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Pactola Reservoir: South Dakota’s Version of Atlantis

This Instagram-darling of a Black Hills lake doesn’t just hold some of the best swimming or fishing in South Dakota. It also hides a once-prosperous town.  

At first glance, it may look like nothing more than a lake. Well, not just a lake… a beautiful lake located in the Black Hills, partially surrounded by trees and often occupied by various waterfowl looking for a relaxing spot to float and eat. In the 785-acre reservoir about 18 miles west of Rapid City, the shimmering water attracts residents and tourists alike to come to swim, relax on the beach, do some boating or stand-up paddleboarding, or cast into the waters that some anglers swear make up the best fishing spot in the state.

Given the accessibility of equipment rental in the area, a good number of adventurous folk also go scuba diving in the lake. Why Pactola? Because there’s a town at the bottom of the lake.

That’s right. Before the early 1950s, the area was home to Camp Crook. The town began as a camp established in 1875 by fugitive miners hiding from General George R. Crook. They wanted to mine the land, but that was illegal since the Treaty of Fort Laramie clearly stated that the Black Hills belonged to the Lakota people. It only took a month for the criminal miners to be found and removed, but General Crook remained. He used the area as a headquarters to either continue chasing miners away from the Black Hills or to fight Native Americans. (As with much of history, the stories vary.) 

Either way, the area was opened up for claims in violation of the treaty in February 1876 and, boy, did the people come. Claims along the river quickly filled. A blizzard stranded 80 men at Camp Crook the next month, and the leader of the group decided they would stay and try to make their fortune mining for gold. Part of the place’s appeal was that the isolated location made for a great spot to stay out of the law’s eye. Still, there was some system of justice. The miners made their own law and, despite the town’s somewhat-lawless appeal, claim-jumping and horse-stealing were not tolerated.

It wasn’t long before the town was booming. A long flume was constructed, and a store was opened to serve the approximately 300 miners in the area. In 1877, one of the first post offices in the Black Hills was established. The construction of a railroad and hotel soon followed. In a drunken meeting, a lawyer who’d recently moved to town gave a rousing speech on the legend of King Midas—whose touch turned everything to gold—and proposed that the area’s name be changed from Camp Crook to Pactola for the Pactolus river, whose gold sands were believed to be the source of wealth for Croesus. Fueled by inspiration from the story (and probably also several drinks), residents were sold on the presentation, and the area’s name was officially declared to be Pactola.

In later decades, other buildings were constructed, including homes, stores, lodges, church camps, a Civilian Conservation Corps camp, and a facility for tuberculosis patients. But the new buildings couldn’t compete against dwindling mining profits and, as with many towns established around the Gold Rush, Pactola’s population eventually dwindled. By the 1950s, it was decided that a dam would be constructed at the site of Pactola. Buildings were auctioned off and moved while others were simply abandoned. The Pactola Dam was constructed from 1952 to 1956 to control flood conditions and provide water to Rapid City. The town of Pactola became Pactola Reservoir.

Today, the only visible piece of the town is a cabin that remains above water downstream. But underneath, scuba divers report finding remnants of the mining town, including old construction equipment, the railroad bed, a mining operation’s dynamite bunker, and part of a structure from the CCC camp.

Of course, there are also the underwater residents: the turtles, frogs and fish. With an average size of 16 inches (and many coming in longer than 18 inches), the rainbow trout keep anglers coming back to Pactola every year. Pike are also plentiful, meaning your chances of landing a 20+ lb. fish are pretty darn good. Underwater, spearfishing folks go looking for the bigmouth buffalo, a type of fish that can reach up to 80 pounds. In the winter, ice fishermen drill their holes in the lake, hoping to emulate the success of others that have pulled record-breaking fish from Pactola.

“Between the beautiful scenery, a great marina and fantastic fishing, Pactola is my favorite place to fish,” says pro fisherman Craig Oyler.  “With catch-and-release becoming more of the norm than just an idea, my favorite fish—lake trout—are the healthiest they’ve ever been in the lake. The state record is 30 pounds, but I don’t see that standing for much longer.”

What was once a thriving and semi-lawless town is now a popular outdoor South Dakota destination. If you’re looking for a place to enjoy some water recreation, great fishing or just a relaxing piece of beach to sprawl out on with a good book, Pactola Reservoir is your spot. There are plenty of beautiful lakes in the area to choose from, but only one hides a history of lawlessness and prosperity underneath its beautiful waters.

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