The capital of North Dakota and its companion city across the Missouri River bring prairie history to life in a modern small-town setting.
By Candice Helseth
Historic spots, modern hospitality, and some of the state’s finer dining and shopping establishments make Bismarck, North Dakota’s capital city, and Mandan, its neighbor across the Missouri River, a good place to visit before or after attending FMCA’s 74th International Convention in Minot this month.
Bismarck may be the state capital, but it is a small town. The combined population of Bismarck and Mandan is 72,250. As such, a motorhome can be maneuvered practically anywhere in the area. And these towns lie only 110 miles south of Minot, conveniently located where Interstate 94 and U.S. 83 split (with U.S. 83 heading north from there to Minot).
Both Bismarck and Mandan were established with the arrival of the railroad. Several tribes of North Dakota American Indians were already settled on these plains; Mandan is named for the area’s Mandan Indians. In an effort to get German investment for the railroad’s construction program, the Northern Pacific Railway named Bismarck after Germany’s Prince Otto von Bismarck. He had never even visited the city.
The North Dakota State Capitol in Bismarck, known as the “Skyscraper on the Prairie,” is one of the only art deco state capitols in the country. It was built during the early 1930s (for only $2 million) after the original red brick edifice burned. The State Capitol Complex encompasses 130 acres with buildings that include government offices, the state library, the governor’s residence, and others. You can appreciate the many sculptures on campus, such as one depicting Sakakawea, who aided Lewis and Clark’s journey, and walk on the Arboretum Trail around the grounds.
The North Dakota Heritage Center, on the capitol grounds, features impressive collections of dinosaur bones, Indian tepees, pioneer artifacts and crafts, and historical items — and one of the most acclaimed collections of Plains Indians artifacts in the United States. Demonstrations, films, and more help visitors gain a picture of the area’s human and natural history. It also boasts a museum store. The Heritage Center is open daily and admission is free.
After exploring Bismarck’s capital area, continue your historical search at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, seven miles south of Mandan via State Route 1806. This is a must-see for any visitor to the area. To get that feeling of going back in time, you may wish to park your motorhome and travel to the park via trolley car. The Fort Lincoln Trolley departs from the Third Street station in Mandan daily on the hour between 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. (Call 701-663-9018 for information.) Then again, because the state park has a nice campground with electrical hookups, you may wish to make a night of it there.
This park’s visitors center is full of artifacts, exhibits, and audio-visual programs, including one of the nation’s best exhibits concerning the Mandan Indians. Displays highlighting fur traders, the Lewis and Clark expedition, railroad and homesteading eras, and more are on hand.
Also at the fort is a replica of the home of Gen. George Custer and his wife, Libbie, where you’ll be entertained by stories about the general and his life in this refurbished house. Custer spent 2½ years there before he left for what would be his last campaign at Little Bighorn in Montana. Other precise replicas of military buildings include blockhouses, a central barracks, and a commissary storehouse.
Check out On-A-Slant Village, where the Mandan Indians lived for at least 200 years, growing their crops on the lush Missouri River bottomlands. Once one of the major trading centers on the river, On-A-Slant was abandoned following the smallpox epidemic of 1781. Today a $1.9 million restoration of the village is well under way and includes completely furnished, rebuilt Mandan earth lodges that reflect the Mandan Indians’ lifestyles.
You can take a trail through the park for glimpses of wildlife, native prairie grasses and flowers, and a stunning overlook of the Missouri River Valley. Fishing is permitted on the shores of the Missouri River, and horseback riding is available in designated areas.
The park is open daily year-round. In summer, operating hours are from 9:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m. The interpretive pass, which includes admission to all tours and programs at the cavalry post, visitors center, and On-A-Slant Mandan Indian Village, is $5 for adults and $3 for students. The state park charges a separate $5-per-car entry fee. Call (701) 667-6380 for visitor information.
Once your appetite for history has been whetted, a trip to Camp Hancock State Historic Site and Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site should be on your itinerary. Camp Hancock protected the Northern Pacific railroad workers in the late 1870s. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the camp features an interpretive museum, a Northern Pacific steam locomotive, and a church. It’s located in Bismarck on West Main Street. Double Ditch, located 7½ miles north of Bismarck via State Route 1804, is known as one of the most spectacular archaeological sites on the plains. Overlooking the river, the village was at one time home to an estimated 2,000 American Indians. It was inhabited between 1675 and 1780. For more information about either site, call (701) 328-2666.
For more recent history, visit Buckstop Junction, just a few miles east of Bismarck on the Missouri Valley Fairgrounds. Original structures built from the late 1800s through the early 1930s include a mine camp, a gas shovel, and a scale house that demonstrate the beginning of the energy industry’s role in North Dakota. A $2 admission fee is charged. If you’d like a tour of the village, phone ahead; (701) 255-4205 or (701) 223-4838.
The grand Missouri River winds through the Bismarck-Mandan region. In the 1800s it was the major transportation route from St. Louis, Missouri, to trading points in the Northwest. The Lewis & Clark riverboat was the last passenger vessel on the upper Missouri River. Today the 150-passenger paddle wheeler has found new purpose, offering passengers a choice of excursion, dinner, and sunset cruises. Call (701) 255-4233 for more information, or visit www.lewisandclarkriverboat.com.
The riverboat docks at the Port of Bismarck where Keelboat Park is located. Hands-on replicas of Lewis and Clark’s keelboat, a paddleboat, and sculptures of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and Sakakawea are among the park’s points of interest.
Art enthusiasts will want to wander down to Mandan’s Main Street where the historic Burlington Northern Railroad depot has been converted to the Five Nations Arts Depot. Works by more than 200 American Indian artists are on display and available for purchase. Art and American Indian interpretive programs also are offered. The depot is open daily, with extended hours in summer.
Stop at Mandan Drug, an old-fashioned drugstore and ice cream parlor that claims it has the best milkshakes in the state. Lindy Sue’s Candies, a local company that developed the Lewis & Clark candy bar, also sells its products there. Just down the street is This Old Hat. With its tin ceiling and hardwood floors restored to their former glory, the business produces custom-made hats that are distributed throughout the United States. A saddle maker and boot repair shop also are located in the building.
August is prime time in North Dakota for outdoor activities such as golfing, birding, and taking in the zoo. Bismarck has seven golf courses open to the public, including the new and highly rated Hawktree Golf Club. Following one or more of the three routes that make up the Bismarck-Mandan Birding Drive provides an opportunity to view hundreds of bird species, including some that are considered rare or endangered. Dakota Zoo, the state’s largest, is home to more than 600 reptiles, birds, and mammals. More details about all of these attractions are available from the Bismarck-Mandan Convention and Visitors Bureau, listed at the end of this article.
Shopping and dining are among travelers’ greatest pleasures. Kirkwood Mall in Bismarck has more than 90 specialty shops with five major anchor stores. Restaurant choices are numerous and include various ethnic food establishments. A local competition recently dubbed the East 40 Chophouse & Tavern as Bismarck’s most romantic restaurant, and Bistro was voted the city’s best overall restaurant. But if the Lewis and Clark fervor appeals to you, you may want to try Captain Meriwether’s Restaurant, located on the edge of the Missouri River with a choice of indoor and outdoor dining. Historic décor includes photographs of North Dakota legends and a Meriwether Lewis statue. It seems to be a fitting way to end a day full of exploration.
Bismarck-Mandan Convention and Visitors Bureau
1600 Burnt Boat Drive
Bismarck, ND 58503
The bureau’s offices are easily accessible off exit 157 from Interstate 94. There, you can get directions and details about area attractions, and an itinerary, if you need one. While at the office, check out the steamboat interpretive display and the Genuine Dakota gift shop. Or, phone the office prior to your visit and ask for a copy of the Bismarck-Mandan Visitor Guide, a large color magazine with information about the attractions mentioned in this article.
North Dakota Tourism Division
1600 E. Century Ave., Suite 2
P.O. Box 2057
Bismarck, ND 58503-2057
The following is not a complete list, so please check your favorite campground directory or the FMCA Business Directory, published in the January and June issues of FMC and online at www.fmca.com.
Bismarck KOA Campground
3720 Centennial Road
Bismarck, ND 58503
Colonial Motel Campground
4631 Memorial Highway
Mandan, ND 58554
Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park Campground
4480 Fort Lincoln Road
Mandan, ND 58554
(800) 807-4723 (reservations)
General Sibley Campground
5001 S. Washington St.
Bismarck, ND 58504
Hillcrest Acres Campground
5700 E. Main Ave.
Bismarck, ND 58501