabins boasted moderately-prices facilities – modern cabins at 2 beds for $4.00; 1 bed for 2.50 or non-modern cabins – 2 beds for $3.00 or 1 bed for $1.75. These rates included bedding and a Simmons bed and Beauty-Rest mattresses (both brand names represented top quality at the time).
For entertainment, there was something for everyone – a 150 foot long by 100 foot wide pear shaped swimming pool (the largest artificial pool in the state at the time), a nine-hole golf course with Country Club House. In 1923, the first annual Brule County Gold Tournament was held at the Island Park Country Club. Horse racing was big in the area. Chamberlain hosted a number of race tracks, including one on the island that was one-half mile long. Other amenities included tennis courts, riding stables, an athletic field for baseball games and plenty of shaded areas for picnics. In 1913, The Midwest Chautauqua System held its first Chautauqua on American Island. Chautauqua’s, too, became regular events held under a large tent until the auditorium was build. In 1918, Williams Jennings Bryan, who ran for President three times, spoke at a Chautauqua on American Island.
As time went on, American Island attracted people from all over the Midwest. So what cause the demise of this paradise? Before the dams were built, the landowners were at the mercy of the might Missouri River. As South Dakotans can attest, seasons in this part of the country can be extreme – sometimes with incredible amounts of snow and rain. These elements increase water levels on the Missouri River and, as the river rises, flooding occurs. In talking with longtime residents of Chamberlain, flooding on the island was quite common. This was evident in pictures taken in 1943. To eliminate the continuous annual flooding from the Missouri River in South Dakota, the great dams (Gavin’s Point at Yankton, Fort Randall at Pickstown, Big Bend at Fort Thompson and Oahe at Pierre) have been built to control water flow. The irony of building dams to control flooding results in compensating land owners, relocating people and belongings and saying goodbye to what was. That was the case with American Island. In 1950, the US Army Engineers and the Chamberlain Community Club discussed plans to relocate the Missouri River highway bridge with the new locations being up to the city of Chamberlain and the State Highway Commission. The Fort Randall dam construction meant a lot of negotiating between the city and the Army Engineers for other changes as well -= a new railroad bridge and relocation of all the facilities on the island.
It was difficult to determine full value for the island, but Chamberlain’s Mayor Melcher wanted a fair return. The Federal Housing Authority received $420,000 for the island and the right to sell the buildings and timber. Chamberlain received all salvage from the island and twenty-four tourist cabins were sold at auction.
In 1953, with the competition of Fort Randall dam, the rising river began creeping over the island. People who remember the island remember sitting and watching from their windows as the river rose. Sadness and helplessness were the sentiments expressed over watching the island being consumed by the mighty Missouri River. Generations today can only look in awe at the pictures of the island and wonder what it was like. Where there was once an island, now sit 10 to 15 feet of water. In 1953 The Highway 16 Bridge was moved to its present location. At a glance, one can see the old pylons on which the bridge to the island rested. There is peace and serenity when a person looks out over the river. Sometimes one can’t help but wonder what Lewis and Clark would have thought about the island if they had returned to the area during its heyday or what they would think of the changes in the area since the dams were constructed. Would they, too, see the beauty that we sometimes take for granted.
These statues were moved and are currently located at the Avenue of Flags
and Swimming Pool Park!
The museum honors the history, art and culture of the Lakota Sioux people of South Dakota.
July 29 Camp Fuel, Chamberlain Community Center 9am-3:30pm
August 1-2 Crazy Days
August 4 & 5 - 4-H Achievement Days
August 15-17 American Island Days
October 4 Fall Festival