Hazen, ND: August 18-23, 2010

We wanted a point of departure from which we could visit Lewis and Clark’s first winter headquarters, Fort Mandan. Hazen, about 35 miles to the west, has a city campground that was low-priced to begin with and even lower priced with Passport America discounts. They had just 28 sites, all full-service pull-throughs, so we registered from St. Cloud as soon as we found it to avoid getting skunked. The rush was hardly necessary; during our stay, the maximum number of occupied sites was seven!

The manager, Ken Peterson, is retired from both the military and local industry. The campground is his hobby; he’s on site only part of each day but on call full time. There is a modern building, combining facilities, office and entertainment room. Ken is a true blessing. He sits you down after you’ve set up and becomes your travel agent, not only locally but for a couple hundred miles in every direction. And he brought us fresh vegetables overflowing from a neighbor’s garden.

One of the first thing he pointed us to was Music in the Pocket Park, a Wednesday night happening in the middle of town. Food at 5:30 was provided that week by the high school baseball boosters. They offered Taco in a Bag, literally slitting open the side of a bag of Taco chips and pouring in lettuce, beef, tomatoes, sour cream and the rest of the works. A ranger gave us a half-hour talk on the third most famous member of the Lewis and Clark expedition. And then we were serenaded to gospel pop by Nancy and Friends, a talented local group. Nancy’s guitar and voice were backed by a guitar/harmonica virtuoso, his daughter on a great honky-tonk piano and his son-in- law on bass. What a great introduction!

Here’s what we did in the area, scientific stuff first,L&C stuff following that, and then closure.

The Beulah component of the Basin Electric Power Cooperative

Our host suggested that we take half a day to tour this site just 13 miles away, north of the next town, and we’re very glad we did. Ken spent 18 years there just prior to his retirement. The complex consists of three operations that have a synergistic relationship. The Coteau Freedom Mine strip-mines lignite coal at the rate of about 15 million tons a year from leased land expected to last at least until 2045 — and then reclaims the land and gives it back to the farmer richer than before. The mine feeds most of its coal to the other two operations. The Antelope Valley Station is a coal-fired electrical generating plant that produces 900 megawatts of power. The Great Plains Synfuels Plant uses both coal from Coteau and 120 megawatts of Antelope Valley’s electricity to fuel its magic.

Great Plains prohibited pictures. We were assured that we could take pictures in the other two, but there wasn’t really a Kodak moment at Antelope Valley, and our tour guide at Coteau said we could take pictures but not post them to anywhere on the Internet. (Ken told us later that he was overreacting.) So you’ll have to settle for a few outside shots.

As in our Marquette iron study, we felt like David facing Goliath. Overwhelmed by size and statistics, we were appropriately awestruck. The complex is along Rte. 21, and as you approach it, you pass under a bridge that is capable of supporting well in excess of 600 tons (that’s 1.2 million pounds, folks). That’s the load of two trucks coming from the coal field. Great Plains is first; a dingy brown. Antelope Valley is powder blue, and the Coteau Mine buildings are white .

At Coteau, we were met at the office lobby by Lee Becker, a civil engineer whose primary job is laying out the strips to be mined. He escorted us to his white pickup, which was black from the bottom to the windows with a half inch of caked-on coal dust. No wonder; Lee and his truck (and his guests) found their way over very rough roads right into the core of the mining activity. On the way to the field, we passed a vehicle staging/maintenance area flanked by a hundred twelve-foot tires costing $25,000 apiece. Then we headed into the bowels of an active strip. Approximately 150 feet wide, it was close to 80 feet deep. The “dragline” towered above us at surface level, scooping up hundreds of tons of “overburden” (the soil covering the coal vein) with each pass and piling it on the sides of the strip. One of two active units, it weighs 1000 tons or more and literally walks the dish in which it swivels backwards as it digs. It’s electric–powered through the biggest extension cord you’ve ever seen! We drove up top alongside this behemoth for a close-up view and then across to another strip where a giant electric loader was transferring material to those 300 ton trucks (3 scoops per load) to be hauled to holding sites.

Once the coal is extracted from a strip, the overburden is returned to the ditch and the adjacent strip is mined. Then the reclamation team takes over, working at just about the same pace as the extractors. When they are finished, the land again becomes arable; the flats are used for farming and the rises for grazing land.

The extracted coal is dumped on two gigantic piles; then it is sorted and passed by conveyor to the two neighboring facilities depending on size: large pieces to Great Plains and small pieces to Antelope Valley.

Allison met us at Antelope Valley. Directly adjacent to the lobby, down a set of stairs, was a half-inch-to-a-foot model of the entire operation. The model cost $250,000, and it was built before the actual plant as a construction tool. She used this and some other visual aids to present the story to us and then invited us to go out into the actual operation; we declined.

Put simply, the process has three steps. Two central furnaces burn coal to turn water into steam. Each unit is 280 feet tall — 40 feet taller than the tallest building (the Capitol in Bismarck) in North Dakota. Each is filled with a series of tubes through which the water passes. Coal ash residue forms on the exterior of the tubes, so there is a mechanical device to de-crud them. In addition, an operator gets at areas otherwise not reachable with a 12 gauge shotgun. How scientific! The steam is transferred to turbines, then to a generator, then a transformer, and then to transmission line.

The final section reconditions everything. The water is super-cooled. The gasses are scrubbed of sulfur before exiting the chimneys. And the fly ash is transferred to a landfill, which is later reclaimed with a thick cover of topsoil.

And now for the pièce de résistance. Great Plains is one of only two plants of its kind in the world. The other is in South Africa.

Michele was our guide. After passing through considerably more security, she showed us a brief film about the company. We then passed through a round vault-like door into a huge room with another scale model. This one, also built in large part as a construction and future planning tool, is over 40 feet square and cost $8 million. The plant itself cost over $2 billion. Obviously, it was considerably more elaborate and detailed than Antelope Valley’s! Spaced strategically around the model wereflat screen TV’s that supplemented Michele’s presentation. The wall was also lined with pictures, charts and even games one could play, such as matching up the company products with their eventual use.

Stage one of the process is the preparation of the input materials: water, coal and oxygen. In this case, coal or other fuel is burned to make superheated steam. But coal itself is the primary ingredient. Larger pieces of lignite are broken down, pulverized and ground into a fine powder. Combined in the 14 “gasifiers” with steam and oxygen, the talc-like coal is molecularly modified, and the output is passed through additional steps to create multiple products. At the same time, the residue of the process is not only scrubbed to emit the purest vapor from its stack, it also produces additional saleable products. The only waste is fly ash, disposed of similarly to Antelope Valley. All I could think of was hog processing, where the claim is that “everything is used but the squeal.”

A breakdown of the output:

Primary: 160 million cubic feet/day of synthetic natural gas, sent 35 miles down a pipeline to a national distribution network where it’s used to supplement regular national gas supplies.

Byproducts: Up to 1000 tons of anhydrous ammonia and 250 tons of ammonium sulfate per day for fertilizer. As much as 33 million pounds/year of cresylic acid for chemical production. Same quantity of phenol for the resin industry. About 3.5 million liters/year of krypton-xenon for light bulbs. Tons of liquid nitrogen for food processing. Naphtha at the rate of 23,000 gallons per day for gasoline enhancement.

In addition, Great Plains sends carbon dioxide through a pipeline 200 miles north to a Saskatchewan oil field, where it increases their oil recovery almost twofold.

Don’t you wish you paid more attention in chemistry class?

Speaking of Chemistry Class — School’s In

We’re now in the third week of August, and school is set to begin everywhere. So Professor Don is going to give you a lesson.

Is it buffalo or bison? We’ve gotten four answers from authorities: 1.It’s really bison; buffalo is the water buffalo found in Asia. 2. It’s really bison but since buffalo has been used for so long, that’s fine with me. 3.The only difference between buffalo and bison is the spelling. 4. There are no buffalo in the United States. Our early plains roamer was the bison.

So we’re taking bison as gospel. In fact, we’re trying to learn to pronounce it the way the locals do: “bizon.

The Garrison Dam

Let’s get the statistics out of the way. The Garrison Dam is the fifth largest earth dam in the U.S. and it created the third largest man-made lake, over 175 miles long and containing more water than any but the Great Lakes. Completed in 1954, the dam is 2.5 miles long and 210 feet high. The power plant outputs enough electricity to supply a city of 350,000 (Omaha, for example).

Now for the subjective. The Missouri River is dammed in five places with no locks, and this is the northernmost. This means that there is no commerce opportunity north of the SD/NE/IA merger near Sioux City. People in this neck of the woods are glad to have a stretch of about 150 miles where the River is still flowing for personal use. The lake, too, is a recreational dream.

The dam was installed for two purposes. First, it became a source of cheap power. Second, it became a reservoir to supply the demands of a growing interest in the mining of lignite coal in the area.

The lake is named for the area’s most illustrious citizen: Lake Sakakawea. Be sure to pronounce it correctly!

We crossed the dam and went down to its spillway, where fishing is so encouraged that rod holders are welded into the docks. There’s a boat ramp and a campground nearby.

The Knife River Historical Site

This site near Stanton, ND, about 13 miles ENE of our campground, is adjacent to the confluence of the Knife and the Missouri Rivers. It is here that both the Mandan and Hidatsa had established villages when L&C arrived in the fall of 1805. Between the two tribes, they were over 3500 strong. The earth mounds were well-built and well maintained. It was to this location that Sakakawea was brought after her kidnapping from her home in Idaho by the Hidatsa.

The Mandan and Hidatsa learned a great deal from each other and the two cultures essentially became one. In 1837, a second smallpox epidemic, far worse than 1872, decimated the populations of many nations. The Mandan-Hidatsa union moved farther north along the river, creating Like-A-Fishhook Village and incorporating the Arikara people for mutual defense. Moved to a reservation in 1885 at Fort Berthold, they exist there today as the Three Affiliated Tribes.

The site is maintained by the National Park Service. Inside was a small interpretive center. Beyond it was a path to a meticulously reproduced earth mound. Beyond that was the remains of a village; the depressions were clearly evident. Still further was the riverside Hidatsa village where Sakakawea lived. The building itself was exquisite; a thunderbird was molded into the roof structure. You can see a lot of this in the pictures below.

The Lewis and Clark Interpretive Site

The town of Washburn has the mantel of official sanctuary of the first winter of the Expedition. Standing tall in front of the Interpretive Center is a double-life-size statue of Lewis, Clark and Mandan Chief Sheheke, created by local artist Tom Neary of “cor-ten” (rusting) steel with stainless steel accents. Neary’s work is found in public, private and corporate collections throughout the world.

The Center presents multiple panels depicting many of the Corps’s experiences, both vertically and horizontally. That is to say, one would find a study of a phase of the trip, followed by a study of the intense schooling Lewis got in many subjects, such as medicine, prior to their departure. Wall panels with picture dominate; artifacts are few. But the Center also takes the journey all the way out to the Pacific and all the way back to St. Louis. It also presents, in text, pictures and artifacts, the post experiences of L&C and the balance of the Corps, including Lewis’s apparent suicide in disgrace. In a separate wing, the aftermath of the journey is also portrayed. Considerable attention is given to the construction of forts and trade routes throughout the area in the first half of the nineteenth century, and of the journey of Prince Maximilian and artist Karl Bodmer from Germany through the western expansion in the 1830’s. It’s a major but separate story in itself.

Chief Sheheke, aka White Coyote, traveled with the Captains to Washington and was feted by President Jefferson at Monticello. When it came time for him to return, Sioux tribes attacked and forced his retreat back east. After several failed attempts, Lewis, now Governor of the Louisiana Territory, assembled a large, well-armed expedition to bring him home. Arguments over financing the effort, exacerbated by the fact that the White House was now occupied by the impecunious Madison, cause great distress to Lewis. On a trip to Washington to defend himself, he was found mortally wounded in his room, a victim of his own hand.

We explained in the Bismarck section that Toussaint Charbonneau, a French trader living with the Hidatsa, took two Shoshone, both kidnap victims, as his wives. When he petitioned with Lewis and Clark to travel with them as an interpreter, he brought both wives to Fort Mandan. But when the Corps left in the Spring of 1805, only Sakakawea accompanied them. By this time, she had given birth to little Jean Baptiste, dubbed “Pomp” by Captain Clark. She carried the baby through thick and thin throughout the whole voyage.

Here’s a bit more of the story. Despite all her accomplishments (even when de-magnified), Sakakawea received no pay for her participation. Six years after their return, Clark adopted Pomp when his parents headed off to more adventure. Sakakawea died a year later. Pomp was eventually well educated in Europe, traveled widely throughout our fledging nation, and lived to be at least age 60. Nothing definitive is known about his sister, Lizette; Clark may have adopted her along with Jean Baptiste, but it is universally believed that she didn’t survive childhood. Obviously, there’s much more to tell about all four, but this a travelogue, not a history book.

Now for the Fort Mandan replica itself. It is thought to have been located about ten miles from the replica’s location, a site now under the Missouri. One first went through a visitor’s building and was treated to an introductory video. After witnessing a few exhibits, one walked several hundred feet to the Fort. It is a triangle of moderate dimensions and housed approximately fifty people. Every room had fireplace access and fulfilled all purposes, including meals. Down the left side were four identical rooms, the first two housing sergeants in bunk beds and the next two housing enlistees in sleeping lofts. Across the truncated point were two storerooms, one for food and the other for munitions and other gear. The rear room on the right side belonged to the two captains, followed by a room for all civilian translators (i.e., Charbonneau, Sakakawea et al), one for the guard on duty, and one a vital blacksmith shop. The front (third) wall was a palisade. We had an informative chat with the docent on duty; he asked us for our website so he could read about all the other L&C places to which we had or would be traveling.

Adjacent to the Fort is Seaman’s Overlook with a sumptuous view of the River. Tom Neary’s equally larger than life sculpture of Seaman, Captain Lewis’s Newfie, proudly sits in its center. Signs define Seaman’s history and the history of the Newfoundland breed.

We had hoped for one last venue, Fort Berthold, the current reservation of the Three Affiliated Tribes: Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara. Time and distance got in the way. Instead, we decided to head back to Beulah to the Mercer County Museum. After mixed reactions to other county museums we’ve visited, we were keeping our expectations in check. No need; this is an exceptional experience.

Mercer County has a total population of just over 8,000; Beulah and Hazen are home to 70% of its citizens. With 1,000 square miles of land, population density is a bit less than, say, NYC. Of course, there’s considerably more land under cultivation.

Upon walking in, we discovered that there were about thirty other people present. In fact, there was only one moving and breathing — the volunteer caretaking the place that day. The others were all mannequins, and therein lies the root of the charm of this “walk through history.” There are three rooms. The first contains a combination of tableaux and collections. The second is all tableaux. And the third combines additional settings with motorized equipment, both farm and highway. Not one piece of it is newer than 1925. Collections included china, porcelain, ashtrays, cameras, sports equipment, letter jackets, and clothing galore. One section is devoted to military uniforms, another to wedding dresses (many black). The malt shop has old freezers and dispensers. The kitchen is out of the rural thirties, as is the bank office, beauty parlor, dentist’s office, schoolroom, and parlor. The minister is marrying a gob to his sweetheart. A theatre projector is eight feet tall. The housewife is doing her laundry in a 75 year old Maytag, with even other versions nearby.

Once again, I’m having trouble winnowing down the visual part of this visit. But pictures are worth many words.

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