Bismarck’s Big Block

Linda Burton posting from Bismarck, North Dakota – If it’s Sunday you take a picnic and the family, or meet your friends for a game of touch football. If it’s a workday, you join your coworkers for a brisk hike around the grounds, your choice of trails; walk a mile or two during lunch. If it’s the dead of winter with snow on the ground, you might join 8,962 townspeople to make angels in the snow as you set a new Guinness World Record. You can do those things when you have large tree-lined open spaces that are designated for public use. And that’s what they have in Bismarck. They started out with 160 acres back in 1883, deeded to North Dakota Territory by the Northern Pacific Railroad. Today the property is still ample – 132 acres – and on it sits the North Dakota state capitol, along with the North Dakota Heritage Center, the State Office Building, the Department of Transportation, and the Governor’s Residence. With lots of space left over for parks, and trails, and fresh-cut grass.

The Myron Atkinson Park (named after a Bismarck attorney) is all the way on the east side of State Street, but there’s a tunnel under the road for pedestrians. The Capitol Park is on the northwest corner of the grounds, at 4th Street and Divide Avenue; you’ll find a playground there.

As to trails, the Arboretum Trail winds through the woods on the west side of the grounds, taking you past 60-million-year-old petrified trees stumps from the Amidon area, and 75 different species of trees and shrubs labeled with ground plaques; you’ll pass lots of statues and memorials along the way too. The trail was created for the state’s centennial celebration; but also with state employees and the general public in mind, offering all a chance to buff up both body and mind. Exercise in the fresh air and gain a little historical and botanical knowledge while you’re at it! This trail is very popular with students on field trips too. Centennial Grove is adjacent to Arboretum Trail; it was designed by the North Dakota Forest Service and dedicated by President George Bush during the Centennial celebration in 1989.

The Prairie Trail is north of the Capitol’s Judicial Wing in an area filled with examples of grasses and wild flowers typical of native prairie. It was dedicated in 1987 and the wild grassland surrounding it was registered as a state Natural Area by North Dakota Parks and Recreation; it was expanded in 2006 so walkers can now go from the corner of State Street and Divide Avenue south into the main grounds.

The largest, and most prominent, statue on the main ground is The Pioneer Family; it’s a 1946 Avard Fairbanks sculpture, honoring the memory of the great northwest and occupying center space on the capitol lawn. Pioneers of the Future is a sculpture by Jeffrey Barber in the edge of the wooded area facing the lawn. It depicts two children, laughing and running, with the inscription “The path of the pioneer is not so much anymore the crossing of untouched land, but is a path of knowledge through education that opens up unknown truths about ourselves.”

The All Veterans Memorial honors all North Dakotans who served in the armed forces during the first 100 years of statehood; it is tucked among the trees after you’ve walked past the children’s statue, south of the Heritage Center. In this quiet spot bronze tablets bear the names of 4,050 men and women who died in the nation’s wars. The area is lighted at night and benches are nearby.

Other statues on the capitol grounds include John Burke, who stands in front of the capitol, and Sakakawea and Pomp by the steps leading to the Heritage Center; the Buffalo is there too. The Heritage Center, by the way, is in the process of doubling its space; watch for a grand opening as artifacts are moved into new quarters over the next few years, and rearranged in the current space.

Around the corner and facing 4th Street is the 10,000-square-foot Governor’s Residence; it has 18 rooms and its central kitchen serves both the state and the family areas. It looks like a nice walk from the back door through the trees to the Governor’s Office in the capitol.

What a pleasant place, the capitol grounds. I watched a bunny munching grass at the edge of the Grove; that gave me an idea. Inside the capitol I headed down the hallway to the cafeteria, a well-lighted eating space with rainbow-colored panels overhead; I found a good selection of hot meals and your basic sandwich/soups. People were sharing lunch, or sitting in a quiet corner with their laptop, or, heading outside for a walk around the block. A big, big beautiful block.  

Note: Capitol Cafeteria hours Mon-Fri; breakfast begins at 7; lunch ends at 1:30; the room is open till 4:30.