Pyramid Park, also known as The Little Missouri Badlands, 1879
The Little Missouri Badlands near Medora resemble the Grand Canyon – on a smaller scale. Thousands of colorful buttes dominate the landscape in Theodore Roosevelt National Park along the course of the Little Missouri River.
Tourists began to visit these Badlands in considerable numbers after the Northern Pacific Railway completed its tracks to the Little Missouri in 1880. Officials of the Railroad had begun to promote the Badlands in 1879, just after a new president took control of the railway.
It was on this date, in 1879, that Frederick Billings took charge of the N.P. Railway, and under Billings’ management, the railway renamed the Badlands. A month after Billings became president, the Bismarck Tribune revealed the railway’s new name – the area was thereafter to be “known as Pyramid Park.”
Early maps of the region labeled the eroded land as “Mauvaises Terres,” French for “Bad Lands.” Native Americans who made summer hunting camps there spoke of it as ‘bad lands’ to cross, or as “difficult country to travel over.” The French shortened “bad lands to travel over,” to “Bad Lands.” When General Alfred Sully came to the edge of the Badlands in 1864, he “described them as appearing like ‘Hell with the fires out and still smoking.’”
To counteract all that, the railway publicized Pyramid Park as a better name than the ones that focused on the “bad” in Badlands. The new name suggested that the fantastic buttes had the “appearance of deserted castles or grand old pyramids.”
Early descriptions of Pyramid Park tried to convey in words what could only be truly known by seeing those wonders of nature firsthand. One railway book noted that “the charm of the landscape is found in the wonderful colors, the reds and grays and greens and browns with which these enormous masses of conglomerate are bedecked . . . in all sorts of fantastic and grotesque forms, towers and pillars, and peaks, and domes, and pyramids, and shapes that are unlike anything seen outside the limits of a nightmare’s ride.”
The railway sent photographers to document Pyramid Park’s magnificence. In July of 1880, F. Jay Haynes spent a summer week there, reporting that his photographs were “the finest of natural scenery ever taken.”
As history unwound, the “Pyramid Park” name faded away, though its beauty never did – and the area again became known as the Badlands.
Dakota Datebook written by Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.
Sources: “The Northern Pacific Railroad,” New York Times, May 25, 1879, p. 5.
“Purely Personal,” Bismarck Tribune, October 27, 1880, p. 1.
“The Track Laying,” Bismarck Tribune, September 24, 1880, p. 1.
“First Loaded Train Over the Bridge,” Bismarck Weekly Tribune, October 27, 1882, p. 2.
“Through Pyramid Park,” New York Times, July 7, 1879.
Northern Pacific Railroad Company, The Yellowstone National Park (Chicago: Rand, McNally & Co., 1883), n.p.
Northern Pacific Railroad Company, The Wonderland Route To The Pacific Coast (St. Paul: Northern Pacific Railroad Company, 1885), p. 18.
Northern Pacific Railroad Company, A Description of the Lands and Country Along the Line of the Northern Pacific Railroad (Chicago: Rand, McNally & Co., 1883?), p. 12.
Chester Brooks and Ray H. Mattison, Theodore Roosevelt and the Dakota Badlands (Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1958), p. 5.
“The ‘Bad Lands,’” Bismarck Tribune, June 28, 1879, p. 4.
“Purely Personal,” Bismarck Tribune, October 22, 1880, p. 1.
“Fine Collection of Pyramid Park Views,” July 9, 1880, p. 5.
George W. Kingsbury, History of Dakota Territory, vol. 1 (Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1915), p. 870.