Monday, August 13, 2012


 Woonsocket, South Dakota, is a small community in the east-central part of the state along SD 34, a highway I recently traveled from Pierre to Pipestone, Minnesota.  I always enjoy getting off the Interstate system and exploring “Blue Highways” (see recent issues of the CSMS Pick & Pack for many other Blue Highways stories).  At any rate, it was a very hot and windy summer afternoon when I arrived in Woonsocket looking to purchase some cold water (in case readers are wondering about the moniker, the city was named for a town in Rhode Island).  When entering the city I first thought that a large fire hydrant had broken as a giant plume of water was thrusting into the air (several tens of feet).  But upon closer examination I saw that the water was coming back down into a quite scenic small city lake.  What in the world—is this a fountain of some sort?  But then as I grabbed the cold water and guzzled it down, the back recesses of my mind begin to function again and something popped up about artesian waters. I remembered from my student time in South Dakota that the central and eastern part of the state had numerous artesian or free flowing wells. The water seemed to originate in the Black Hills and move down slope to the east under confined pressure.  However, over the resulting years, many/most of these wells had lost their head (pressure) and no longer flowed to the surface or at least did not spout into the air.
 During one summer in 1966 I was stationed and working at Chamberlain where I-90 crosses the Missouri River.  As sort of a history nut I remember reading that before the Corps of Engineers dammed the River near Fort Randall (and created Lake Francis Case extending up river past Chamberlain), a number of wells were drilled into the artesian system along the river lowlands.  There is a picture somewhere I don’t remember showing this one fantastic well free-flowing ?4000 GPM and helping to run a small mill of some sort.  I presume, am almost certain, that the water came from the Dakota Formation (Cretaceous).  In fact, many of the smaller communities around Chamberlain use culinary water that is termed “artesian”.  I presume that the community wells are free-flowing” and capped, or perhaps pumped from a shallow depth.  I do know that on more than one occasion I became quite ill with the “SoDak Trots” after consuming “artesian” water!  In addition, Red Lake, about 10 miles east of Chamberlain near the community of Pukwana, has an adjacent free-flowing well producing warm water.  I visited the area several times during the fall and winter months to observe wild fowl visiting these ice-free waters.  Red Lake is some sort of a blow out depression rather than a prairie pothole or kettle.  It retains water during times of sufficient rain/snow and has so at least since 1993. 

But, back to Woonsocket. The headlines of the July 13, 1906, edition of the Woonsocket Times reads: The World’s Greatest Artesian Well Being Destroyed.  The story goes on to state: Woonsocket’s famous artesian well, the greatest in the world, which in its prime flowed 8000 gallons per minute and had a pressure of over 153 pounds to the square inch, must go.

     J.H. Janssen commenced work to plug the well yesterday morning.  There is a leak of about three hundred gallons a minute flowing out of the side of the well and running off to the south.  Where this water come from is a conjecture.  The well at the top consists of three pipes.  The well originally was a six inch and was drilled about eighteen years ago (1888).  It was never properly cased and the six inch casing was never put down to the rock.  This let in mud from below the piping and at times the well would flow and throw out large quantities of mud and sand.  In the early days, it was the custom to turn the well on full tilt whenever there was a crowd of people in town or when some distinguished stranger came to town.  Finally the well stopped up and after trying in vain to get it all right again the city council had it re-cased from top to bottom with a four inch casing which was placed inside the six inch casing of the old well.  As it still leaked an eight inch casing was put down about sixteen feet over both the other casings and the bottom of the new eight inch casing was attached to the outside of the six inch casing.  This makes three casings at the top of the well.  The valves were all attached to the eight inch covering of casing…

  There is quite a sentimental feeling that the well which made Woonsocket famous so far and for so long should not be destroyed but should be preserved if it is possible.  Woonsocket owes much to the well.  It has given us the best system of fire protection that exists in the state.  It has allowed us to grow more trees than there is in any other town in the state, and has saved its cost many times over.  But its period of usefulness is now over and it must go.  When it is destroyed,  Woonsocket’s most famous possession will be destroyed

Sometime after the destruction of the large well, the city drilled a smaller well (1920’s?), down to the Dakota (~700-800 feet), and the result is the beautiful fountain that visitors may see today---a plume spouting the air and forming Lake Prior.

As a final, somewhat off the wall note, a website promoting Woonsocket states:  An interesting fact about Woonsocket is that it missed being the Post Cereal Company headquarters by refusing to give land on which to build the factory to a stranger named Post. Post considered Woonsocket a good site – in “the heart of the grain belt” as he said. When refused, Post took his proposal to Battle Creek, Michigan, where he opened his mutli-billion dollar business.