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Larson at Pactola
Chuck Carlson stands on the observation platform at the visitors center above Pactola Reservoir. The water in front of the center holds memories of past life in Pactola Valley, before it was flooded by the reservoir. (Kevin Woster/Journal staff)

From the visitor's center above Pactola Reservoir, Chuck Carlson can gaze down at the glistening surface and see far into the past.

There in the hazy waters of memory, he picks out mining camps and blue-coated soldiers, horse-drawn wagons and rough-wood Bible camps, a smoke-belching passenger train and what would today be called a health spa.

And, squinting his eyes and waving a hand at a nebulous spot straight west of the observation platform, he can also see the old Moose Camp, as well as the strong-willed woman who ran it.

"Her name was Bernice Musekamp, but she spelled the camp name 'Moose.' She was quite a woman, ran the place with an iron fist," Carlson said. "I had an older gentleman and his wife come in a while back. They talked about honeymooning at the Moose Camp in 1948. I told them, 'That's under about 100 feet of water.'"

There's more than that underwater at Pactola, the 785-acre reservoir formed by a dam on Rapid Creek about 18 miles west of Rapid City. And much of it will surface in story and reminiscence this Saturday during a 50-year anniversary celebration for the construction of Pactola Reservoir.

The Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Forest Service are throwing the public party beginning at 10 a.m. at the visitor center along Highway 385 just off the southern end of the dam.

They also will observe the 100th anniversary of the Bureau of Reclamation and its role in water development in 17 Western states.

The anniversary celebration will offer the typical view of Pactola Reservoir - the one enjoyed Thursday afternoon by Duluth, Minn., visitors Nick Axle and Cory Anderson.

"It's really cool," Anderson said, comparing it favorably with Lake Superior, which "doesn't have all those hills surrounding it."

Along with the view, visitors Saturday morning will see new permanent exhibits on the construction of Pactola Dam and the history of Pactola Valley before it was flooded.

Carlson will be among the featured speakers. A retired history teacher from Madison, Wis., he moved to the Black Hills several years ago and works as a seasonal employee at the visitor center.

"It's a perfect job for me. There's so much history here," he said. "Pactola Valley has a fascinating history. There were resorts and Bible camps, a Civilian Conservation Corps camp, and there was a health camp down there where people with asthma and other illnesses would come and seemed to improve."

"In fact, I talked to a guy who said he came here from Sioux Falls when he was a kid, and he said he felt a lot better. It was probably the drier climate."

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The story of Pactola Valley in many ways represents the story of white settlement of the Black Hills. The name "Pactola" came from the River Pactolus in the ancient Kingdom of Lydia - now part of Turkey. The river itself was noted for the gold found in its sand and the riches it brought to the kings of Lydia.

Dreams of similar riches brought miners to Pactola Valley - named by an early property owner and developer - in 1875. The miners were there in violation of U.S. treaties with area Indian tribes, a fact pointed out by the U.S. Army through a detachment commanded by Gen. George Crook.

Crook told the miners they had to leave, but it was a half-hearted eviction.

"As soon as the Army left, the miners came right back and started looking for gold," Carlson said. "Then the next year, they had the big strike up in Deadwood, and everybody took off that way."

But the valley wasn't deserted. Residents developed two small communities, resort cabins, the Bible camps and the CCC camp. They were reached by treacherous mountain roads, and by a 38-mile-long railroad line - the Crouch Line - from Rapid City to Mystic.

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"It brought passengers and supplies," Carlson said. "We really didn't have a road system in the Black Hills until the 1930s. A lot of the supplies for Pactola Valley were hauled in by train."

The CCC workers often found their way from the camp at the upper end of the valley down to the Moose Camp, and especially its dance hall, to relax from the rigors of their government chores, Larson said.

"That was a lively place," he said.

Like other residents of the valley, Bernice Musekamp was forced to sell out and move to higher ground. She died a few years later, Carlson said.

And little remains of the homes and businesses on the lake bottom. Most were sold off in Bureau of Reclamation auctions that went right down to outhouses.

"There's not much left down there - the railroad bed, road beds and part of a structure from the CCC camp," Carlson said. "They took down or moved everything else."

Everything, of course, but the memories that live beneath the surface.

Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or kevin.woster@rapidcityjournal.com

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