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Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Timothy Reed's blog

Flying High: New UAV Flights at North Dakota State Historic Sites

Among the many things about my job I truly enjoy are the opportunities that arise, for one reason or another, to get out of the office on a beautiful, sunny day! Being able to visit one of the state historic sites that I’ve never been to is an added bonus. Even better if I get to visit TWO sites. And if I also have the opportunity to fly our quadcopter at those sites . . . well then, you’ve just about described a perfect work day for me!

I’ve blogged about flying the Society’s quadcopter (also known as a “drone,” “unmanned aerial vehicle,” or “UAV”) several times before [check out some of my earlier entries about flying a drone at North Dakota’s state historic sites, including Double Ditch Indian Village, Menoken Indian Village, Fort Clark, and Fort Rice, among others.]

To date, I’ve piloted a UAV at 13 prehistoric or historic archaeological sites in North Dakota, including 9 state historic sites managed by the State Historical Society. I hope to fly a great deal more in 2019 and beyond. The technology, opportunities for application, and regulatory environment have all evolved since our earliest flights in 2014. But the reasons for these flights all share the same basic purpose: to document preservation concerns about cultural resources, and to enable interpretation and management of North Dakota’s state historic sites.

Aerial view of Cannonball Stage Stateion State Historic Site

Aerial image of Cannonball Stage Station State Historic Site, Grant County, North Dakota, taken by State Historical Society quadcopter on October 17, 2018. View is to the east. The altitude of the quadcopter was 400 feet and wind speed was 5-7 miles per hour when this image was taken. Surface depressions marking the location of two dugout structures and a barn are visible near the fenced area.

I was fortunate to fly the quadcopter at two sites on a beautiful fall day in October 2018. I’d like to share some images and video from these recent flights over the Cannonball Stage Station and Fort Mandan Overlook State Historic Sites. Cannonball Stage Station and Fort Mandan Overlook are among the lesser visited of the 57 historic sites in our state. Both are in beautiful, remote locations and definitely off the beaten path.

Located near Raleigh, in Grant County, North Dakota, the Cannonball Stage Station was the fifth stop after Bismarck on the Bismarck to Deadwood Stage Trail. For a brief period from 1877 to 1880, a booming stagecoach line linked the westernmost stop of the Northern Pacific Railroad in Bismarck to the gold fields of the Black Hills. Travelers would have the opportunity to have a short rest and a quick meal here while horses were swapped, and the stage was quickly back on its way. This unique period in North Dakota is well- interpreted at the site, picnic facilities are available, and it’s a peaceful spot. Earthen dugouts clearly visible at the site represent the locations of the stage office, another building, and a barn. Check out a video from a recent UAV flight at Cannonball Stage Station State Historic Site.

Aerial view of Fort Mandan Overlook State Historic Site

Aerial image of Fort Mandan Overlook State Historic Site, McLean County, North Dakota, taken by State Historical Society quadcopter on October 16, 2018. View is to the northwest. The altitude of the quadcopter was approximately 100 feet above ground surface, with winds gusting to 30 miles per hour when this image was taken. Two historical markers present at the site are visible in this image, as well as the dramatic bluff edge.

Fort Mandan Overlook State Historic Site is located near Washburn, North Dakota, in McLean County. This site overlooks the former location of Fort Mandan, constructed and occupied during the fall and winter of 1804–1805 by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The fort location has long since been eroded away by the nearby Missouri River, but there are other stories here as well. During archaeological investigations conducted at the site by the State Historical Society in 1991–1992, a fortification ditch dating to the late 1700s–early 1800s and a Plains Village campsite dating to the 14th century were documented. Interpretive signs are present, and the viewshed from this location is stunning. Watch your step, though—the bluff edge is steep. Check out the video from a recent UAV flight at Fort Mandan Overlook State Historic Site.

I was happy to add Cannonball Stage Station and the Fort Mandan Overlook to the list of state historic sites I’ve visited and documented from the air. Someday, I’m going to get to every one of them. In the meantime, I hope you’ll consider a trip sometime soon to these or one of the many other state historic sites in North Dakota. I hope the video links in this blog help to give you just a hint of the historical significance and natural beauty of these locations. The videos were a lot of fun to shoot! Many thanks to the video editor who helped me out on short notice, and to the Bismarck/Mandan local musicians that provided the accompanying music. Enjoy!

Behind-the-Scenes: School Tours of the North Dakota Heritage Center

“My favorite quote from a student this year as she was exiting one of the exhibits was, ‘I love this place.’ Her eyes were wide open and she had a look of pure joy on her face. I bring my students there to be able to have these great experiences.” (Jessica Horst Frohlich, 4th grade teacher at Northridge Elementary)

If you’ve ever visited the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum on a weekday in April or May, chances are good that you have seen a swarm of elementary school students and their teachers enjoying themselves. As late spring weather warms up, and the average 5th grader’s thoughts begin to stray from the classroom, we begin to see huge numbers of students and teachers touring the exhibits, learning about the history of North Dakota, and generally having a great time!

Students standing by mastodon

Fifth grade students from Will-Moore Elementary School in Bismarck are welcomed to the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum by Becky Barnes of the North Dakota Geological Survey and Timothy Reed of the State Historical Society of North Dakota prior to receiving a behind-the-scenes tour of laboratory and collections areas.

Many staff members here love the heightened activity this time of year brings. We enjoy seeing large numbers of young people in the galleries. These students represent the future of North Dakota; full of potential and curiosity, mindful of our shared history, and eager for opportunities to discover and grow. Translation: you’re likely to find a bunch of kids here ready to learn and have some fun!

We host dozens of school group tours during the last month or so of the academic year. Sometimes we’re able to offer a behind-the-scenes tour of our non-public areas to these visiting school groups. Staff availability doesn’t always allow us to invite every group into our non-public spaces, but when it works out, students can gain a unique appreciation of what it can be like to work in a museum as they visit with staff.

Students in Archaeology Lab

Fifth grade students from Will-Moore Elementary School in Bismarck are given a short introduction to the archeology lab and artifact collections storage areas by Archeology & Historic Preservation Division staff Timothy Reed and Meagan Schoenfelder.

We were recently able to offer this experience to a large number of 4th graders from Northridge Elementary School in Bismarck, and also to a group of 5th graders from Will-Moore Elementary of Bismarck. During their visits, these groups visited the archeology laboratory and collections areas that are normally inaccessible to visitors. They were also fortunate to get a tour of the North Dakota Geological Survey’s paleontology laboratory and collections areas.

I’d like to thank Ms. Horst Frohlich of Northridge Elementary, along with Ms. Wetch and Mr. Schultz of Will-Moore Elementary for bringing their students here, and for helping them engage with North Dakota’s past outside the classroom. I’m glad we could accommodate your requests for a behind-the-scenes tour for your students!

Students in Paleontology Lab

Becky Barnes of the North Dakota Geological Survey describes a laboratory procedures used to prepare fossils to the 5th grade students from Will-Moore Elementary School of Bismarck in the Johnsrud Paleontology Laboratory at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum.

From July 2016 through June 2017, we welcomed 220,000+ visitors of all ages through our doors. Looking specifically at school groups, we saw 9,294 students representing 56 communities during that same period.  More recent numbers reveal that 4,000+ students visited in May 2018 alone!

With so many visitors concentrating their visits during the end of the school year in April and May, it’s important to also extend an invitation to students and educators to visit during the rest of the school year. Take advantage of all the Heritage Center & State Museum has to offer all year round! If you’re an educator, please consider scheduling an additional trip to the North Dakota Heritage Center during the fall or winter months. Kids are no less curious when it’s cold, and many discoveries await them in our galleries and labs!

Student pointing to relative's picture on display in gallery

A 5th grade student from Will-Moore Elementary School of Bismarck proudly points to a relative’s image displayed in the Innovation Gallery: Early Peoples at the State Museum.