The Why and How of Cathay, North Dakota

The Why and How of Cathay, North Dakota

Near the center of the state, in Wells County, about fifteen miles northwest of Carrington, Cathay stands as a great example of a shrinking North Dakota railroad community in the heart of farming country. It was founded in 1892 and the first post office went up the following year, to serve the Soo Line railroad. At one time, there were 255 residents here, but in the 2000 Census, the number was 56. Ten years later, the 2010 tally was 43.

Some might argue it was after the closing of the school when things started to look a little bleak in Cathay. Some might say, “No, it was the post office,” and still others would insist there was some other tipping point, but in reality the railroad was responsible for the fate of many small towns like this, and as went the railroad, so went the town.

Cathay, North Dakota

Regardless of the why, we’re always interested in the how. How does it look now? How many people are there? How do we get there? So we visited in July of 2017 and found an interesting photographic landscape for those interested in the empty and abandoned.

Cathay, North Dakota

The James River Gun Club and the abandoned Post Office stand next to each other on 3rd Avenue, just across the street from Cathay’s City Hall.

Cathay, North Dakota

When we first decided to visit Cathay, it was because we wanted to see this former public school in person.

Cathay, North Dakota

The former main entrance of Cathay’s public school is particularly beautiful in design and construction, and the juxtaposition of the architectural elegance with the unkempt overgrowth suggests a school in some dystopian vision of the future.



Cathay, North Dakota

Above and below: one of two vacant churches we saw in Cathay. This one looks like it might have been converted into a dwelling at some point in the recent past.

Cathay, North Dakota

Cathay, North Dakota

Above and below: The second of two vacant churches we saw in Cathay, with the bell tower removed some time ago.

Cathay, North Dakota

Cathay, North Dakota

We visited Cathay on a trip which also took us to Chaseley, just a short drive away, and we’ve also photographed a few other places in the area over the years, like Hamberg, and Bremen.

Cathay, North Dakota

Photos by Troy Larson and Terry Hinnenkamp, copyright © 2017 Sonic Tremor Media

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Troy Larson is an author, photographer, gentleman adventurer (debatable) from Fargo, North Dakota, and co-founder of Ghosts of North Dakota.

21 thoughts on “The Why and How of Cathay, North Dakota

  1. I went to school there until it closed. I was in the second grade. I was baptized and attended church in the Methodist Church (the one without a bell tower) and I attended Sunday School and Bible School in the Baptist Church (the one with the steeple). Both sets if my grandparents attended church in the Methodist Church and my parents were married there. Both my parents graduated from Cathay school.
    There used to be a grocery store/cafe up the street from the post office. When it closed the local coffee meeting place became th wed elevator until it burned.
    So many memories.

    1. I use to drive through Cathay quite often and I remember the little building downtown, but I don’t think I ever noticed the school!
      I know a current resident of Cathay who is particular about things like keeping the grass mowed and the weeds down. If it’s your town, no matter how small, you can do your share to keep it up, I guess.
      I should ask him about the future of the school…

  2. Sweet! I haven’t been to Cathay in over a decade, but when I saw this title, the first thing I thought of were the windows above the school entrance. Those diamond-shaped panes struck me because of my East-coast origins. Diamond shaped panes always meant wealth.

    I’m thrilled to see that they’re still there. When I looked back at my old (film) photos, I’m shocked that I never captured those windows. So, thank you for capturing them!

  3. What a beautiful town and there must have been such pride in it’s day.
    I am from the east coast and that is the first thing I thought of when I saw the school. I wonder what it is like inside?
    And I see they still fly the flag at city hall. And the lawns are all cut!!
    I find myself always wanting more information….
    Tami & Jason thank you for sharing your memories.

  4. My Grandma loved across from from the Baptist church and was the school cook for many years. I have one of the pots she used and use it myself still. Had many cousin’s in the area and would spend summers with my Grandma Laura Martin. She would give me money to go to Elsie’s grocery store and buy is an ice cream sandwich. My cousin Lori and I rode horse all thru town and would go to Elsie’s for a Strawberry Sunrise pop. We lived in Cathay for awhile as my Mother bought a house there at an auction.

      1. I remember your gramma as she dished up our lunch everyday at school! I would help wash dishes – those gals had some fun and what a great experience it was to hang out with them after lunch.

  5. I remember the basketball games played in the school, I was a cheer leader. Wonderful times with visions of the future, how quickly they are tarnished. We grew up in a care free time, how things have changed.

  6. In the 60’s we used to go rollerskating in the gym at Cathay. Any one else remember those good times? We came from New Rockford to skate at Cathay. We had skating in NR on Saturday night and Sunday night in Cathay.

    1. I roller skated every Sunday night ( in a dress) as we had church at the Methodist church before skating. Went to Cathay school all 12 years and graduated in 1968. Love the memories but don’t miss the small town atmosphere.

  7. Beautiful photography again, guys! I have never been to Cathay, but will certainly keep it on my “check-out” list as I travel around the State. I look at that beautiful old school and am so saddened…..to think about all the past activities there, pride in the sports teams and all the good memories and relationships that came out of there. The great quality of education that all received. And now….nothing. Empty. Quiet. The building looks like it is in quite good shape yet and would, in a sense, be a piece of pride in the community. It doesn’t look like it would take a great deal of effort to clean up the overgrown vegetation around it….an idea before it gets totally out of hand. Maybe a ‘one day’ community project? Possibility a Cub or Boy Scout project? Possibly the same goal could be made for one or both of the churches. These buildings just look in too nice a shape yet to just ‘let them go’. I look at some of the other communities that are on this wonderful site and find that periodically that is exactly what is being done. Let’s hope for the best for Cathay!

  8. The school looks virtually identical to the elementary school that I attended before dad moved the family to the suburbs north of Boston in the mid 1970s. The schools that I attended afterwards were housed in far more modern buildings.

  9. i did a 4H presentation at the gym at the Cathay school when i was in the 4th or 5th grade close to 50 years ago…it was about a recent trip to the West Coast. i made posters and was so nervous, that i forgot to show them! that is one of my Cathay memories! My parents knew an older couple that were card playing buddies of theirs, Rose and Luke Bichler…as i recall, they lived just off the highway.

  10. I always wondered why our mailing address was Cathay and not Bremen which we lived closer to. Any ideas??

  11. Wonderful pictures that sure bring back memories. I grew up on a farm just north of the town and did 12 years in that beautiful old school building. We were back last summer and took pictures, too….and were saddened to see how much all the important town buildings had deteriorated over the years. We also went to the Baptist Church (the first one in the photos) and I can remember my older brothers jumping over that spruce tree when it was about 4 feet tall. And yes, I remember skating in the school gym (lots of dust), getting ice cream sandwiches @ Hanson’s (and Broschat’s) grocery, and depositing allowances in the bank (the building labeled now as City Hall). A lot of good people went to that school and spread out all over the state and the country.
    And as ‘ghostly’ as it may appear now, it’s always fun to go back and dredge up the memories.

  12. Should have said that it was the building now marked as the Post Office is where the bank used to be, not the current City Hall. MDR

  13. My grandfather John Berndt who immigrated from Odessa Russia in 1893 was one of the founders of the German Baptist church in Cathay. Jon served in the Russian army a short time in the 1880’s. The church was dedicated October 19, 1913 and closed June 4, 1995.
    My dad Alvin Berndt was born and grew up in Cathay. Carl Berndt his brother ran the blacksmith shop and lived there all his life, he was the father to my cousins Clinton, Arlene, and Arnold Berndt.

  14. My grandparents lived in Cathay, and I spent alot of time in this little town. My grandparents are Woodrow and Germaine Tesch. My parents are Jerome Sondag and Karla Tesch . I remember the grocery store when I was little. Great memories.

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