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By the Shores of Silver Lake – historical perspective

The Chicago & NorthWestern Railroad. Early in the year 1879 it was announced that the Chicago & Dakota Railway Co., a division of the Chicago & NorthWestern Railway, was planning to lay tracks from Tracy (Lyon County) Minnesota, westward into Dakota Territory. At the time, the Winona and St. Peter Railroad extended west of Walnut Grove seven miles to Tracy, then the line headed northwest to Marshall. Farmers and prospective workers headed to the Tracy area in droves in anticipation of business opportunities there. The 1880 census showed a population of 153 in Walnut Grove and 322 in Tracy. Charles Ingalls was hired by the railroad as timekeeper and paymaster and he left Walnut Grove in June to begin his work. The rest of the family: Caroline (Ma), Mary, Laura, Carrie, and Grace, rode the train west to join him the first week in September (see By the Shores of Silver Lake, Chapter 3, “Riding in the Cars”).

The railroad tracks crossed the Minnesota line into Dakota Territory on October 2, 1879, with tracks progressing at the rate of about one mile per day. The grading crew reached Township 111, Range 56 in Kingsbury County (near Silver Lake) in the late summer of 1879. Both railroad camps and depot stations were established near reliable sources of water, which both men and steam engines needed. The map at right is from an early Chicago & NorthWestern Railway advertisement. It shows townsites west of Tracy (the major station east of Tracy was in Sleepy Eye, located just off the right side of the map). At the time Caroline Ingalls and her daughters took the train west, the tracks were down almost as far west as Lake Benton. Tracy was advertised as having a “splendid turntable” and a stone round house was to be constructed that would house as many as thirty locomotives. Trains could turn around in Tracy, but an engine at the end of the train could also pull the cars in the other direction for the return trip.

The railroad camps the Ingalls family were associated with were grading camps, following the surveyors and ahead of the men laying track. The Big Sioux Railroad Camp (see By the Shores of Silver Lake, Chapter 5, “Railroad Camp”) was located between Brookings and Volga, east of the Big Sioux (or Dakota) River. The tracks reached Brookings in October (while De Smet was still being graded) and the tracks had been laid through Volga before work crews stopped for the winter. Graders stopped work in Kingsbury County in the first week of December.

While Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote that her aunt Docia Forbes traveled to Walnut Grove alone in a buggy, it is interesting to speculate as to the whereabouts of the rest of her family at the time. Laura’s cousins Lena and Gene (biological children of Docia and her first husband, August Waldvogel) were mentioned in By the Shores of Silver Lake, but Wilder neglected to mention the two other children of Docia and her second husband Hiram Forbes: Ida (born 1875) and Abby (born 1877). Docia gave birth to daughter Emmy in November 1879, so she was also pregnant when she came through Walnut Grove and while the families were living near each other at the railroad camps.

The Surveyors’ House and the Village of De Smet. The Ingalls family remained in Kingsbury County after the rest of the workers had left for the winter of 1879-1880, occupying the Surveyors’ House on the north shore of Silver Lake (see By the Shores of Silver Lake, Chapter 14, “The Surveyors’ House”). An 1882 plat map shows one house located north of the lake – on Robert Boring’s homestead. Boring first filed on his claim in August 1879 as a soldier’s additional homestead (when the railroad camp was still located there), but he had given the railroad the rights to act on his behalf in land matters, and it’s possible that the railroad did his claim filing as well. His claim was purchased by the railroad about the time the Ingallses arrived at Silver Lake camp.

Frederick Dow’s tree claim (first filed in October 1879) was the quarter section to the north of both Boring’s homestead and Silver Lake; Dow’s father filed on the adjoining quarter section to the east as a tree claim, but relinquished it to his son in 1881. According to Dow, he lived in a sod shanty. While some published research has placed the Surveyors’ House in a location near Silver Lake that would imply it stood in the vicinity of Boring’s house, it was located on the southeast corner of Fred Dow’s tree claim south of the railroad tracks. In the 1930s, Dow wrote that he had been asked to sell or trade his land for use as the town site of De Smet. He refused, and De Smet was platted a half-mile to the west.

Prior to settling on the homestead, the Ingalls family moved from the Surveyors’ House into a building on the southeast corner of Block 2 in town. This first building was soon vacated (it stood on the site of Edward Couse’s hardware store), but Caroline Ingalls purchased a lot on the northeast corner of Block 4 and Pa built a second building there. The family lived in this building for four winters before spending their first winter on the homestead in 1884-1885. The second town building is shown in the photograph at left.

The Ingalls Homestead. Charles Ingalls first filed on his homestead on February 27, 1880. According to his homestead proof, he built a house on the homestead in May; it measured 14×20 feet. Laura Ingalls Wilder called it a “half house” because the roof slanted all in one direction. Pa describes the building site in By the Shores of Silver Lake (Chapter 17, “Wolves on Silver Lake”): “It is just right in every way. It lies south of where the lake joins Big Slough, and the slough curves around to the west of it. There’s a rise in the prairie to the south of the slough, that will make a nice place to build. A little hill just west of it crowds the slough back on that side.”

In her Pioneer Girl manuscript, Wilder described the location of the house on the northwest corner of the homestead in even more detail: “The stable was west of the home, dug into the side of a little rise in the prairie… The stable was roofed with the long slough hay and banked around with hay in cold weather… The rise of ground behind the barn was a little sand hill where the grass grew sparsely because the soil was so thin. On the northwest corner the grass had not been able to make its way against the strong wind that whittled away at the hill cutting the soil away from the grass roots and shifting the sand. Just beyond the sand hill was the western line of our farm and the county road to town which was just a wagon track across the prairie.”

It is on this sand hill that the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society has its memorial marker. The barn would have backed up to the hill on the eastern slope, and the “rise in the prairie” is still visible where the house stood; there is a replica shanty there today. While the five cottonwoods standing on the memorial corner are said to be “the ones Pa planted for Ma and his girls,” in reality Pa planted many more cottonwoods near the house and on the homestead.

In each one square mile section of land, one quarter section was typically designated as a preemption, one as a tree claim, and two were available as homesteads. By June 1, 1880, most quarter sections available for homesteading near the townsite of De Smet had been filed on, yet two miles south of the townsite in Township 110 – Range 56 (where Charles Ingalls’ homestead was located), few claims had been filed. However, almost all land available as tree claims had been taken, most likely because such lands had no residency requirement.

Chapter posts from my pioneergirl Facebook group, January-February 2020:
* Nancy Cleaveland.

For more information:
* John E. Miller. Looking for History on Highway 14. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1993.
*— Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Town: Where History & Literature Meet. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1994.


By the Shores of Silver Lake, historical perspective