A parade of national figures came together to lay the cornerstone for the new Dakota Territory Capitol in Bismarck on this date in 1883. They included Henry Villard, president of the Northern Pacific Railway; financier Jay Cooke; former President Ulysses Grant; Hunkpapa Lakota holy man Sitting Bull; and a German minister appearing for Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. More than 3,000 people attended the ceremony.
Governor Nehemiah Ordway gave a speech praising “this imposing temple devoted to legislation.” He continued by saying, “Now that the stone is well and truly laid, may I ask you all to join with me in the hope and prayer that this edifice may be successfully reared as planned, and that it may soon be the Capitol of a sovereign state; that it may be the seat of good and honest government; that it may be the seat of wise legislation and of all the blessings of justice and liberty that are the birthright of American freemen.”
Moving the Dakota territorial capital from Yankton to Bismarck had been one of the biggest political controversies in the territory’s history. Capitals bring with them government jobs and state business. Ordway had helped orchestrate the move, along with Burleigh County Sheriff and railroad agent Alexander McKenzie, who would go on to build a powerful political organization. The "McKenzie machine" would become widely accused of stealing votes and intimidating voters, and even physically beating opponents. Governor Ordway, would also develop a tarnished reputation, his tenure noted for corruption and controversy in appointing territorial officials and awarding county seats.
Admittedly, Yankton’s location wasn’t ideal as a capital city. It didn’t lie on a main rail line, and it’s location in the extreme southeast corner of the territory meant it was far from other towns and settlements. Bismarck was on the Northern Pacific Railroad and was more centrally located. And it certainly didn’t hurt that it was a win for McKenzie and his railroad cronies.
The Capitol building would be completed in 1884 and be expanded over the years with several additions. In 1930 it burned in a Sunday morning fire, just before the legislative session. The cornerstone that began our story contained a copper box – a time capsule. It was recovered along with the contents, which included calling cards, newspapers, a copy of Ordway’s speech, and other mementos.
Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura
Chicago Tribune. 1883, Sept. 6. Page 3.