Scenic Route

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Falling for the Park

Article and photos by Kathleen Walls

The Falls of the Big Sioux River has been the heart of the area even before the founding of its namesake city of Sioux Falls in 1856. There is evidence that Paleolithic tribes used the falls area for much the same purpose it is used today, as a recreational area. The Lakota, who were the native people in the area when the white settlers first arrived, visited the falls for that purpose and told stories of them to European explorers.

Falls long view

Interestingly enough, the city founders saw the falls as a industrial resource rather than a recreational treasure. The beautiful tumbling water was seen as a cheap power source. Many of Sioux Falls' earliest industrial buildings were focused around the Falls. When you visit today, it's like a step back in history.


The ruins you see across the river are the remains of the seven-story Queen Bee Mill. It was begun in 1878, spearheaded by Richard  Pettigrew, a industrialist who believed Sioux Falls needed its own mill. The mill was constructed of local  Sioux Quartzite quarried on site at a cost of almost  $500,000. The pink quartzite that forms the bedrock of the falls is over a billion years old. It's colors vary from pink to deep red depending on the amount of iron oxide contained.

 The mill opened on Oct. 25, 1881 and could process 1,500 bushels per day. It was one of the most advanced in America for its time. However, by 1883, the mill shut down. There was not enough water power and too little wheat grown in the area. A few other companies tried in vain to resuscitate the mill but In 1929 it was converted into a warehouse. Then  Jan. 30, 1956, a great fire destroyed most of the interior of the structure.  The upper walls were later knocked down as a safety precaution.

Power company

Another early attempt to exploit the water power of the great falls was the Sioux Falls Light and Power Company building, now the Falls Overlook Cafe. It was built in 1908to house three 500-kilowatt hydroelectric generators that were powered through the dam and the millrace from the Queen Bee Mill. It operated until  1974 and  was donated to the city in 1977.


For picnickers and events, the park offers a wonderful 200' long by 42' wide  outdoor shelter with tables. There is electricity and water. It is set back a few yards from the Big Sioux River and Recreational Greenway, a  19.13 mile trail that begins at Falls Park and loops around the city.  The shelter serves as the home of the local Farmers Market .


The visitors center with its five-story, 50 ft. viewing tower offers a spectacular view of the city.


Saint Joseph's Cathedral stands out against  the skyline and marks the site of the early residential development  known as the Cathedral Historic District. On June 1974 this became the first historic district in South Dakota to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


There are several noteworthy statures in the park, Monarch of the Plains , a 12 ton mahogany granite buffalo carved by Darold Bailey,  For Which It Stands created by James Haire, a lifelike bronze of two children pledging allegiance to the flag, and American Farmer, also a bronze, created by Sondra Jonson to honor the rural family patriarch. 


Today the park covers 123 acres. An average of 7,400 gallons of water drop 100 feet over the course of the falls each second.  No matter what your interest, there is a lot to fall for at Falls Park.


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