Seney Island

Seney Island: A History of How the City of Sioux Falls Was Developed
What could have been an awesome city park, today has become commercialized inustrial park attracting thousands of dollars!

Seney Island was a piece of land above the Falls. A Naturally Wooded Area roughly 37 acres in size, it was a natural city park with breathtaking views of the river, the falls, nature, and picnic area. Originally, part of a land claim in 1857 - this property was ceded to the State by 1902 to pave the way to connect the railroad through the City. The original land claim states that if the railroad was ever removed, that the land was to be placed in its natural state, to be used as a city park. So any new development again, would be found in violation of the land patent terms.

If you stand near the river on the west side by side walk, and walk near the "Boulders", you are walking into the mouth of the West Channel; from there, you walk southwest in pathway towards 4th Street; from there you turn and walk in a Southeastern path towards the river. You just walked the path of the "West Channel" and the island itself.

The land that makes up Seney Island and the West Chanel makeup 37 acres.

The Land Claim was awarded to the Western Town Company in 1857 as part of settlement acts to develop the western parts of the Country. The 1841 Preemption Act adopted by Congress governs the land claim itself, and allowed Americans to squat on land, build a home, develop the land, and claim the land all within five years. Under the terms of the act itself, as an American prospering from the land, would have to pay the Federal Government 20% of all profits earned from the land itself as you sold the natural resources, minerals, stemming from all commercial activity produced from the land.

The patent predates the "State" and the land even today, has remained under land claim rights of the same group of investors ever since. It can only be sold by the 'person(s)' listed on the patent. Land Patents are passed down generations, they are hereditary and last as long as they are willing to keep it. In 1902 - the group 'ceded' this land to the State (without giving up the claim) in order to allow for the Railroad to come through Sioux Falls. The agreement was that the land would have to be given back to the heirs as per the terms set forth on the land patent itself. Once you also understand land claims, you would learn that those who hold patent rights, pay no Property Tax on the land itself; the "land owner" grants permission to use his land, while the "user" pays a rent or tax.

The question comes into light, does Sioux Steel own the land, and did they actually purchase the land claim from the 'land owners' and if the land Patent was indeed transferred to them, they would not be responsible for paying property tax on the land itself, as the federal law that initiated the patent, exempted it from property tax. The South Dakota State constitution even states this fact.

"All such lands which may have been exempted by any grant or law of the United States, shall remain exempt to the extent, and as prescribed by such act of Congress."

Article 22, Section 2, South Dakota State constitution

So now we have a problem don't we? For there now becomes a question of over who owns the land. The state is merely the 'caretaker' of this land, while the true land owner heirs to those investors of the Western Town Company, and if you further research this land, you would find that W.W Brookings purchased the land claim from the company itself between 1870 and 1880.

By 1900, Sioux Falls was a busy place, with new businesses sprouting up all over the prairie. However, some townspeople began to ask why the city did not have a park. "We need parks just as much as business" was the phrase that was often heard around town. The unofficial park for the city was an island in the Big Sioux River located just south of the area where the falls of the river were located. Located close to the downtown area, the island was originally called Brookings Island after W.W. Brookings, who first owned the island. Later it was sold to George Seney, an East Coast businessman, and the named changed to Seney Island. Many early-day events occurred at the island, including July Fourth events. Several organizations held picnics on the island, including one by a group called the Log Rollers in 1906. On May 15, 1906, the Argus Leader newspaper suggested to the readers that the time had come for the city to have a park to help promote the "Queen City of the West.

Remember as part of the Settlement Acts, people were paying $10.38 per acre in order to 'file claims' to the land. We know this fact as true from other sources such as Laura Ingalls Wilder's documented evidence that her dad had purchased 160 acres of land near Desmet, South Dakota. Seney Island would have been part of roughly the same amount of acres. And in fact, the Western Town Company did buy 160 acres of land that stretched from 4th Street north to the Bluff and between Main Avenue and the River, while the Dakota Land Company purchased a land claim south of that claim, which today would be 7th Avenue south to 11th Street, commonly known today, as Downtown Sioux Falls.

Both Sioux Steel and Lloyd Developments claim the West Channel was not passable by boat, but pictures prove otherwise, and if the 'channel' was not passable, it was the actions made by both the Railroad Companies and Sioux Steel themselves that made it so. Cause history says - these 'users' of the land between 1902-1930 turned the channel into a city landfill allowing people to dump their trash, garbage, and waste into the channel in order to fill it in. They were dumping all kinds of waste in it, filling it in with sewage, sludge, and fill, which of course would make it less passable by boat. So a great crime against nature occurred during the early days of the city itself.

And...I know, and you know; if it is ever discovered that this "channel" was passable by boat, the state is sworn to protect all Waterways by our Constitution, the laws, the codes of which we adopted.

I also have old news clippings from then, that explore the idea by the people, that they wanted it to become a City Park. In those early years, between 1907 and 1908, the commission voted ten to 1 to make the island a city park, which the city did establish for a period of one year, but it was what happened next, which will forever change the course of history in Sioux Falls itself.

As we discovered further, something else seems to stand out, both the Western Town Company and Dakota Land Company both competed with each other to establish themselves as "The City".

The Western Town Company would go on to establish The "City of Sioux Falls", while the Dakota Land Company would go on to establish "Sioux Falls City". Both would work together to develop the land, establish the townsite, while at the same time, work to utilize the natural beauty of the landscape, the natural resources, and the mineral rights to help encourage more Americans to come reside in the area itself, and with that, the demise of the island itself became a lasting image that will forever haunt the city itself ever since.

The Western Town Company became "City of Sioux Falls" by 1857, while the Dakota Land Company ceased to exist, however, they would leave their mark on the city, by working to bring forth the railroad to the City of Sioux Falls. Many of the investors of the Dakota Land Company were also owners of the St. Paul and Omaha railroad lines, and by working together, the early development of the city began to take hold.

Both groups, the Western Town Company, as well as the Dakota Land Company wanted to fully establish their claims to the land, create and develop the city, from this relationship, deals were made by to work together to develop, establish, and build the City of Sioux Falls as a natural, commercialized, industrialized region within the State of South Dakota itself.

In fact, we go on to make the claim, that it was W.W Brookings who carefully looked out for his future family members, that he placed stipulations on the patent, that if any changes, change in land use, or any change in zoning, or future development, the land would end up back in the hands of the family allowing them to control what happens to the land thereafter.

It was simply politics as usual. If we moved forward with allowing the Western Town Company to establish any future city, the Dakota Land Company wanted to protect its interest; but as they agreed it was the Brookings Family, that later made the land deals to allow for the St. Paul and Omaha Railroads to 'use' the land and pay the "people" of the state a property tax for that right to use the land. All at the same time, the Brooking's Family would become major developers in the future development of Sioux Falls thus controlling a vast section of land along the Big Sioux River today.

In the end, how many dollars have been collected by the state thru property tax dollars of which have been invested back into our Education System, Economic Development of the state itself, and how many jobs were created by the Railroad companies, let alone, the how has the development of Downtown Sioux Falls played a major role in the establishment of the city itself?

Both groups actually won. Both the Western Town Company and Dakota Land Company played a valiant role in establishing both the City and the State. The Western Town Company got rewarded the town, while the Dakota Land Company was rewarded their railroad connection, while they allowed for Sioux Steel to 'use' the land beginning in 1918 to present day establishing a quality economic engine within the steel industry that supplied millions of South Dakotans jobs, steel, and infrastructure.

And what happened to the Brooking's Heirs, the land owners of the land itself? Well, I presume they are still around somewhere today enjoying the fruits of their labors from all those years before.

So, does Sioux Steel truly own this land today? That is for you to make that call. History says they do not, they are merely persons who gained the privilege of using the land to build their steel empire.

To continue its story, The Demise of Seney Island...

Between 1902-1920 the 'users' of the land and city leaders began orchestrating the plan to enclose the channel. They began with filling in both ends disconnecting it from the main river, on the south side they filled in with sod and dirt fill, while at the north end they used boulders to close off the channel. Then they allowed the residents of the town to throw their garbage, waste, sewage, and other items in the channel, establishing the city's first land fill as such, while later on, filling it in. All the garbage, waste, and sewage would impede the water flow, thickening the water to the point it became nothing but sludge. Exactly the 'term' used by Sioux Steel and Lloyd Companies today as they claim "the channel was not passable by boat due to it being very sludgy and narrow".

The Remains of the West Channel as Seen Today!

Well - this would be true due to the acts designed to close off the channel. The hidden facts here - is the intent by the users and the city leaders at the time was to drastically change the landscape to destroy the island itself. The only people remaining that would have any knowledge of the island today, who would have witnessed this destruction of the island, would be our "great-grandparents" born around 1900 whom would have actually partied, hosted picnics, spent time walking the island, while overseeing its destruction later on between 1908 to 1918. By the time your 'grandparents' were born in the 1920's, and while raising their own children between 1940 and 1950, there was no longer any evidence of the West Chanel, let alone, the island itself. Unless you knew where to actually look, the island was nothing more than part of the west bank all filled in, prepared for all the future developments that would soon transpire over the course of the next fifty years.

The West Channel as it Appears today, North of Sioux Steel!

This would be the same time period they were building the Electric Power Plant, the Queen Bee Mill, and the Development on the East Bank.

Part of this project was to build the large mill pond dam in order to funnel the river through the massive pipes in order to create 'power' for the electricity, and to operate the Mill itself.

This also played a role in ever so changing the river itself. As the Falls have been slowly becoming destroyed since the 1870's, using the area as a 'quarry' to build the State Prison, and the many early buildings, infrastructure projects, the Falls were being transformed.

Most people today do not realize there were 3 sets of "falls'. As the river passed through the rocky terrain as it passed through the great plains, and forming the big bend, which made this area so popular, you had the Upper Falls still visible today; the middle falls that today have become the iconic feature we know of today, and you had the Cascade Falls down stream, which today has become the low head dam where many people fish today.

Evidence of how much higher the river was prior to 1920 - is the former banks of which you walk along. From side to side, if you look close, you can see the former banks. Imagine the river being so high above the 'granite rock' left standing above the low head dam, it would have naturally flowed over the Cascade Dam. Many old photos taken prior to 1902 - were of these 'falls'.

This all changed between 1902-1918 - a massive economic development was forever changing the river.

Then in 1904, it was announced in the Argus-Leader that Seney Island was destined to “be cut up into residence lots.” THE ISLAND MUST GO, was the caption on the short article that must have seemed to some people, like a sad obituary. The owners of the Queen Bee property met and decided to carve it up into “blocks and lots” for sale.

First by building the Mill Pond Dam trapping tons of river water behind it; then by enclosing the West Channel thus trapping more water behind the dam; this then allowed them to Quarry, Dynamite, and build the Power Plant, the Mill, the Railroad Bridge across the River. They then blew the Cascade Falls to bits, forever destroying them, the only evidence today of their existence being the low head dam.

Between 1918-1926 the West Channel was used as the City Landfill; while below the Falls known today, the area was utilized by the City as a City garage and maintenance area, the barn still standing today, was used to store equipment, while south of 7th Street, Downtown Sioux Falls was taking shape.

Sioux Steel would be brought into the picture around 1918 - it purchased the 'user rights' to build their Steel Company on Seney Island, and this finally removed all evidence of the island, later on, Pitts Steel purchased user rights north of Sioux Steel, while Ravens Industries built their buildings along 6th Street, while 1st Avenue, which used to connect people to the island, became the entrance to the Sioux Steel parking lot itself.

American Greed, Fame, Power, and Control is what brought down the once proud landscape, the powers at-large then wanting to make the city the "Economic Capital" of the State, and of the upper midwest, so much so, they were willing to destroy our natural landscape in order to do so.

As stated previously, there were two groups of people who established claims to the area; Dakota Land Company (Trust A), and the Western Town Company (Trust B) their plan was to establish themselves in Dakota Territory, while one would become the City of Sioux Falls; while the other would get the contract to develop and create the Railroad line. In part, the 'land claim rights' stayed with these two groups, all of whom went on to make the land deals of the early 1900'sand from this concept, their legacy was preserved.

We lost our natural beauty of the landscape, thanks to a few people who wanted to make a name for themselves, preserve wealth for themselves, for centuries. I guess you can say, the Falls, the Island, the West Channel, and the natural beauty of the land, was corruptly utilized to establish the City of Sioux Falls, and to give to the city, such power and wealth, that today, it truly has become the 'economic engine' of the State today.

Keep in mind, much of the 'granite' used to build the City - the streets, the buildings, the infrastructure came from this area.

Today - the fame of those two groups can be seen today being highly represented by Sioux Steel Company, the Rail Road, while a third group - Lloyd Companies, Land Trust is forming its legacy by continuing in the tradition of ever so changing the landscape that once helped attract so many Americans to the Big Bend of the Sioux River, and the natural beauty of the Falls, the Island, the prairie.

And I leave you with one lasting question; What could have been if the people had just voted to maintain, and protect that naturally, wooded island, which was first discovered by George Seney, a land surveyor in the 1830's, if only we had fought more aggressively to protect the landscape, we may today, not be discussing the future "commercial development" occurring today along the river.

For those of us who remember, for all of us who have a passion to tell our history, for all those who cherish the natural beauty of the landscape, we must honor, preserve, and protect the lasting memory of all those who came before us, working together to make sure no one ever forget about our little "natural island" that once was a popular picnic area, a place our ancestors once gathered.

The City of Sioux Falls was surely founded on corrupt politics, pioneered and built by land developers, all of who had the vision of establishing a townsite, by profiting from the river, the land, and the minerals, all to attract as many people to the area, ensuring financial success of two companies - the Western Town Company became the City of Sioux Falls, as well as the Dakota Land Company who became responsible for bringing the railroad to the city, all of which allowed the city to become the economic engine of the State of South Dakota.

Today, it is all politics as usual, the same land deals, political shenanigans, developments are still occuring today, the same group of people of yesterday, still control the city today. While the names have changed, the same goals then, are the same goals those people have today. The River, still today, plays a valiant role in the overall development of the city itself, just as it did more than 100 years ago.

"The people of Sioux Falls did appreciate the island as a gem, a special place that was marked by a heavy growth of trees, something that was lacking in the surrounding terrain. This outdoor “town hall” quickly became a mecca for gatherings of people who lounged in the grass in the shade of a maple or ash tree. A foot bridge was built over the channel and on July 4, 1872, the first of many Independence Day celebrations was held on Brookings Island"

Wayne Fanebust