Pactola Reservoir, my old friend and companion, faces a greedy new gold rush in the precious waters that feed it

Pactola Reservoir — big, beautiful and beloved — is under threat from gold exploration in its watershed. (All photos by Top Dog Publishing)

By EDWARD MARTLEY, Top Dog Publishing

RAPID CITY, S.D. — It was dark as the inside of a cow that Saturday night in the late 1960s when the homemade raft, six of us aboard, putt-putted onto the glassy surface of Pactola Reservoir. We were going fishing, and the darkness of the night held promise of success. We would dangle lanterns over the side, and with no other light to distract them, trout would come our way. That was the theory, and the theory usually proved true.

My dad was with us, using the new spinning outfit I’d given him for his birthday, and like the rest of us, having a blast pulling in trout. The action came in fits and starts; the fish would bite like crazy for a while, stop for a while, and then go at it again. During one of the lulls, my dad leaned his rod against the rail to pour a cup of coffee when something — something big — hit his line and yanked the whole outfit overboard. He tried to make the best of it, but even as hard to read as he was, I knew he felt terrible.

The trip ended without further problems, and Monday all of us were back at work. On Thursday, I was having lunch at Art’s Café and eaves-dropping on a conversation in the booth behind: “Did you hear about Keith Johnson? He was SCUBA diving at Pactola and found a fancy spinning outfit on the bottom.”

Cripes! Keith Johnson (now retired) was a prominent Rapid City veterinarian and I knew him fairly well. I called him, described the rod and reel he’d found, and we determined it was the one my dad lost. I offered a decent sum to buy it back, but Keith said that was too much. We settled on a token amount.

To say my dad was surprised by the rod’s recovery and return was the understatement of the decade. He told the story for years thereafter, as have I.

The mountain village of Silver City is near the rendezvous of Rapid and Castle creeks as they join forces to fill Pactola Reservoir.

Our reservoir is said by many to be named after Pactolus, an ancient river god in what now is modern Turkey. His streams were flecked with gold from the time King Midas washed away the curse of the golden touch in Pactolus’s waters. Today’s name, Pactola, seemed appropriate, considering the gold activity in that area of the Black Hills before the dam was constructed. Now, our best hope is that gold will not be discovered before current strategies to stop exploration and mining have a chance to succeed. Let’s not have Pactolus waking up.


I go back a long time with Pactola. During my high school years, I camped among the machinery in that bowl while the dam was under construction. I watched when the dam was completed and began to fill in 1956 and ‘57.

I learned trout bite in winter, too, and that Jenny Gulch on Pactola was the place.  The first time I ice fished in Jenny Gulch was with Al Scovel of Rapid City. I was driving, busting through heavy snow as we fought our way along the trail to the lake. We were getting stuck constantly; it seemed like we (mostly Al) carried that enormous Buick most of the way. Then, gasping, we hacked holes through a couple of feet of ice with a spud bar. We caught a modest number of fish and that was enough. After the battle to get to the lake, we scarcely had strength to pull them from the holes. A lot more fun to talk about than it was to do.

Over the decades that followed, I haunted Pactola and area around it, especially Deerfield Lake and Reynolds Prairie. Castle Creek is the primary contributor of water to Deerfield. It flows in one end of Deerfield, comes out the other, joins with Rapid Creek near Silver City, and together they fill Pactola.

She does the work while he fishes on Deerfield Reservoir.

Although I have seen Pactola Lake countless times, fished, canoed and taught my children and grandchildren how to kayak there, I never visited the face of the dam (the dry side). Three days ago, I finally did.

It was creepy. That thing is 246 feet high — nearly twice the height of the tallest building in downtown Rapid City. It is 2,236 feet long. You can scare yourself with more statistics in this article in the South Dakota Standard. There is a 200-foot wall of water hanging over my head. If the dam let go, the unleashed torrent would wipe out everything between here and Oblivion. A foolish fear.

More than 200 feet below the top of Pactola Dam is its outlet, the beginning of the portion of Rapid Creek that flows on to provide water for Rapid City, Ellsworth AFB and points east until it joins the Cheyenne River.
This closeup of Pactola’s outlet was taken Sept. 4, 2020, with a flow volume of about 70 cubic feet per second. That is nowhere near the 500 cubic feet per second shown in Bureau of Reclamation photos I have seen, which made the outlet look like a huge fire hose.

If the reservoir gets too full for its outlet to expel into Rapid Creek, there is always the spillway.
Rapid Creek view downstream a few seconds after leaving the reservoir.

Let me tell you what I really worry about. The Black Hills historically is gold country, and there are efforts under way (with gold in the $2,000 per ounce price range) to make it gold country again. Right now, companies are actively drilling test holes, searching for gold in the Rapid Creek watershed. The watershed is a big area that includes both Deerfield and Pactola reservoirs and Rapid Creek and Castle Creek. It also includes 2,000-acre Pe’ Sla, the recently acquired sacred ground of the Lakota.

This sign marks a border of 2,000-arcre Pe’ Sla, the Lakota’s recently acquired sacred area. It lies north of Deerfield Reservoir and is part of the Rapid Creek watershed. Several Native American organizations have joined the effort to stop gold exploration there.

In spite of “new technology” always touted by mining companies, gold extraction can be a nasty business that pollutes and poisons water anywhere near it. Rapid Creek supplies the water for Rapid City and Ellsworth Air Force Base and points on downstream to its rendezvous with the Cheyenne River. If that water is polluted, the cost to the city will be astronomical.

At present, the Black Hills and especially the Rapid Creek watershed provide some of the best and most varied outdoor recreation activities in the nation. Local residents are becoming aware of the gold threat to their way of life and are organizing to fight back. The plan, basically, is to have the area designated as a “recreation withdrawal” by the federal government. That would stop mining in its tracks. This won’t be easy, the Mining Act of 1872 allowing almost any kind of mining anywhere, but Rapid Creek Watershed Action is on the case. It’s a savvy group with powerful backing, but success won’t come easily. For more information and to volunteer, check the group’s website.

It will be nice, a couple of decades from now, if Al and I can carry a Buick to Jenny Gulch with the prospect of catching some trout that aren’t spiced with a hint of cyanide.

Pactola’s face. It’s kind of creepy, standing here and knowing there is a 200-foot wall of water over your head.
One of Pactola’s “children” is Canyon Lake in Rapid City.
Lily enjoys the beauty of Jenny Gulch.
Caroline and mom Sarah began Pactola kayaking many years ago.

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