I arrived in Bismarck at around 6 p.m. After checking in to the Wingate by Wyndham Bismarck and picking up a complementary chocolate chip cookie in the lobby, I took the short walk down the road to the MacKenzie River Pizza, Grill & Pub for dinner. Cars filled the parking lot, and an overflow crowd of hungry North Dakotans huddled around the entrance. The wait list for a table extended beyond 30 minutes, and only one stool remained unoccupied at the bar. Clearly, Bismarck was going to be a hopping kind of town. My mistake. After that first night’s dinner, I never again saw that many people clustered in one place during the rest of my time here. But that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing — Bismarck’s top attractions remain wonderfully uncrowded. These are my favorites.
#1 Visit the North Dakota State Capitol
Frequently ranked among the ugliest capitol buildings in the United States, the North Dakota State Capitol doesn’t exactly make a memorable first impression. Frankly, this Art Deco tower looks like the headquarters of a dreary insurance company, and I was left wondering why North Dakota misfired so badly, especially when the nation’s two other Art Deco tower capitol buildings, in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, got it right. But there’s more to the story than just uninspired architects or bad taste. After a fire destroyed the original capitol in 1930, the state needed an immediate replacement. The designs of the selected architects contained much more ornamentation than was actually executed — the Great Depression put the kibosh on that. By the time the capitol was completed in 1934, it lacked the decorative etching in the cornice stones and in the metal panels between the windows specified in the original plans. Even the 50-foot statue intended for the entry plaza was scrapped. What’s left is a mundane box — unless you’re here in December. Standing on the expansive grassy mall fronting the 241-foot-tall tower, you’ll absorb some holiday spirit when red and green shades are drawn over the tower’s many window and illuminated from behind to form the shape of a Christmas tree, and when specific office lights are turned on during December 31 — the first two digits of the year light up on the top half of the building, the last two on the bottom. If you’re here during a more temperate time of the year, however, it’s best just to head inside, directly into Memorial Hall. Light pours into this grand space, with brass columns and a 40-foot-high ceiling, through the floor-to-ceiling windows and from tall chandeliers in the shape of heads of ripened wheat. To the right, sleek leather banquettes in between soaring columns of polished wood provide a perfect place for legislators to make a last-minute arrangement or for visitors like me to admire the brass figures of North Dakota pioneers on the elevator doors. Those elevators also carried me up to the building’s other highlight. As the tallest edifice in the entire state of North Dakota, at 19 stories (nine more than the next tallest), the “Skyscraper on the Prairie” offers a completely unobstructed panoramic view of Bismarck and beyond from the observation level on the 18th floor.
#2 Watch for Clouds and Thunderbirds in Keelboat Park
Something about the clouds in the Dakotas intrigued me. They seemed different from anywhere else, more fluid, more dramatic, sharper and livelier. One of the best places to admire them and let your imagination fly is in Keelboat Park, on the shore of the Missouri River, where they soar high above you and the attractive Northern Pacific Railroad Bridge. But what happens when the sky is clear or completely overcast? No worries. You can also learn a little local history that dots the trail as it wends its way through the park. Informational signs present historical facts about the area during the time of Lewis and Clark’s expedition. You can climb on board a 55-foot full-scale replica keelboat similar to the one used by the explorers. Then circle around the park’s main attraction — the Thunderbird sculpture, measuring 15 feet high and 30 feet across. Four giant thunderbirds emerge from a thundercloud in four different directions, heads and talons thrust forward. Created by student artists from the United Tribes Technical College, the sculpture pays homage to the legendary creature in certain North American indigenous peoples’ culture. Plaques around the sculpture explain the variances in the bird’s mythology among the different nations.
#3 Wander Around the Former Governors’ Mansion
One wouldn’t expect a green, two-and-a-half-story Victorian home to house one of the state’s most important figures, but from 1893 to 1960, this beauty served as the residence for 20 North Dakota governors. Asa Fisher, a Bismarck businessman who made his fortune in banking, real estate, and liquor sales, built this house (so much nicer than the current Governor’s Residence) for himself in 1884. It boasts some pretty impressive curb appeal: a bay window and front porch on the first level, a balcony on the second, and a sturdy brick chimney. Fisher sold the house to the state in 1893 for $5,000, and the governors moved in. After the last one moved out, the North Dakota Psychiatric Clinic checked in for about eight years, followed by the administrative offices of the State Health Department for another eight. After that, the State Historical Society of North Dakota took over, completed some extensive renovations to restore its 1893 look, and opened up the former executive mansion to the public as a North Dakota State Historic site in 1983. A tour through the Former Governors’ Mansion today reveals the overall life of the house and the ways its residents lived in and used it, rather than a particular time period. DIYers will appreciate the restoration features that are highlighted to reveal the work that has been completed as well as exposed layers of wallpaper and paint samples that show how the interior has evolved over more than a century.
#4 Cruise on a Riverboat
If you’ve had your fill of the historical or physical and merely want to relax, hop aboard the Lewis & Clark riverboat and set sail down the Missouri River. Of course, that’s provided you’re here between May through September; off-season, you’re out of luck: The riverboat is dry-docked for the winter. The cruise does not provide any historical or interpretive narration, but rather just a pleasant conveyance on the water. The 40-foot flat-bottomed riverboat can accommodate 150 passengers on one- or two-hour brunch, midday, evening, and sunset cruises. Simply order a glass of wine from the bar, climb upstairs to the open upper deck behind the dual smokestacks and the pilot house, and let the two sidewheels enclosed in the paddleboxes do their job as you watch the scenery go by.
#5 Admire the Northern Pacific Railroad Depot
A notable anomaly to the city’s landscape still stands in downtown Bismarck: an old Spanish Mission–style structure — quite uncommon for the northern plains — that remains the city’s most interesting building. The now-defunct Northern Pacific Railroad Depot was completed in 1901 by famed U.S. architect Cass Gilbert. Although Gilbert had designed depots in numerous other styles, this was his first attempt at Mission-style, and his achievement served rail passengers for three-quarters of a century. By 1916, the depot was accommodating two dozen passenger trains daily, but it fell victim to the national trend of declining ridership starting in the 1950s. Two years after the depot was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the depot ceased operations when Amtrak ran its last train there in 1979, and the Mexican restaurant (quite appropriate, given its setting) that followed closed after a few decades of service. Half a dozen columns support the slightly protruding central portion of this handsome structure, flanked by towers that were originally capped with domes topped by cupolas and finials but were replaced in 1954 by simpler peaked tiled roofs, altering the character a bit to more of a Tuscan campanile. A series of arched windows and entries extend in both directions, capped by red-tile roofs with shaped gable-end walls that project above the roofline. Nine original Northern Pacific logos remain visible on the building’s exterior, reminding you of the age when rails ruled.