Forty-five acre prairie pothole lake near De Smet, in Kingsbury County, South Dakota.
Silver Lake affords excellent recreation and anyone who can muster a pair of skates takes advantage of the fine moonlit evenings to indulge in the exhilarating sport, regardless of zero weather. – November 17, 1883, De Smet Leader
Silver Lake was formed by retreating glaciers thousands of years ago, a glacial kettle formed by gouging, shifting ice masses that settled into the earth. When the ice melted, a prairie pothole was formed, a fairly shallow depression that could fill with water. The water level in a pothole lake is always dependent on rainfall, snow melt, runoff, and other aspects of water availability.
Silver Lake lies between the Big Slough to the southwest and the marshy bog that became known as Penney’s Slough to the east. At the time of the 1873-1874 original survey of the area, the lake covered 45 acres; a portion of the survey is shown at right, with the railroad tracks, Big Slough, and original boundary of De Smet added for reference. Ingalls homestead is a mile to the south of Silver Lake, and Highway 14 crosses the junction of Silver Lake and the Big Slough, the spot where Charles Ingalls crossed when walking to town from the homestead.
When the railroad was being surveyed through Kingsbury County in 1879, it was hoped that the town in that section could be platted near the lake with residential blocks near the shoreline, so the Surveyors’ House was built on the right-of-way just to the north of Silver Lake. That quarter section had already been filed on by Fred Dow as a tree claim, however, and he wasn’t about to give it up. Dow said that when he came to the area and saw the waters of Silver Lake shining in the sun, he decided that was where he wanted to file and that in his 1100 miles of traveling that year he had seen nothing like it. [De Smet News, June 6, 1930.] Even threats by the railroad that they would locate the town miles away didn’t persuade him to give up his land for the townsite, so the four original blocks of De Smet were platted a half mile to the west.
During the Little House years, there was enough rainfall and snow-melt to keep Silver Lake full of water. In the winter, it was a popular spot for ice skating, just as Carrie and Laura had enjoyed sliding there while living in the Surveyors’ House. In the 1880s, there was a campaign to create a city park around the lake, residents believing that the “miniature lake could be made most attractive at very little expense,” according to Jake Hopp in the Kingsbury County News. Hopp even stated that he didn’t want to see the area become a dumping ground, but rather an advertisement for the town and a blessing for future generations. As De Smet grew, the western shoreline was included in the city limits of De Smet.
But then, beginning in 1893, Silver Lake almost dried up. Just as Rose Wilder Lane wrote in her introduction to On the Way Home, “there had been too little rain.” The lake was nothing more than “mud and dry bank” until melting snow overdid it in 1897, and Silver Lake not only filled up, but left the adjoining slough six feet under water and covered the railroad tracks east of town. For the next ten years, Silver Lake was again a popular place to skate in the winter and hunt in season, but many residents looked at Silver Lake not for its beauty, but for the nuisance it was when it overflowed its banks. They also noted the acres and acres of arable land it could become, if only it could be made to stay dry. The lake wasn’t always a lake, but sloughs adjacent to the lake were typically too wet to plow and valueless for crops except for the hay that could be harvested there. In 1910, the decision was made to dig a ditch through the center of the marsh and the Penney farm in Section 36, and to dig all the way to Lake Henry if possible, thus draining the water out of Silver Lake. The initial project seems to have been abandoned after the lake filled up again in 1914. After World War I, however, the Silver Lake drainage project again made the news:
EXTENSIVE DITCHING WILL IMPROVE LAND. Silver Lake to be Drained and Land Reclaimed. Property Owners Unite in Contracting for Several Miles of New Ditch.
Some extensive ditching is being done in this vicinity that will mean the reclaiming of many acres of land adjacent to De Smet.
Anson Wright, A.N. Waters and the county are all interested in the project and there will be several miles of ditch.
The contract for the ditch was let to E.D. Flannagan of Huron and the work is being done by Jorgenson & Elwell. The machine used is a capstan ditcher operated by horse power. The machine is pulled by two heavy cables and is twenty to thirty rods behind the capstan. It moves at a snail’s pace, but behind it is a ditch three feet deep, eight feet wide at the top and sixteen inches at the bottom. Once thru does the business, and the ditch needs no further attention as the sides slope enough to prevent caving. Slow as the machine moves it is possible to cover as high as eighty rods in a day, depending on the condition.
The ditch starts east of the road leading south from De Smet and south of the Geo. A. Smith place. This line runs east to the east end of the grade beyond the creamery. A branch starts a short distance south of the creamery and joins the main line. A new culvert will be put in across the grade and the ditch continued the entire length of Silver Lake and on to connect with a ditch put thru several years ago leading toward Lake Henry. This old ditch is to be cleaned out and made more serviceable.
The ditching will clean up a large tract of land that has been of little use. It will entirely drain Silver Lake, and while it may be a long time before all the land is made tillable, it will turn the wet marsh into hay and pasture land, and the outlay is justified.
Another benefit will be the draining of water from along the grades south and southeast of town and save the expense of continually adding dirt and gravel to them to keep the roads passable. – De Smet News, August 24, 1923
The Commercial Club of De Smet had for years wanted to make De Smet the “cleanest, neatest city in the state,” and about the same time as the ditching, Edward Couse launched a city-wide clean-up campaign. The dump then in use just northwest of De Smet was an eyesore and visible from passing trains, so Silver Lake became the new town dump. The February 24, 1924 De Smet News reported that Silver Lake was an ideal dumping ground, being out of sight from all roads and houses. It was near the outlet of the new sewer disposal pipe, and the old bed of the mostly dry lake could gradually be filled up with refuse. But the dust bowl years filled in many of the ditches and Silver Lake went on as it always had, its water level changing due to rainfall, snow melt, runoff, and other aspects of water availability. It was still in use as a dumping ground well into the 1960s, and Little House tourists were disappointed to discover what had become of the beautiful body of water described in By the Shores of Silver Lake.
Not even being told by Museum tourguides that the lake had been drained and no longer existed could stop visitors from seeking out old maps and hunting for the location of Silver Lake for themselves. It’s still a beautiful place, and the original 45 acres are clearly discernible in online aerial photographs, although much of it is more slough than lake. No matter what the season, it’s easy to see why Laura loved Silver Lake. The easiest way to view Silver Lake today is to drive east on 4th Street, S.E. Once you pass O’Keefe Steet on your left and round the curve and head northward towards the railroad tracks, you’ll see the lake to the east. It may not be a smooth sheet of water all the time, but it’s still beautiful, don’t you think?
Silver Lake (SSL title, 7-8, 10-13, 16-17, 19, 22, 25-29; TLW 6, 14, 18, 31; LTP 7; THGY 13, 19-20, 32; PG)
banks of Silver Lake (TLW 18)
Silver Lake Camp (SSL 7, 9-10)