The Truth About Silver Lake

We really need to have a talk about Silver Lake.

You see, just this week I’ve read comments concerning it on two different blogs of recent visitors to De Smet.Β One states that she is going to visit “Silver Lake (which, sadly, is no longer a lake)” and the other remarks, “Silver Lake is now a slough.”

Interesting. You see, I was in De Smet last week too, and this is what I saw at the “former location” of Silver Lake.

And last summer, I took this video at the same location.

I don’t know about you, but that looks an awful lot like a lake to me.

So why the confusion? Why do people think Silver Lake no longer exists, that it is nothing but a slough?

The story goes back to 1923, when extensive ditching was completed, running the entire length of Silver Lake and connecting to a ditch leading to Lake Henry. According to the De Smet News, August 24, 1923, “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.”

Interestingly enough, early in 1924, it was decided that the drained Silver Lake bed would make an excellent location for a new town dump, and it was used as such for many years.

But at some point in time as the decades passed, the lake refilled with water. It varies from year to year, season to season, its size dependent upon amounts of rainfall, and the current lake is smaller than the Silver Lake of Laura’s day, but there is indeed a lake present. It’s truly a beautiful lake, if you don’t look too closely. (Remember, it was a dump for many years, so you can only imagine what is under all that water… and a careful look along the edge will reveal some of the junk deposited there among the grasses.)

There is a turnoff on Highway 14 between the Ingalls Homestead road and the town of De Smet, with a walking trail through the slough grasses and an interpretive display about the wetlands and the lakes. The westernmost portion of Silver Lake originally lay due east of this display and is therefore the area often photographed by tourists as what used to be Silver Lake.

But the next time you go to De Smet and stop at this display, take a closer look at its map. Clearly marked by a large dot on the map (at the east end of 4th Street) but apparently overlooked by most tourists is the Silver Lake Viewing Area. And it is at this location that the above pictures and video were taken.

So Silver Lake? It is still a lake. It’s surrounded by marsh and wetlands, signs warn of sewage waste, and there is no good public viewing access.

But it is a lake. So please… let’s stop saying it’s not.

Posted in By The Shores of Silver Lake, De Smet -- General Tagged with: ,
22 comments on “The Truth About Silver Lake
  1. Kim says:

    Looks like a lake to me. πŸ™‚ I can almost picture Laura and Carrie skating on the ice, following the moonpath. I wonder how much different it looks today than it did in Laura’s time….aside from the trees. πŸ˜‰ Thank you so much for posting the video here for us to enjoy.

  2. Sandra Hume says:

    What a lovely testament to the truth, Rebecca!

  3. Laura says:

    Thanks to you, Rebecca, for your wonderful directions, I was able to see Silver Lake and imagine…just imagine. πŸ™‚

  4. Wendy says:

    William Anderson’s guide describes Silver Lake as a “pothole lake” that only fills up occasionally, so it sounded like there wasn’t anything there anymore. I wrote that blog post (which was before my trip, not after) because based on all that I’d read I didn’t think I’d get to see it. Thanks for setting the record straight!

    Your pictures look MUCH better than it all sounded when a local told me the directions. “Go through the industrial park behind the 3M plant” didn’t sound promising. I did get a glimpse finally. By then I’d gotten to see Lake Henry, which was really breathtaking and helped me imagine what Silver Lake used to be like.

  5. It is a prairie pothole lake, but last summer was dry enough that Plum Creek was just a trickle and you see how much water there still was in Silver Lake…

    Glad you were able to see it!

    In my early trips to De Smet, when I believed Silver Lake was gone, I could never picture the events of the Silver Lake properly. I couldn’t figure out where the lake was supposed to be, where the slough spread, where the surveyors house had been, nor how it related to the homestead claim. I couldn’t imagine Laura and Carrie following the moonpath, nor could I understand how searching for the wolf enabled Pa to find the homestead.

    As soon as I saw Silver Lake for myself, and could see from there where the homestead was, it all came together perfectly in my head and I could see it all so clearly.

    That’s why I wish everyone going to De Smet knew about Silver Lake.

    • Brauer says:

      We were in DeSmet last July – 2010 and had no problem finding Silver Lake. The lake seemed quite large to me. I am wondering why the railroad built the tracks through the lake??? Silver Lake used to be a heck of alot bigger than what it is now. My burning question is,” where is the actual location of the Surveyers House when it was on the shore of Silver Lake???” I like authenticity and would like to see its original location marked. It helps with the visualization of the book. Does anyone know?
      We did find the house location of the little gray house that burned down on the tree claim. We believe that we have located the actual location of the house on the homestead. This was an amazing adventure that we had experienced. Can’t wait to go back and do more investigation.

      • Eric says:


        I too have always wanted to research authentic locations of the little houses. So you actually found the exact locations of the tree claim house and the claim shanty on the Ingalls homestead? I, and I’m sure other readers, would love to hear about what you found and see any pictures you may have taken!

  6. Becky H says:

    I was in DeSmet two years ago and while touring the Surveyors House the tour guide said Silver Lake had been drained. She said there was sometimes water there in wet years but the lake was essentially gone. So, blame it on the tour guides!

  7. Daryl says:

    Thanks for the info, Rebecca. Wish we had known that before we went! It was a spur of the moment thing after our pageant was over, tho, so we didn’t have time for much sightseeing. I’d like to go back and look around, if I can convince Alicia to!

  8. Sharon says:

    We just returned from a 2-week trip to the Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, Kansas and Missouri Ingalls/Wilder sites. We stopped at the interpretative display you mention, walked along the path among the slough grasses, even walked INTO the slough a little ways, but did not see a lake. πŸ™ We were in De Smet from 7/24-26. How did I miss seeing the part you’ve photographed? Was this from the part where the sidewalk starts on the eastern edge of town?

  9. Sharon, you can’t see it from that display. You can see it by driving to the eastern end of 4th Street.

  10. Sharon says:

    After I posted my comment, I looked it up on Google Maps and found the spot where you took your photos, just south of the RR tracks. I think that location may have been on a map (other than the one at the slough area) but because so many other maps were noted “not drawn to scale,” we may have discounted its location and figured it was there by U.S. 14. UGH! Well, I guess now I’ll just *have* to go back some time when it’s been raining. πŸ™‚ But since we’re in Ohio, it will be a long time till we’re out west again. πŸ™

    I just wish I’d checked your website last weekend when we arrived in De Smet as then I would’ve seen Silver Lake! I visited your website several times prior to my trip, but didn’t get to do much online while traveling.

  11. Come to the conference in Mankato next July and do a side trip to De Smet afterward. πŸ™‚

    It doesn’t have to have been raining. I don’t know if it ever goes dry but it’s been full of water and very lakelike for at least the past decade…

  12. Kathryn says:

    I’m not sure that is Silver Lake, as the original Silver Lake was not right up against the railroad, and fourth street would be just to the north of it, and I don’t see Des Smet anywhere near this photo. This kinda looks like many a drainage pond around the prairies where I live. However, since you didn’t do a 360 pan view of this lake, so it’s hard to really tell. But I don’t think this is really the lake, but rather a drainage pond. Silver lake was much larger and ran longitudinal east to west from the old land maps I’ve seen of it. You have a great website!!!!!

  13. Kathryn says:

    wait a minute…was the town behind you? if so, then I recant πŸ˜€

  14. Rebecca Brammer says:

    For the video and first pic, I was standing ON the eastern end of Fourth Street looking southward toward the Ingalls Homestead. For the railroad picture, I was facing more southeasterly. Town was indeed behind me.

    Tour guides do admit when asked directly that that is the remnant of Silver Lake. As stated in previous comments, it is a prairie pothole lake and the original lake was larger in size, but this lake is definitely at the original location. Also, I mentioned these were taken in a very dry year, when Plum Creek was just a trickle, so in rainier years, the lake is probably much larger than it was in the video above.

  15. Rebecca Brammer says:

    The water on the other side of the railroad tracks was separated somewhat by higher ground in between where the track ran through. I just took that shot because with By the Shores of Silver Lake’s focus on the coming of the railroad, I thought water and railroad tracks side by side made for a poetic shot. πŸ™‚

  16. Melanie Stringer says:

    This is a great discussion!

    I had noticed that the area is quite mutable as wetlands go, but chalked it up to a natural phenomenon such as the prairie pothole lakes as described by Rebecca, Wendy, and Bill. When I first ventured to De Smet, it was October, and the slough was mushy but not exactly lake-like.

    During the next two visits there was indeed plenty of water in the location of the “former” Silver Lake, but it was July, so I assumed the presence of water might be a seasonal condition, much as we have in New England, where every mud season (late March into mid-May) is marked by the proliferation of vernal ponds, which usually only last a few weeks but harbor a plethora of emerging young wildlife. In my neck of the woods, if you want to find spring tadpoles, check out any shaded, muddy area with water more than a foot deep, and, Lo!, there they are.

    SIlver Lake’s re-emergence tells me that once again, Mother Nature always does as she pleases, and if a lake is meant to be there, all the drainage in the world won’t keep that spot of earth entirely dry. And, of course, wind, water, soil erosion, neighboring land development and use will always impact the environment, so after 12 or 13 decades, we must expect that, just as Plum Creek does not follow exactly the same course it once did, Silver Lake could not be exactly as Laura saw it in her youth…even if it had never been drained, nor used as a trash pit, by the town of De Smet!

  17. Tracy Sapp says:

    There is a Plum Creek in DeSmet? Why did Laura never mention that there was a creek in DeSmet?

  18. Sandra Hume says:

    Tracy, they are talking about Plum Creek in Walnut Grove.

  19. Tom says:


  20. William Strathman says:

    Rebecca, I think you found something that a lot of readers of The Little House on the Prairie have been wondering about. I always wondered why know one ever showed or talked about silver Lake since that was where the homestead was near. I hope further research will be done on this and that the town fathers of DeSmet will maybe clean up the lake and that visitors will be able to find the once Silver Lake of “the Little House On The Prairie.You’d make a great tour guide since many who have come to see also Silver Lake have been misguided some what. Again thank you for informing us that Silver lake does still exist.