He did circles and maneuvers in the air above Fort Pierre and Pierre before landing his famous airplane in a pasture just north of Pierre at exactly 4 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 1, 1927.
Even if an eager crowd had not been anticipating his arrival, they would have recognized the plane and the tall young aviator who got out of it because of the news photographs they had seen everywhere earlier that year. It was Charles Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis.
Lindbergh, the aviator who had conquered the Atlantic Ocean, was visiting Pierre as part of a tour of state capitals. Lindbergh’s famous solo non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean had taken place earlier that year, May 20-21, 1927.
Now, decades after Lindbergh visited Pierre as part of the celebration of his triumph, the Pierre/Fort Pierre Historic Preservation Commission is one-third of the way toward raising the necessary funds to commemorate Lindbergh’s 1927 visit.
Gordon Koch, who chairs the commission, said the South Dakota Pilots Association has donated $1,000 toward the cost of a commemorative sign. The full cost will be an estimated $3,000, Koch said.
The commission’s top project for 2013 is to put a sign in place to mark the site where Lindbergh landed, which is just north of Pierre on a flat area to the east of state Highway 1804.
“Our vision is three or four parking spots and a sign,” Koch said. “We really would like to have this thing set by early summer. The main thing is the financing.”
Koch is optimistic that community groups or individuals will help come up with the rest of the money.
On his visit in Pierre, Lindbergh stayed at the St. Charles Hotel and met with the governor.
Don Zeller, treasurer of the Pierre/Fort Pierre Historic Preservation Commission, said the Pierre community got deeply involved in the effort to welcome Lindbergh. The field had been prepared the day before, a Wednesday, by American Legionnaires under the direction of Godfrey Roberts. Walter Burke, commander of the American Legion, had made sure that the cattle had been moved, the grass cut and rocks moved out of the way.
The day of the arrival, cars were directed to park on 40 acres next to the field. At the landing site, a 200-foot circle had been drawn on the ground with runways leading north and west.
By 3 p.m., a local band was on the site, limbering up their instruments to welcome the famous flyer. Gov. William Bulow was there, Mayor John E. Hipple, President Claude Coon of the Commercial Club, President Charles Whitlock of the Kiwanis Club, Commander Walter H. Burke of the American Legion, and other local dignitaries such as Dr. T.F. Riggs and Charles Lee Hyde.
The crowd was estimated at 3,800 people, and Legionnaires recorded 700 cars from 39 South Dakota counties, as well as 18 vehicles from other states.
When the moment arrived, Lindbergh buzzed in and landed with his aircraft facing east, Zeller said.
At 8 p.m. that night, Lindbergh spoke from the steps of the Capitol, mentioning, among other things, how fortunate Pierre was to have a natural landing field, saying it would be important in the future for cities to develop airports. He said his trip was the forerunner of a time when people could leave the Pierre airport and travel to the East Coast or West Coast that same day by air.
Zeller, who has researched Lindbergh’s visit thoroughly for the Pierre/Fort Pierre Historic Preservation Commission, said that was one of the outcomes of Lindbergh’s visit. Ultimately, the city purchased the landing site where Lindbergh had set his plane down and used it as the city’s first airport for both private and commercial aircraft over the next 12 years.
Lindbergh left Pierre at 9:30 a.m. next day, flying over Rapid City and Deadwood before landing in Cheyenne, Wyo.