Interview with Joe Piersen, RR Archivist

Locomotive built in 1874, used by permission courtesy of Joe Piersen

Locomotive built in 1874, used by permission courtesy of Joe Piersen

“There was no railroad there now, but someday the long steel tracks would lie level on the fills and through the cuts, and trains would come roaring, steaming and smoking with speed.  The tracks and the trains were not there now, but Laura could see them almost as if they were there.”  By the Shores of Silver Lake

I am so excited to share today’s post with everyone.   This week I’ve had the good fortune of corresponding with Joe Piersen–author, railroad enthusiast and Archive Chairman for the Chicago and Northwestern Historical Society.  Since the railroad plays such a prominent part in “By the Shores of Silver Lake,” I couldn’t wait to pick Joe’s brain about the making of the railroads, and he was kind enough to send me photographs.  He is a retired school teacher who loves to watch and photograph trains. Many of his photographs have been published, and he’s authored many railroad-related books…some inexpensive reproduction books with data, and some full-color, hard-bound histories.

Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule for this interview, Joe!


Marie:   Which railroad would have been building in DeSmet  at the time of the Ingalls’ family?

Joe: The Dakota Central RR (a predecessor to the C&NW take-over) built through that area 1879 – 1880.

M:  What was the housing for the men in the camps like?

Joe:  In general the men who worked on the building of the track were on the move and lived in box cars that had been converted with bunks, plus one with a kitchen.   The ones who worked closer to home belonged to a Section Gang and stayed within a few days of the Section Houses. Continue Reading »

Jack, the Brindle Bulldog



Did you have a dog when you were growing up?  I didn’t.  But, if I had, I’d want him to be like Laura’s Jack.

Jack was a protector, a companion and a friend. In “By the Shores of Silver Lake” Laura wrote, “She had always been safe from wolves or Indians because Jack was there.  And how many times he had helped her bring in the cows at night.  How happy they had been playing along Plum Creek and in the pool where the fierce old crab had lived, and when she had to go to school he had always been waiting at the ford for her when came home.”  Yes, Jack the brindle bulldog was a great dog.

But, did you happen to notice in the TV series, Jack was not a bulldog at all?  Not meaning disrespect to the show because I believe it has good qualities, but I guess the producers thought if Pa didn’t have to have whiskers, Jack didn’t have to be bulldog, either!

Consequently, when I read the books, I wasn’t sure exactly what a brindle bulldog looked like, and I thought it was a specific breed.  I’ve learned that bulldog is the breed, and brindle is the coloring.  Each individual hair is made up of different colors, usually brown, tan and black.   According to Bulldogs World, the average lifespan is around 10 years, but some bulldogs have been known to live up to 18 years.  And they are supposed to make great family pets and guard dogs.  No wonder Laura loved Jack.

However, Laura wasn’t 100% truthful when she wrote about her dog.  Laura had Jack going to “The Happy Hunting Grounds” in the second chapter of “By the Shores of Silver Lake.”  In real life, when the Ingalls moved back to Wisconsin from Indian Territory,  Jack was left behind when Pa sold Pet and Patty because, as explained, “he liked to stay with the horses.”

So, it makes me wonder if Jack was a actually a composite character, like Nellie.  Or did Laura simply continue to write about him because her readers loved him.  Or, was he just too great a character to lose early on in the books?

What do you think?

Until next week,


MONTHLY MUSING–The Gift That Keeps Giving


“On that dreadful morning when Mary could not see even sunshine full in her eyes, Pa had said that Laura must see for her.  He had said, “Your two eyes are quick enough, and your tongue, if you will use them for Mary.”  By the Shores of Silver Lake

Mary Amelia Ingalls became blind at the tender age of 14 due to a very high fever and a stroke(s).  To ease Mary’s loss, Pa asked 12-year-old Laura to observe everything around her and relay it to Mary, which Laura did.  By doing so, Laura developed a keen eye for detail and became an expert at description, so much so Mary told Laura she “made pictures” when she talked.  Continue Reading »