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Mementos of a Missouri River Atlantis

Mar 1, 2017

A marble squirrel sculpture, a relic of a Depression-era works project, stands near Chamberlain's city pool.

If you’ve spent any time in downtown Chamberlain, you may have noticed the marble animal sculptures on Main Street — a fox, and a pair each of eagles and squirrels — outside the Chamberlain City Pool and on either side of the Avenue of Flags. There's also a lone eagle at nearby American Creek Campground, and one more ended up 90 miles away at the Karl E. Mundt National Wildlife Refuge.

These critters are actually expatriates. Their original home was on a Missouri River Atlantis called American Island — a once-popular island park lost to Lake Francis Case.

The Works Progress Administration commissioned the sculptures during the 1930s. The original set included at least one rabbit and reportedly a fawn. The marble-stone composite sculptures are the work of several artists — Joy Jones, Paul Mountain and Andre Boratko, who was the director of the WPA’s South Dakota Artists Project. The Smithsonian’s Art Inventories catalog — which lists the statues as installed circa 1935-1940, says “South Dakota artist Oscar Howe is believed to have consulted on the project.”  Howe also worked for the South Dakota Artists Project. Archival postcards show the animals in a picturesque forested setting with a stone walkway.

The town also boasts eagles and a fox.

Before its submersion, American Island was situated between Chamberlain and Oacoma. The island — about 2 miles long and a half-mile wide — was known for its cedar groves, cottonwoods, wild berries and birds. Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery were in the area when Clark wrote in his journal on September 16, 1804 that, “Capt Lewis went on an Island above our Camp, this Island is abt. one mile long, with a Great purpotion ceder timber near the middle of it.” According to local histories, fur traders who built a post here in 1811 called it “Little Cedar.” 

The German naturalist Prince Maximilian of Wied encountered the island on his 1832 journey up the Missouri with artist Karl Bodmer. “On the steep banks of this long, narrow island which lies near the southwest bank, there were thickets of poplars, willows, and buffalo-berry,” he wrote. “The rest of the island is covered with a dark forest of red cedars, of which we immediately felled a goodly number. The notes of numerous birds were heard in the gloom of the cedar forest, into which no ray of sun could penetrate. Here, too, we found everywhere traces of the elks and stags, and saw where they had rubbed off the bark with their antlers.”

John James Audubon called it “Great Cedar Island” and found an “abundance of dwarf wild-cherry bushes in full blossom,” when he explored the Missouri aboard the American Fur Company’s steamer Omega

Sculptures on American Island shortly after installation. Photo courtesy of the Cozard Memorial Library.

Native American people likely frequented the island for centuries. An unattributed postcard in the collections of the Cozard Memorial Library in Chamberlain says that Brulé band Lakota chief Čhaŋté Wicuwa, also known as Useful Heart, lived on the island until 1889, when Congress divided the Great Sioux Reservation into smaller separate reservations.

After partition, the federal government donated the island to the city of Chamberlain to develop as a public park. A ferry service was established to carry visitors. Then a pontoon bridge was built across the river in 1893. The Milwaukee Road rail line crossed the river and the island in 1905. 

By 1913, the island park was hosting programs on the Chautauqua circuit. The Pierre Weekly Free Press, apprising readers of a Chautauqua scheduled for July 5-10, 1913, said, “the island has been put in fine shape and is one of the beauty spots of South Dakota.” The Chautauqua adult education movement brought stump speeches on a wide range of topics, as well as entertainment, to public gatherings around the country beginning in the late 19th century, until it ran out of steam by World War II. Three-time presidential candidate and prolific orator William Jennings Bryan was a fixture on the Chautauqua circuit and reportedly once spoke at American Island.

American Island was accessible by bridge over the Missouri River. The island was flooded after Fort Randall Dam was completed. It now lies beneath Lake Francis Case. Photo courtesy of the Cozard Memorial Library.

The Chamberlain highway bridge brought U.S. Highway 16 across the river via the island in 1925. That same year, according to the 1938 Federal Writers' Project Guide to South Dakota, “a reenactment of the Custer massacre was staged on American Island to feature the completion of the bridge. About 5,000 Indians took part, and just as they were the first to cross the river before the white men came, they were also the first to cross the new bridge. Dressed in full Sioux regalia, they presented an impressive spectacle as they marched with moccasins tread, bells tinkling at every step, gaudy war bonnets flashing a half-dozen colors in the sun…. Also aiding in the sham battles were 250 soldiers from Fort Meade. The performance was staged on hills across from the island where seats were provided for 15,000 people in a natural amphitheater; approximately 35,000 witnessed the performance.” 

Local Boy Scouts built a log cabin on the island some time in the 1920s or 1930s, and named the cabin after Useful Heart. During the Depression years, the South Dakota branch of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) established a World War I veterans’ camp on the island to build a bathhouse, cabins and do other improvements. Later, WPA workers added landscaping and installed the sculptures, which seem to have been popular among guests, who often had their pictures taken with the animals. 

At one point, wild turkeys were introduced to the island, then moved to Custer State Park, according to a reminiscence written by a local, the late Gil Johnsson. The island — which had a swimming pool, bandshell and small racetrack — was a popular destination for Boy and Girl Scouts from around the state, tourists and locals well into the 1940s. A 1943 flood inundated the island, the sculptures were moved to Chamberlain, and the island never quite recovered. Another flood in 1947 didn’t help. The Pick-Sloan Plan ended American Island with the completion of Fort Randall Dam in 1953.  

The railroad and highway bridges that spanned the island were rebuilt to accommodate the creation of Lake Francis Case. The new Highway 16 crossing (now called the I-90 business loop) was actually built by floating the Wheeler/Rosebud Bridge — formerly near Fairfax — 70 miles upriver in sections, and combining it with the Chamberlain bridge, which was also moved a short distance. Three pilings from the old Chamberlain bridge still rise from the river. 

Chamberlain celebrates the memory of American Island annually with a festival and campout called American Island Days. But the missing American Island sculptures are something of a mystery. They may have been damaged and ended up as landfill, or possibly stolen. If anybody knows of one, feel free to comment.

Michael Zimny is the social media engagement specialist for South Dakota Public Broadcasting in Vermillion. He blogs for SDPB and contributes arts columns to the South Dakota Magazine website.


08:47 am - Thu, March 2 2017
J Craig Scherf said:
Very interesting, and does add to what I knew about the sculptures around town. Makes you think a great book could be done on "Lost South Dakota," images of towns and sites now gone that are an important part of her storied history.
11:47 am - Fri, March 10 2017
Heidi said:
Such a great story!
01:48 pm - Wed, February 14 2018
Judy Quinton said:
Very Interesting
My dad surveyed area of American Island pre dam in 1945. We lived in a cabin on the island. Photo of me-about 4 yrs old. I had no idea about the sculpture in the photo.
04:28 pm - Tue, November 24 2020
Doug Schema said:
splendid little narrative above. Didn't know about American Island before. The story of the Wheeler Bridge being re-installed at Chamberlain is also a good tale worth retelling. When I was an infant, my mom (living in Rapid City traveling to Geddes), would drive across the pontoon bridge which had been erected across the Missouri. That would have been probably around 1953-56 period. I'm not sure. My great grandfather was a public official in Wheeler at the turn of the last century. The story of the relocation of the town is amazing when they knew the town was to suffer inundation by Lake Francis Case upon the impounding of the Ft. Randall Dam main stem facility. They moved many buildings from Wheeler. The old U. S. 281 and U. S. 18 used to meet at a junction at SD 50 in Platte and go south over the bridge. The bridge was moved and so were the two U. S. highways to the route over the dam.
03:43 pm - Thu, July 22 2021
I am setting my next Spirit Road book around American Island (with flashbacks) and would love to visit with anyone who has any knowledge apart from what I've gleaned from the Cozard Library and the internet.If anyone can out me in touch with any local historians please give them my email address.

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