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Volga, Dakota Territory

Town on the Dakota Central Railroad between Brookings (Brookings County) and Nordland (Kingsbury County), platted in 1879.

[Pa] told Ma that a crowd was going to take the handcar from the depot and go meet the train at Volga. He would take all day for they would clear the track of snow as they went, so they would spend the night at Volga and come back with the train Saturday. – Hard Winter manuscript, Chapter 8, “Pa Goes to Volga”

In The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote that after one of the fall snowstorms filled the railroad cuts and prevented the train from getting as far west as De Smet, Pa and a group of men went to Volga on a railroad handcar, clearing the railroad track as they went. They returned several days later on the train. Wilder doesn’t mention Volga in By the Shores of Silver Lake for the simple reason that when the Ingalls family traveled through that portion of Brookings County on their way from the Big Sioux railroad camp to the Silver Lake railroad camp, the town didn’t exist!

Originally called “Bandy Town” after an early settler, Volga was platted in September 1879. Four men each donated 40 acres for a townsite as incentive for the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad Company to put one there, and they did. It was laid out exactly as the original town of De Smet, with four blocks south of the railroad tracks, each block containing 21 lots. Its north/south main street was named Kasan Avenue. Several stores, a post office, hotel, blacksmith shop, saloon, cobbler’s shop, and residences were built immediately. Edelbert and Frank Harthorn opened a store there, moving on to De Smet the following spring.

The first train arrived in Volga in November 1879, and from then until the following May, Volga was the terminus of the railroad. For that reason, it grew quite rapidly that first winter. Multiple lumber dealers sold their goods directly from railroad cars. Although Wilder wrote in By the Shores of Silver Lake that Brookings was the nearest town while they wintered in the Surveyors’ House, Volga (35 miles from De Smet and 7 from Brookings) was continuously occupied to the bursting point that winter with several hundred settlers and workers keeping three hotels filled to capacity. The first load of wheat was brought to town to ship back east only five days after the first train arrived.

Next time you’re in the area – or traveling between the Little House sites in Walnut Grove and De Smet, it’s a worthwhile side-trip to turn off Highway 14 and see Volga, South Dakota, instead of thinking that all there is is the stuff along the Highway. Time your visit so you can spend some time at the Brookings County Museum on the east side of the Volga City Park; you won’t be disappointed. And stop to see the Volga depot at the Wheels Across the Prairie Museum in Tracy, Minnesota. Although it’s not the first depot built in Volga (that one was built on the same plan as the original depot in De Smet, remember), this 1897 depot would have been a familiar site to early railroad travelers. Photo above is from early 1900s.


Volga, Dakota Territory (TLW 11, 33)