Today we had planned a more leisurely day, and boy were we ready for it. Being a Lewis & Clark fan is hard work! We sacked in a little and woke to an overcast, windy, and drizzly day–a good day for indoor sightseeing.
After breakfast at the hotel, we went to a nearby laundromat and soon turned our trunkful of dirty, smelly clothes into a trunkful of clean, sweet-smelling ones. Then it was off to downtown Bismarck, where we visited the unique Capitol, the so-called “Skyscraper of the Plains.” This building was constructed in 1930 after a spectacular fire destroyed the beautiful old Victorian-style capitol. We learned that the state did not have the money to recreate what they had lost, so instead they opted to build this efficient Art Deco-style palace.
The result is a capitol unlike any I have ever seen. The main hall and chambers have neat Art Deco brass art and other features, and on the lower level, we truly enjoyed touring the “Rough Rider Hall of Fame,” which features enlightening portraits and text about famous North Dakotans from Warren Christopher to Angie Dickinson. But overall this is an understated place, with plenty of office space where you can see world-weary state workers going about their business (not me! not this week!).
But if you really want to have fun, ride the elevator up to the observation deck on the 18th floor for a spectacular view of Bismarck, the river, and the rugged surrounding countryside. True to the practical nature of this capitol, the deck was not just ornamental, but was in use for a yoga class. We walked around and admired the view, and also some great historical photos of the various capitol buildings of North Dakota, including some of the 1930 conflagration, and a great photo of the world snow angel record set right out on the capitol lawn–over 8900 of them!
We walked around the grounds a little until we found the statue of Sacagawea. Then we went off to lunch on the riverfront. We had hoped to get a ride on the Missouri on the Lewis & Clark Paddlewheeler, but the weather didn’t cooperate. In fact, the wind had turned wet and raw. We Texans were freezing, and all the North Dakotans we talked to were depressed, as their summer days are few enough as it is. We did, however, make it a Lewis & Clark occasion with a delightful meal of sandwiches and lemonade at a cozy riverside place called Meriwether’s.
For the afternoon, we decided to go back downtown and spend the afternoon at the North Dakota Heritage Center (the state museum). This turned out to be a first-rate place! North Dakota history begins 65 million years ago, with life forms that evolved from tiny clams to huge, bizarre dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts like wooly mammoths and giant buffalos. We had been pouring over fossils for an hour before we got up to 9500 B.C.! Great artifacts and displays illustrated the early Indians, the exploration and fur trade era, the rush to settle the Dakota Territory by railroads, the tragic and lonely struggles of the Scandinavian immigrants, the growth of modern towns, and finally the bust years of the Dust Bowl.
There are some terrific exhibits in here. A couple that have stuck with me the longest are the amazing “Birds of North Dakota” exhibit and the display on the Sioux Wars, which includes several shirts and a Ghost Dance shield owned by Sitting Bull, as well as a buffalo hide that Sitting Bull painted for a man who helped him learn to write his name. The overall powerful message of the museum was that North Dakota is a hard land for tough people.
We were chased out of the great gift shop at closing time. We loafed around back at the hotel for a while, then had a fun supper at a place called Space Aliens, which is covered with outer space decor like papier-mache aliens and UFOs. Good food too! Today was a nice day and a good way to wind up our memorable visit to Bismarck.