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Big Sioux River / Sioux River

River that originates in Robert County, South Dakota, and runs southward for over four hundred miles through South Dakota and Iowa before joining the Missouri River at Sioux City, Iowa.

C.P. Ingalls’ family start this week for the Sioux river, where Mr. Ingalls is to work. They do not expect to return before spring. – September 4, 1879, The Redwood Gazette

The Dakota Central branch of the Chicago & Northwestern Railway crossed the Big Sioux River in Section 24 – Township 110N – Range 51W of Volga Township, Brookings County. The railroad surveyors had originally located the railroad through Brookings County in April 1879 as a straight line from where it entered the county in the center of Township 109 in Elkton Township, all the way to the Big Sioux crossing. When constructed, the line veered slightly southward before it reached the Big Sioux, in order to go through the proposed Bandy Town site, which was already being called “Volga” in October 1879 newspapers, prior to the official plat.

On Highway 14 today, you cross the Big Sioux River about a mile and a half east of Volga. There has not been a sign at the river crossing for a number of years, so it’s often missed by Little House tourists. If you look to the south at the crossing, you can see the railroad bridge to the south. The photo is taken from the railroad tracks, looking north to Highway 14. The navigation button photo is looking north from Highway 14 (the railroad bridge was behind me). In By the Shores of Silver Lake, Charles Ingalls stops the wagon to let the horses drink near this spot, as the Big Sioux was “the last water for forty miles,” or at the Jim River.

Laura made note of the Big Sioux’s low water level that September, remarking that the river was no wider than Plum Creek, and was so dried up that the water merely trickled from pool to pool between stretches of dry gravel. When the surveyors had been through five months earlier, they made note that the Big Sioux was 2 feet, 6 inches at the proposed crossing, and that reports were that the last high water was in 1877, when it was over six feet deep. Gravel from the river bed was harvested by the railroad to use beneath railroad ties.

In Pioneer Girl and the Little House books, Laura refers to the river as both the “Sioux” and the “Big Sioux,” which wasn’t a mistake, as both names were commonly used. Lewis and Clark’s 1814 map shows the “Jacques” (James) River and the “Sioux” River (not the Big Sioux), and late nineteenth century newspapers frequently used both “Sioux” and “Big Sioux” in news stories. Laura uses both in By the Shores of Silver Lake as well.

Named after the Sioux (Lakota) Indians, the river was called Chakasandata by the Sioux, according to the Brookings County Press of December 12, 1879. The name meant “thickly wooded,” as the river was formerly timbered along its banks, but most trees had already been cleared off in Brookings County. The river bed is up to five miles wide in places, but the water was quite shallow, except during spring thaw, with the April 1880 Press reporting that the river was on a rampage, and fording the river – as there was no bridge for teams or wagons – was impossible. In April 1881, after the Hard Winter, conditions were much worse:

Great Dampness. The water now covering a large part of this country is conceded by all to be the greatest amount ever gathered together on the bottom of the Big Sioux and its tributaries.

On Wednesday the report came into town that the railroad between here and Volga was all washed away, and the citizens were asked to go out and assist in saving all that could be saved of the track. At that time the “water” was washing over the track in many places, but no serious damage was done that day, although it was fast growing worse. The trouble at that time was that the culverts were not of sufficient size and number to let the water off, and at the same time the Sioux Valley branch of the Northwestern R. R., which is graded along the river bank for many miles, and which is entirely without culverts, held all the water from going into the river in that direction, and consequently dammed it up and forced it over the main track which runs east and west. Holes were cut through both these grades in order to let off the water and at night it was lowering fast and all thought serious damage had been averted. On Thursday, however, the trouble commenced again more serious than ever. The river took such a rise that where the holes had been cut in the grade to let the water out into the river, the water from the river ran back over them, of course overflowing the whole bottom and washing off the main line of the track worse than ever. Last night the appearance of the road from the second mile post out of Brookings to the river and beyond was a terrible proof that water, although a good servant is a hard master. For about two and one-half miles the track is more or less washed. In many places, for several rods at a stretch, the dump is entirely gone and the rails and ties hang suspended in the air. Nearly the whole distance the water pours over the bank as if it were a naturally formed cataract, while the roar of it can be heard at the distance of a mile. The water is pouring over the Sioux river bridge and the railroad men entertain very little hopes of saving it. The river is now in many places five and six miles wide, while lakes, over which the eye cannot reach, are of common occurrence on the low lands. Between Brookings and Aurora the wash-out is also severe but is not as bad today (Thursday) afternoon, as those west. However from within two miles of Brookings to within one mile of Aurora the water on the north side of the track is an unbroken expanse as far as the eye can reach, forming as pretty a lake as is often seen, while in some places the south side is also covered, and the track sticks up like an island in the ocean. In the neighborhood of two miles of the track is more or less damaged. In several places the water has swept away all the embankment and the rails and ties alone remain. On the other side of Aurora a severe washout is reported, but we are unable to learn anything definite about it.

Of course all this flood cannot have taken place without doing much damage to the farmers who reside on the low lands. We have not heard so far of any suffering or loss of life occasioned by it, although the loss of some stock is reported. Most of the farmers have been obliged to move to higher ground, some of them staying so long that they were obliged to go in boats. It is evident that the damage will be nothing compared to that done in the Missouri valley. Fears are entertained for the towns which stand on the banks of the river, but it is hoped that no serious trouble will overtake them. — Brookings County Press, April 21, 1881.

The postcard view is from the early 19th century, and shows the Big Sioux River railroad bridge during a flood.

The Big Sioux River is a tributary of the Missouri River that originates just north of Summit in Roberts County, South Dakota, and runs generally southward for over 400 miles in South Dakota and Iowa. It forms part of the boundary between the two states before joining the Missouri River at Sioux City, Iowa. Sadly, it’s now one of the most polluted rivers in the United States, due to run-off from cattle feedlots.


Big Sioux Railroad Camp. There are at least two locations mentioned in historical documents for a railroad camp near the crossing west of Volga. In April 1879, the railroad surveyors camped on the farm of Halvor Egberg on 30-110N-50W; in June, much of the camp had been moved to Section 18, but the surveyors were typically away. At that time, it hadn’t yet been determined if the western line would go through Brookings County or Codington County, and crews were surveying both areas to determine the best route to the James River. This report by George Hopp in the Brookings County Press describes the camp of one of groups of surveyors on the SW 18-110-50, and it is probable that all construction crews took advantage of the site near a source of water.

News from any one in authority in the Chicago & Northwestern Company is always in demand. This week early we made a trip to the Big Sioux. On the south-west quarter of section 18, township 110, range 50, are the present headquarters of the surveying party… In a beautiful little grove near the banks of the silvery Sioux are pitched a half dozen tents. It is a cosy camp and occupied by a jolly company of men. Shortly after our arrival in camp, [the head surveyor] rode in, to the surprise of all, as he had started but a few days before for the Jim River. He had passed the center of Kingsbury county when he failed to find water and the partched [sic] tongue and throat admonished him that a retreat would be the better part to act at that critical moment. He related one amusing incident of how he forced water from a well with his Winchester rifle. His team and himself nearly suffocated for water, he was even refused a bucket full. His rifle acted well its part in keeping three men at bay, while his traveling companion… proceeded to extract the contents of the well not only to the extent of one bucket, but all that was needed. — Brookings County Press, June 12, 1879.

In By the Shores of Silver Lake, there is no camp beside the Big Sioux when the Ingallses cross in September, because the surveyors were long gone (they were in the vicinity of Fort Pierre), and most of the heavy work crew, which Hiram Forbes was in charge of, had also moved farther west. In Chapter 13, “Breaking Camp,” which takes place early in December, Pa mentions “the camp on the Sioux” in reference to Hiram having been cheated there. According to the Marshfield (Minnesota) Tribune, Hiram had at least 180 teams and almost 500 men under his command, and his crew moved thirteen thousand cubic yards of dirt per mile. The grading was complete in late August, and Forbes followed his men west to begin another heavy grading contract west of the Sioux River during the second week in September, which agrees with the Little House story.

When the Ingallses leave the camp, they drive to the river, but Wilder’s text makes it seem as if the river was farther than the (maximum) half mile from the camp on SW 18 (marked with an X on the map): As they travel towards the river, Laura sees men working in the fields “here and there,” and “now and then” a team and wagon passes them. “Soon” the road curved downward through rolling land, and Pa says the river was “ahead” before Laura sees it and begins to describe it to Mary.

The railroad camp quarter section was preempted by Aadne Kjittilsen in November 1879. Going west on Highway 14, the railroad camp location is north of Highway 14 and east of 466th Avenue just before you get to the Big Sioux River; look for a red barn. The site is private property; please do not trespass.


Big Sioux River / Sioux River (SSL 7, 13, 15; PG)
     railroad camp (SSL 13; PG)