Efforts are under way to restore flame to South Dakota's Flaming Fountain, an attraction that began life as a glorified natural-gas flare.
The fountain is just east of the Capitol building in Pierre, on the shore of Capitol Lake between memorials dedicated to South Dakota veterans who served in Korea, Vietnam and World War II.
Visitors who view the fountain are actually looking at the top of an uncapped, 1,300-foot-deep, free-flowing artesian well (the word “artesian” denotes that the well’s underground water source, known as an aquifer, is under positive pressure and therefore needs no pump).
Natural gas that comes up with the water formerly sustained an awe-inspiring flame. But since at least 2008, the “eternal” flame has been flickering out with regularity, possibly due to a declining flow of gas.
After years of debate and chagrin about the flame-less fountain, the Legislature and Gov. Kristi Noem approved a bill this past winter to address the problem. The bill authorizes up to $200,000 in private fundraising for a study into the fountain’s lack of sustained flame, its diminished water flow and the risk of a potential sinkhole around the fountain.
Rep. Tim Rounds, R-Pierre, sponsored the legislation in hopes of restoring the Flaming Fountain’s role as a fiery complement to the war memorials.
“To me it’s hallowed ground,” Rounds said. “People come to Pierre and they want to see the monuments. It’s part of who we are in South Dakota. We honor our veterans.”
But the Flaming Fountain didn’t start out as a tribute to veterans or anyone else.
The well itself was drilled in 1909-1910, while the Capitol was under construction. The drilling was conducted by Norbeck & Nicholson, the Redfield-based firm of Peter Norbeck, who was then a legislator and went on to become a governor and U.S. senator.
The 92-degree water from the well was used to fill man-made Capitol Lake and is still used for that purpose. The natural gas from the well was used to light and heat the Capitol, while excess gas was sold to the city of Pierre.
Eventually, the old lighting and heating systems in the Capitol were replaced by new versions, but a few offices in and around the Capitol kept using natural gas from the artesian well for various purposes.
On May 17, 1958, gas leaking from the old system caused an explosion in a small concrete building near the Capitol, where health officials housed animals for use in lab tests. The building’s roof was lifted by the explosion, and two state employees — one of whom may have lit a cigarette that ignited the blast — were “severely singed,” according to newspaper accounts.
The old gas lines were subsequently capped. But the artesian well continued to spew potentially hazardous natural gas, so the water and gas were diverted underground until rusting valves thwarted that solution.
In the 1960s, Ken Williams, who was the state superintendent of buildings and grounds, came up with a new idea to handle the gas. He simply set it ablaze as it emerged from the well, thereby safely burning off the gas and creating the Flaming Fountain.
“But even this failed to provide an immediate solution,” said a 1967 story published in several South Dakota newspapers. “It was easy to light the fire, but keeping it burning was something else. Water from the well did not flow smoothly. As it surged out in an irregular pattern, it extinguished the flame.”
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Williams and his crew then fashioned a baffle out of scrap iron and installed it in the well to regulate the flow.
“The fire was lit and since that time has never died,” said the 1967 story.
In the 1970s, the state received a donation to build a Vietnam veterans memorial, kicking off a decades-long process of fundraising and memorial-building that produced the modern configuration of memorials around the fountain.
By at least 2008, people began to notice that the Flaming Fountain was no longer flaming. Complaints to state officials produced little to no action until this past winter’s legislation.
Rounds now hopes to organize a fundraiser and raise enough money to put out a request for proposals by this summer to study the declining gas and water flow, plus some apparent sagging around the fountain.
Meanwhile, the state engineer, Stacy Langdeau, a graduate of the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology in Rapid City, asked if anyone at Mines wanted to investigate the non-flaming fountain. Her invitation led a team from Mines to install a methane sensor at the fountain last month (natural gas is composed primarily of methane).
Dan Soeder, director of the Energy Resources Initiative at Mines, said preliminary readings from the sensor indicate an inconsistent flow of natural gas from the well.
“I think it’s just been flowing for so long that the gas is not a continuous phase anymore,” Soeder said.
The sensor was built for lab use and was originally purchased by Soeder’s former employer, the U.S. Department of Energy. The department intended to customize the sensor for use around natural gas wells, to detect gas leaking into the air.
The sensor was not being used, so the department agreed to give it to Soeder for use at Mines. He needed a place to test the device and realized the Flaming Fountain would be ideal.
A laser in the sensor is tuned to a light frequency that is blocked by methane; therefore, the amount of dimming of the laser tells the sensor how much methane is in the air.
Soeder said the gas emitting from the fountain is potentially dangerous.
"The concentrations are generally below the lower flammability limit, which is why the flame is out," Soeder said. "However, this is variable, and if someone attempts to re-light it with their trusty Zippo during a higher flow episode, they could experience a bit more of a flame than they bargained for."
Soeder hopes to conduct more testing at the fountain. His initial ideas to restore the flame include drilling a new, horizontal borehole from the existing well to intercept more natural gas.
For Rounds and the many veterans and other constituents who’ve spoken to him about the fountain, a solution is long overdue.
“They call it the eternal flame,” Rounds said, “and we need to keep it that way.”