Who is not fascinated by ruins? In the days of the gentleman’s grand tour, they were an indispensable part of the itinerary.1 The Neoclassicists and Romantics found artistic inspiration in them to a degree almost obsessive, and among some historians, ruins inflamed a passionate curiosity that brought modern archaeology into being. The search for the secrets of ruins has yielded some of the most awesome historical discoveries of the last two centuries and fired the popular imagination. Think of Carter in Egypt, Schliemann at Troy and Mycenae—or, more recently, Ballard in the depths of the Atlantic.
Recently in the State Archives I came across some photographs of Wheeler, South Dakota, the one-time seat of Charles Mix County. Wheeler has been underwater since the mid-1950s, but when these photographs were taken in 1947, the town was already a ruin. Wheeler illustrates the high stakes of county-seat fights, whose often petulant antics are today a source of amusement to us. They were not necessarily laughing matters to the participants, as the fate of Wheeler shows. It was not Lake Francis Case that killed Wheeler, but Lake Andes. Lake Andes the town, that is—for in 1916, after many years of contention, it wrested the county seat away from Wheeler (the fact that Lake Andes had a railroad connection, while Wheeler did not, was an important factor). Wheeler went into decline, even after a bridge was built across the Missouri just a mile downstream in the mid-1920s. In thirty years the bridge and the town were gone,2 and the name survives only on the road that once led to the bridge and on a lakeshore recreation area near the town site.
It’s an arresting image, a building doomed by time before it was doomed by water. Time, water, and power are fickle things everywhere. Ruins are ruins, and Wheeler is far from the only seat of government to fall into ruin less than seventy years after its founding. Amarna comes to mind.
History, sometimes, is only a question of scale.
1. Maybe those days aren’t quite over; this autumn you can read a modern English gentleman’s story of his unique grand tour through South Dakota. I’ve read the uncorrected galley proof and loved it, and this book promises to be a big event in the writing of South Dakota from a traveler’s perspective.
2. The town was inundated, but the bridge moved upstream.