Johnson delivers good news Saturday

Johnson delivers good news Saturday U.S. Senator Tim Johnson, at left, presents a copy of Congressional legislation calling for the secretary of interior to authorize the purchase of Spirit Mound to District 17 Sen. Joe Reedy, Larry Monfore and Amond Hanson, members of the board of the Lewis and Clark � Spirit Mound Trust, Inc. of Vermillion. The presentation was made Saturday morning, appropriately at the top of Spirit Mound. by David Lias The dreams of people in the Vermillion area who wish to preserve an important piece of local history are one step closer to reality, thanks to action in Washington, D. C. by Congress.

Attempts by the Vermillion-based Lewis and Clark � Spirit Mound Trust, Inc. to purchase, preserve and restore the 320-acre Spirit Mound site, located north of Vermillion on Highway 19, to its natural state, has just received a big boost.

Sen. Tim Johnson was in Vermillion Saturday morning to deliver the good news at a small rally of local Democratic candidates.

He and other local citizens interested in the restoration of Spirit Mound later climbed the steep, grassy hill.

There, on top of one of the few accessible places that famed explorers Lewis and Clark visited nearly 200 years ago, Johnson and the Spirit Mound supporters held an informal ceremony to mark a new partnership between the federal, and hopefully the state government with the Lewis and Clark � Spirit Mound Trust, Inc. to restore the site.

On Oct. 19, Spirit Mound was included in a conference report on H.R. 4328, making omnibus consolidated and emergency supplemental appropriations for fiscal year 1999.

A section of the report calls for the inclusion of Spirit Mound on the Lewis and Clark Trail, and authorizes the secretary of interior to acquire on a willing seller basis, at a cost not to exceed $600,000, the tract of land which includes the landmark.

The land will be administered as part of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, and the secretary of interior will enter into a cooperative agreement with the Lewis and Clark � Spirit Mound Trust, Inc., providing for the restoration, interpretation, long-term preservation of and public access to Spirit Mound.

Those who chose to take a hike up the mound Saturday had to negotiate a gate and a barbed-wire fence, steer clear of an old silage pit, and make sure they didn't step in a patch of cockleburs or the dung left by cattle who had grazed their recently � all before tacking the unique hill's steep incline.

The climb was worth the effort, not only to follow the footsteps of two of this nation's most famous explorers, but also to take in a panoramic view of the countryside that's just as breathtaking as it was two centuries ago.

The trek was nothing new to Johnson, who first climbed Spirit Mound as a Cub Scout while growing up in Vermillion.

"For a long time I've been aware of the historic significance of Spirit Mound. A lot of people in our community have been," Johnson said, alluding to those who are involved with Lewis and Clark � Spirit Mound Trust, Inc.

Johnson noted that the mound received prominent attention in the handwritten journals of the two explorers, and has gained more fame among history buffs over time.

"Most of the sites in South Dakota that Lewis and Clark visited have been lost, either because the Missouri River has changed its channel, or because after the construction of hydroelectric dams, that whole Missouri River valley has been inundated with water," he said.

He noted that Spirit Mound was such a prominent site for the Lewis and Clark expedition that both of the explorers visited the mound together.

"They recorded that they saw buffalo and elk herds in every direction, with no trees to be seen to the horizon on that hot, August day in 1804," Johnson said. "Now we have the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition coming up in a few more years, and it seems to me a timely opportunity to find such prominent locations that Lewis and Clark did in fact visit and preserve them for all future generations."

He believes there are not only Lewis and Clark fans, but Lewis and Clark scholars who will, in the coming years, be retracing the route of the two explorers.

"If we can have this location here preserved in the tall-grass prairie condition of the 1804 look, I think it would be a wonderful thing for those people and for all generations of South Dakotans and people from all over the world who are fascinated by the Lewis and Clark story."

The $600,000 authorized by Congress will help purchase and preserve the tract of land that includes Spirit Mound.

"There will have to be some tree removal, obviously it has been used as a cattle feedlot and a silage storage pit here in more recent years," Johnson said. "I'm very appreciative of the private landowners and their willingness to cooperate with us."

Spirit Mound, he said, won't become a national park. "This will be managed, preserved and interpreted by the Spirit Mound Trust, Inc. itself," Johnson said, adding that Gov. Bill Janklow has indicated a great interest in helping with the financial resources necessary to make the project happen.

The legislation before Congress, he said, only authorizes the purchase, interpretation and preservation of Spirit Mound.

"We are looking now at whether we can come up with the funds out of the Land and Water Conservation Fund out of Washington," Johnson said. "That, and/or a combination of state funds that Gov. Janklow is looking at. Between the two of us, with my recent conversation with the governor, we're determined we're going to make this happen certainly before 2004. We think we can make it happen this year."

The preservation of the mound will not only help tell the story of Lewis and Clark. It will also shed some light on why the two men found this hill on the prairie so fascinating.

The Sioux called Spirit Mound Paha Wakan. It was held in awe by tribes for miles around. The Omaha, the Sioux and the Otoes believed that the mound was occupied by spirits that killed any humans who came near.

Lewis and Clark noted an abundance of insects at the top of the mound, which attracted great flocks of swallows. They speculated that it was the birds that gave the mound its air of mystery.

Because there are no surrounding hills, the mound's isolation is striking. Geologists call this kind of formation a roche mounronne, a bedrock knob that was shaped but not leveled by the last Pleistocene glacier 13,000 years ago.

People who visit Spirit Mound in the near future won't see herds of buffalo, nor endless prairies. They will witness how the area has changed in two centuries to a place where the landscape is dotted with farmsteads and cars traveling on Highway 19.

They will also discover that, in many ways, the mound is still a place of discovery.

The prairie wolves, meadowlarks, wildflowers and plums that Lewis and Clark saw on Spirit Mound can still be found there.

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