Sesquicentennial Highlights

Sesquicentennial Highlights By Cleo Erickson Vermillion Was Physically Demolished, But Its Moral Fiber Stood The Test 132 Buildings Washed Away In Great Cascade of 1881 By:  A. H. Lathrop Moving a town is a major project, even if half of it has already been washed away.  But that's what Vermillion residents did following the flood of 1881. Not only was the town moved up from the bottom, where it had been located for over 20 years, but steps were taken that same year looking toward the establishment of the University of Dakota at Vermillion. Prior to the flood, and after struggling through the severest winter on record, residents of Vermillion-under-the-hill thought there was a change for the better in the weather.  The first day of March was "warm and pleasant", according to an item in the Vermillion Standard, but what followed turned out to be anything but that. Winter had started early with a big blizzard in October.  Drifts from that storm were still on the ground in March, as there had been no January thaw or any other warm weather. The first two weeks in March saw more snow, with one blizzard described as the worst of the whole winter.  According to a newspaper item, "Old settlers anticipate a disastrous overflow of the bottom lands along the Big Muddy when the river breaks up."  And it was not long in coming. Ice in the Yellowstone and upper Missouri rivers broke up while it was still solid in this part of the country.  Vermillion residents felt safe, however, and were assured by the editor of the Republican, "The great bottom above us, and the six miles from bluff to bluff, afford us protection." In the middle of March a 20 foot rise at Springfield and a 10 foot rise at Yankton were indications of what was to come.  The ice broke up and gorges formed in several places.  When the one at the mouth of the Jim River broke, water and ice poured over the bottom above Vermillion and water ran into the town. The following graphic account of the ensuing flood appeared in the Vermillion Standard. "Sunday, March 27, was the warmest day since the previous autumn.  The snow melted rapidly but no one supposed the ice would move that night.  About 11:30 p.m. the ice began to break and move downstream.  In a few minutes it gorged below the island and the rapidly accumulating water began to run through the streets" The Baptist church bell was immediately rung to alarm the people, and in a very short time, the streets were full of men, women and children hurrying to the bluffs, some leading horses and cattle,.  Before all could escape, the water on the north side of the city had risen to a depth of three feet and covered the railroad tracks, giving many of the fugitives an ice water bath. Boats were brought into requisition, and those who had heard the alarm too late to escape were taken off to a place of safety. By morning the water had gone down.  Thursday morning the river rose rapidly until it covered the highest point, by the Bank block, to a depth of from four to five feet.  The ice in the river also commenced moving and by 10 o'clock as far as the eye could reach nothing could be seen but floating ice, and the buildings commenced moving. Butler's photograph gallery went first, going to pieces in rapids which extended from Depot Street to the river.  Others followed until 40 buildings had been carried down and smashed to pieces again the ice.  Thursday night the water rose three feet higher and the Dakota Republican office was taken downstream. To add to the horrors of the situation, a terrible blizzard prevailed during the day, making it almost impossible to row a boat against the wind.  Friday the water remained about the same and the inhabitants busied themselves saving all the property that could possibly be rescued. "Wednesday morning, April 6th the water commenced rising and the boats engaged in saving property pulled speedily to the shore.  By 12 o'clock the buildings commenced moving out, some six or seven being in the stream at the same time.  Fifty-six buildings were carried down and smashed to pieces against the gorged ice below, among them being the St. Nicholas hotel, the railroad depot, the Congregational church and other large buildings." "The water carried the Chandler House about 15 feet, the north end being knocked out and the building badly wrecked. The Masonic and Odd Fellows building was carried off its foundation and the lower story smashed.  When the water was at the highest, at least 20 buildings were floating off at the same time." "Thursday morning April 7th the Vermillion River had again cut a channel through gorged ice to the center of the Missouri.  At the place where the Vermillion entered the Missouri a large hole was worn in the ice and an eddy formed, in which large quantities of broken timbers and immense cakes of ice were floating around.  The water that came through the Vermillion ran over the bank east of Judge Kidder's residence, passing along the bluff to the Big Sioux River." "The bottom between Vermillion and Meckling was covered with ice from six to 20 feet deep.  The city bridge at the mouth of the Vermillion, the Russell Bridge, the Lee and Prentis Bridge were all swept away." "By April 14th the water that stood in the town started to drain off, leaving the ice from one to six feet deep in the streets."  The account in the Standard continued: "The scene from the bluffs presented a sickening spectacle. Most of the remaining wooden buildings were badly twisted and wrecked and others carried off their foundations.  In the upper part of the city, where the buildings were mostly swept away, nothing could be seen but water and ice, the latter being packed up to the roofs of some of the remaining buildings.? It was left to the Vermillion River, swollen to the proportions of the Missouri at high water, to complete the work of destruction.  The deluge and ice left a good many buildings in Vermillion, but the river stepped in and took about 16 of these on Sunday, April, 17th." "The tract of country lying between Vermillion and Gayville was swept clean of everything with an occasioned exception.  Houses, barns, fences, cattle, hogs, horses and sheep were destroyed, leaving the farmers with little else but the clothes on their backs." Three-fourths of Vermillion was destroyed, 132 buildings were totally destroyed and many others wrecked.  The total value of the buildings and the other property destroyed, as closely estimated by G. H. Wheeler, was $142,260.00". "With the greater part of Vermillion washed away, there wasn't much question about the town moving onto the hill.  This had often been discussed before the flood and in the March 10, 1881, issue of the Standard appeared the following item". "Judge Jefferson P. Kidder has written a letter home stating that Congress has appropriated $35,000 for the State University located at Vermillion.  Now the people should get together and move the business part of the town on the bluff.  Then the future of Vermillion would be assured". This appropriation never went through, but that same year Congress did make a land grant of 72 sections to be set aside for the University.  On the strength of this a meeting held May 24th and a start was made toward the establishment of the University.  Judge Kidder donated 10 acres of land for the site and 10 additional acres were purchased from G. B. Bigelow. That same fall an election was held at which the county approved a bond issue of $10,000 to be used in the construction of a University building.  In October, 1882, the first classes of the University were held in the old wooden courthouse on Court Street. The first meeting concerning moving onto the hill was held April 2nd, while the flood waters were still at their height, and the second was held May 4th.  Both meetings were held in the Methodist church located at the foot of what is now Church Street.  It was the practically unanimous opinion of the assembled businessmen that the move should be made. Difficulties arose immediately.  The asking price on available lots went up, as might be expected, and there were other troubles.  A May 12th item in the Standard stated: "A new survey of the streets made by H. J. Austin develops the fact that the old survey was radically wrong and that many of the property owners lose 10 feet off the sides and ends of their lots.  There is considerable grumbling and the end is not yet? Market street was first planned to be the main business street but it was found to be too short, only two blocks long, so many of the stores were located on Vine (now Main) street.  An item in a June issue of the Republican called it Main, but a city ordinance published in July still referred to it as Vine. This ordinance concerned the grading of streets, and it stated that property owners on each side would be taxed to pay the cost of the grading.  Sidewalks were also ordered in, and they were to be 10 feet wide and constructed of 2×6 pine boards. The flood was hard on the two Vermillion newspapers.  The building housing The Republican was one of the first to go sailing downstream.  Most of its equipment was lost as were the paper's filed prior to 1875.  The Republican suspended publication from March 24th to June 30th.  The Standard saved its office and equipment and in July the two papers were combined.  The editor of the Standard purchased a newspaper in Nebraska, where he evidently figured the pastures were greener. While over half of the buildings in Vermillion were carried downstream and many of the others wrecked beyond repair, a number of those remaining were moved onto the hill.  The Lee & Prentis brick building was torn down and much of the material was used in the building that stood for many years at the corner of Market and Main.  Thompson & Lewis bought the old Jensen drug store—a two story building—and moved it to Main Street. While their new store was under construction, Lee & Prentis took care of their customers at the Methodist church, There was a rush in putting up new buildings and moving old ones and by July firms on Market street included:  Helgeson's drug store, Barron & Iverson's hardware, Rasmussen's saloon, Bridgman and Lotze stationery, the Chandler House the top of the bluff and Hart's livery opposite the hotel. Among the businesses locating on Main street were:  J. W. Grange, Reeve & King and H. J. Lunde general stores, Salmer drug store, D. M. Inman bank, Thompson & Lewis farm machinery, A. H. Lathrop, farm machinery, Mrs. Oakley, millinery and Felix Vincent, confectionery. J. C. Bower, and old time dray man, moved most of the buildings up from the bottom.  His biggest job was that of moving the Baptist church, which stood on high ground at the bottom of Ravine hill and thus escaped the flood.  It was moved to the site of the present stone structure.  It served as a place of worship until the spring of 1890 and contained Vermillion's first pipe organ, purchased in 1888. An item in the Republican dated August 4 stated:  "Our hotels are overflowing with transients and boarders," so business must have been thriving in the new town. Items in the Standard in May and June told of activities in the reconstruction period:  We learn about 150 people are making their homes at present below the bluff.  The first train of cars that has reached Vermillion since March 28 came in May 26.  Nearly every man, woman and child in the city rushed pell mell to the bluffs to gaze upon the scene.  (The depot was one of the buildings taken by the flood, and railroad business was transacted in a freight car until a depot could be built.) The city is having a culvert put in at the head of the ravine.  It will be 80 feet long and covered with six or seven feet of dirt. Since Vermillion has been located on the bluff, property has been rising steadily in value.  Lots that could not have been sold at any price are now commanding from $100. to $200. And so Vermillion, after much strenuous effort, got moved onto the hill. How many buildings were taken from the bottom is pretty much a matter of conjecture.  And they have all succumbed to the ravages of fire and the march of progress with the possible exception of one that one is the building on Main Street occupied by the Coyote café.  Felix Vincent, a Frenchman, ran a saloon and restaurant under the hill and later was in business in this very building and a confectionery store.

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