North Dakota’s longest State Highway is Highway 200, and it stretches over 400 miles from the Red River near Halstad, Minnesota to the Montana border at Fairview. As we’ve been exploring North Dakota’s vanishing places since 2003, it’s a highway we’ve found ourselves on again and again, and we’re due to show appreciation for a road that will take you to so many amazing places. Places where you can get out of the car and enjoy some visions of our past. …
Maybe you’ve noticed, the Ghosts of North Dakota Facebook page is missing. What happened, and when will it be back? Your guess is as good as mine, but if you’re interested in the story of what happened, please read on.
We started our Facebook page in 2009, and it was an immediate hit. People just like you flocked to it, and in the first year we had over 30,000 followers. By 2014, the count was more than 100,000, and just before the page disappeared, the tally of followers was nearly 120,000.
If you’ve followed Ghosts of North Dakota on Facebook for any length of time, you know we frequently liked to use that page to post updates while we drove the back roads of North Dakota in search of another cool place to photograph. You got to follow along. We sometimes encountered problems, however, when we would post a photo of an abandoned place, and for some reason, the post would go on one of our personal Facebook profiles instead of our Ghosts of North Dakota Facebook page. So, I appointed a third admin for our page, my wife, Rebecca. While we were on the road, Rebecca could fix any screw-ups for us, and she could respond to questions and comments, too. It worked great.
This past Monday, however, on the same day as the 2017 solar eclipse, we woke up to a surprise. We (the three admins, myself, Terry, and Rebecca) woke up to emails in our inbox informing us that we had been removed as admins of our own Facebook pages. Rebecca is a British royal history buff, and she discovered that her Facebook pages had been taken over and either deleted or unpublished, and our Ghosts of North Dakota page, too. Somehow, hackers had accessed her account, and using her admin privileges, had removed all of us as admins, and took over our pages.
It has now been three days, and despite more than a dozen messages to Facebook, a message to Mark Zuckerberg, and several hack reports, we have yet to get a single response from Facebook. I suppose it’s understandable since Facebook has two billion users and a woefully inadequate customer support workforce, but it’s frustrating nonetheless. As of now, we do not have a Facebook page, and our 119,000-plus followers are gone.
When will we get it back? Will we get it back at all? I wish I could say, but there’s been no response from Facebook, so I don’t know. The question that’s on my mind tonight is, do we really want/need it back?
Our Facebook page is what made Ghosts of North Dakota one of the most-visited North Dakota-oriented destinations on the web. The Facebook page is what made our first book possible, due to our ability to reach people just like you, who were passionate about North Dakota, and generously gave your hard-earned dollars to our Kickstarter campaign to fund the first book. And the profits from that first book turned into three more books. Facebook made it possible.
However, in 2014, things changed. Facebook implemented a new algorithm which made it nearly impossible for our updates to reach you unless we agreed to pay to promote our posts. People started to come around, asking “Why don’t I see your updates in my Facebook feed anymore?” And the answer was, “Because they want us to pay to reach you.” We spent thousands of dollars on Facebook ads to make sure that, when we came home with hundreds of photos, we could post them on our website and then make you aware of it by posting an update on Facebook. Despite all the dollars spent on ads and promotion, our reach kept dropping and dropping. At one time, I was able to employ myself as part of the Ghosts of North Dakota project, designing new books, researching new destinations, and planning new trips, but that all ended when Facebook laid their new algorithm on us. Our website traffic dropped by more than half, and the book sales revenue that we counted on to fund our trips and fund new books dropped by 75%. It’s something I wrote about previously (you can read it here) but never shared with the Ghosts of North Dakota audience because frankly, it’s embarrassing to admit that your business that was once on a rocket ride is failing because of something as silly as a social media algorithm. I had to stop paying myself and go back to work.
So, as of now, I am again working in my former field, and Terry and I have returned to treating the Ghosts of North Dakota project as a hobby instead of a job, which means fewer updates, fewer photos, and fewer books.
I tell you all this because I want you to understand where Ghosts of North Dakota is right now… at a crossroads. Without our Facebook page, there will surely not be a new Ghosts of North Dakota book any time soon, but even with the page, there was no guarantee, either. So, I guess we’re asking for your patience while we figure this out, and also your feedback on what you think we should do. Do we continue to wait for a response from Facebook that might never come? (We have read accounts by other Facebook page operators who never got their page back). Do we start a new Facebook page and try to rebuild a following that, taking into account Facebook’s algorithm and our lack of funds for ads, will take 10 years to rebuild? Do we say “to hell with it,” and just forget about Facebook altogether? Would you still follow Ghosts of North Dakota if we chose to use Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and our email updates to keep you updated?
Please let us know your thoughts in the comments. And it goes without saying, now more than ever, if you haven’t subscribed to email notifications, please do. We’ll only email you when we have new content to share.
UPDATE: The hackers recently put the Facebook page back online, changed the phone number, and listed themselves as a “Public Figure” from Amman, Jordan. A copyright infringement report has been filed with Facebook. We would recommend you refrain from interacting with the page until it is back in our control.
Update 2: Ghosts of North Dakota’s Facebook page is once again under our control. There will be a post coming in the future which details how we got it back.
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. …
On several occasions we’ve made an effort to document the abandonment of civilizations along the Missouri River in 1953 due to a coming flood created by the Garrison Dam project — the story of Sanish, North Dakota, the construction of Four Bears Bridge, a visit to an Elbowoods Church, and a lost highway to the bottom of a lake, for example — and the story of Independence is another of those.
Independence, North Dakota stood along the west bank of the Missouri River. Douglas A. Wick’s “North Dakota Place Names” says it was founded in 1885 by Wolf Chief of the Gros Ventres, and named “Independence” to signify independence from the other tribes at Fort Berthold. …
Fairview Lift Bridge is a place we’ve visited before, but the last time we were there, the sky was full of smoke from wildfires, so we promised ourselves we would go back again when we got another chance, and that chance came in July, 2017. We had just learned that the adjoining Cartwright Tunnel, the only railroad tunnel in the state of North Dakota, was in danger of implosion if funding couldn’t be raised for a restoration, so that became another excuse to visit this rusty beauty spanning the Yellowstone River. …
Little country schools like this one are a rapidly vanishing part of our history on the prairies of the high plains. From the signing of the Homestead Act through the modernization of the transportation and education systems, little country schools like this were constructed by the thousands across the Midwest to serve a about a dozen students at a time. Families who had come to settle new homesteads, sometimes by wagon and sometimes by train, would send their children to a rural school where they would receive their education, frequently from a young female teacher who was barely out of school herself. In many instances, when boys reached an age where they could handle the arduous work of farming, they would leave school to work full-time on the family farm. …
The last time we visited Chaseley, North Dakota, was in June of 2005, and it was a spur of the moment stop that we hadn’t planned. We took a few photos but didn’t run into anybody wandering about, so we moved along to the next stop without learning much about this tiny town in Wells County, right in the middle of North Dakota.
On the way home from a trip to western North Dakota in July of 2017, however, we decided to make another stop in Chaseley, and we’re glad we did, because we got to meet a couple Chaseley residents and learn a lot more about this slowly vanishing place. …
When Lewis & Clark came to the area that is today North Dakota, they began to recruit men and women to join the Corps of Discovery. One of their new recruits was Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian fur trapper who had been living among the Hidatsa. He had taken two Shoshone women as his wives–Otter Woman and Sakakawea (Sacagawea). Lewis and Clark saw an opportunity in hiring Charbonneau, since he could speak French and some Hidatsa, and his wives could speak Shoshone. Charbonneau was hired as a translator for the expedition, but was judged harshly by members of the Corps, and by historians in later days. Charbonneau was found to be timid in the water, and quick tempered with his wives. Although some came to appreciate Charbonneau’s cooking, in particular, a recipe for sausage made from bison meat, Meriwether Lewis said he was “a man of no particular merit.” …
The events of 1930 could be considered a textbook example of “hard times” anywhere in America. The stock market crashed near the end of 1929 and ushered-in the Great Depression. Unemployment skyrocketed along with the price of imported goods. North Dakota and other rural states endured unprecedented drought that would eventually lead to the Dust Bowl. In the midst of these events, it wasn’t uncommon for families to pack up as many of their belongings as they could transport and move to greener pastures, frequently leaving their homes and farms behind, but residents of the tiny community of Schafer, North Dakota and nearby Watford City found it odd when, in the spring of 1930, the six members of the Haven family stopped showing up in town.
Albert Haven, with his wife, Lulia, and four children, teenagers Daniel and Leland, plus Charles (2), and Mary (2 mos), farmed and kept livestock at a farm north of Schafer, and were considered successful and well-off, but in February of 1930, people began to notice they had not seen the family in awhile, and strangers had taken up residence at the Haven farm. Charles Bannon, a 21-year-old Watford City man who had worked as a farmhand for the Havens, along with his father James F. Bannon, told townspeople that they were renting the farm from the Havens and managing the affairs of the farming operation while the Havens headed out west in search of prosperity. The story seemed suspicious. The Havens had left without informing anyone of their plans, and without saying goodbye.
For much of 1930, suspicions mounted. The authorities met with Charles Bannon, who recounted his story. The Havens moved to Oregon, and intended to stay for some time.
On November 15, 1930, The Bismarck Tribune ran their first story about the Havens, McKenzie County Family of Six Is Believed Missing. An excerpt from the story:
McKenzie County authorities today launched an investigation into the disappearance of an entire family of six, missing since last February 10. Relatives fear the family has met with foul play.
The story continues:
A number of relatives live in Oregon and Washington, and none of them know anything of the whereabouts of the family, they have advised authorities.
Three days later, the authorities’ suspicions were surely elevated when they got a court order to examine the Haven’s safe deposit box and found stocks, bonds, and insurance policies of substantial value left behind. Investigators also discovered a federal farm loan payment had been missed.
In a move intended to incarcerate Bannon for further questioning, police arrested him just after Thanksgiving, 1930, on a charge of embezzlement when he tried to sell four of the Havens’ hogs. On December 1st, The Bismarck Tribune ran a front page story under the headline Bannon is Arrested in Missing Family Case. It read, in-part:
Sheriff C.A. Jacobson said today that he intends this week to make a search of the Shafer vicinity in an effort to determine whether the family has met foul play.
Bannon says he took the family to Williston last February 10, so that they could go to the west coast. He exhibits a letter bearing the date of Feb. 17 and signed Daniel Haven, a son, saying they were at Colton, Oregon, and would stay there for some time. At Colton, the family has never been heard of.
Under questioning, Charles Bannon produced a letter purportedly written by Daniel Haven and claimed it had been mailed from Oregon. The envelope was conveniently missing. However, an astute staff reporter from the Minot Daily News noted the letter alleged to have been written by Daniel Haven contained a litany of spelling errors, with words like arrived, personal, property, and machinery, all misspelled. The reporter asked suspect Charles Bannon to spell the words, and he misspelled them all in remarkably similar fashion. When authorities further checked Bannon’s story, the postmaster at Colton, Oregon reported that no family named Haven had ever received mail there, and the return address listed on the letter was for a post office box that did not exist.
On further questioning, Bannon insisted that Mrs. Haven was in poor mental health, and that the family’s departure was partly due to her illness. Bannon claimed the family feared Mrs. Haven would be confined to an asylum and instead chose to flee. The investigation proceeded quickly, however, and in the ensuing several weeks, Bannon’s story unraveled with a series of revelations.
On December 3, 1930, the Bismarck Tribune reported “records at the railroad station at Williston do not show that any family the size of Haven’s left that city by train on Feb. 10.” Nevertheless, Bannon testified on his own behalf soon after, and repeated his story despite the contradicting facts. He also denied knowing the whereabouts of his father, James Bannon, who had not been seen in about six weeks, other than a vague contention that he might be somewhere in Portland, Oregon.
Although he had first denied knowing anything about the whereabouts of the Haven family, his story changed when a closed-door conference was called during his preliminary hearing on the embezzlement charge. The Bismarck Tribune reported on December 11th:
State’s Attorney J.S. Taylor, of McKenzie County, this afternoon said that Charles Bannon, who is being given a preliminary hearing here on charges of embezzlement in connection with the disappearance of the six members of the A.E Haven family, claims that Mrs. Haven killed her three months old daughter before the family disappeared.
It was alleged by Bannon, according to Taylor, that the child was buried in a refuse heap on the Haven farm near Schafer. Searching parties immediately left for the farm.
Mother, Clergyman Present
Bannon is alleged to have made the statement at a conference of his attorney, A.J. Knox, his mother, and a clergyman, according to Taylor. The State’s Attorney was not present at the conference.
It was reportedly at the strong urging of his mother that Bannon finally began to come clean.
The next day, the truth came out in a flood. The body of the Haven infant was found right where Bannon said it would be, and under withering questioning, Bannon revealed the locations of the remaining members of the Haven family. Their remains were found buried on the farm, some dismembered and covered in lime (Bannon had exhumed and reburied Mrs. Havens’ body after killing her, and her torso would not be discovered until May of 1931). Bannon was immediately transported to the more secure county jail in Williston, partly out of fear that, when word got out, vigilantes might take justice into their own hands.
Charles’ father, James Bannon, was found in Oregon and incarcerated with his son in North Dakota soon after. Charles’ story changed several times over the ensuing days, and he tried to claim that the Havens were murdered by a stranger who had been angered when the Havens’ had rebuffed his offer to buy their farm, but all evidence pointed to Charles as the culprit. When the authorities informed Bannon that tensions were running high in McKenzie County, he told them he’d had a nightmare in which he saw an angry mob outside his jail window, intent on hanging him, and begged not to be returned to the Schafer jail. Bannon even claimed he was haunted by the apparitions of the Haven family he had murdered, and felt relieved to get the truth off his chest.
In the third week of January, 1931, Bannon’s nightmare came true. He and his father were transferred back to the Schafer jail in preparation for trial. In the frigid, early morning hours of Thursday, January 29th, a crowd of 80 men, some masked and armed, drove to the Schafer jail in a caravan of at least 16 cars and two trucks.
Charles and James Bannon no doubt heard the arrival of the mob that had come for them — the sound of car doors closing and angry men shouting — but from inside the jail, they could only imagine what was going on outside the barred windows high on the wall.
The Bismarck Tribune revealed the happenings of the night in a series of stories over the ensuing months. The mob used huge timbers to batter down the front door of the jail and tied Deputy Sheriff Peter S. Hallan to his chair. Sheriff F.A. Thompson, awakened by the commotion, was also bound when he arrived to investigate the ruckus. The lynch mob argued with Deputy Sheriff Hallan in an attempt to acquire the keys to Charles Bannon’s cell, but the lawman would not reveal their location. The Tribune reported:
Leaders argued with Deputy Hallan for some time in an endeavor to get keys for the cells. Hallan, however, refused to say where they were and the leaders left. They returned within a few moments, however, and using the timbers again smashed down a steel door to reach young Bannon.
Charles Bannon pleaded with the mob to spare the life of his father, James, and the mob promised that he would be given his day in court, and left him behind at the Schafer jail, with another prisoner, Fred Maike, who was incarcerated for stealing wheat. Charles Bannon was then spirited away to the scene of the crime in an attempt to elicit a fully-accurate confession once and for all, with the intention that, once he had bared his soul, he would be lynched, but the guardian who had been appointed to safeguard the Haven farm had his wife and six children living with him. He wanted no part of the vigilantes’ plans and ordered them off the farm.
The lynch mob returned with Bannon to the steel truss bridge over Cherry Creek, about a half mile east of the Schafer jail, put a noose around his neck, and pushed him off the bridge. He dropped about twenty feet before the rope snapped tight and his neck was broken.
In the aftermath of the Bannon lynching, Mrs. Bannon, a schoolteacher from Fairview who had lost her job when her son confessed to the killings, swore vengeance on the men who had lynched her son. The authorities made multiple inquiries to determine the identities of the men in the lynch mob, to no avail. The Sheriff and his Deputy said they did not recognize any of the men in the mob. North Dakota Governor George F. Schafer called the lynching a “shameful act” and ordered a probe into the affair, but in the end, none of the lynch mob were ever identified and no charges were ever brought. There was even an unsuccessful attempt to restore the death penalty, which had been abolished in North Dakota in 1915.
James Bannon and Fred Maike were immediately returned to the jail in Williston for their own safety, but Bannon was eventually transferred to Minot, and later tried in Crosby, North Dakota, where he was convicted of complicity in the murder of the Havens and sentenced to life in prison. An appeal for a new trial was later denied.
Charles Bannon was the last person to ever be lynched by a vigilante mob in North Dakota. Today, there are relics of this infamous chapter in North Dakota history scattered among the museums in Alexander and Watford City, including the rope with which Bannon was hanged, and the door to the jail cell where he was confined. You can also read more about the Schafer affair in this story by our friend Sabrina Hornung of the High Plains Reader, in a book by local historian Dennis Johnson, End of the Rope, and in this piece written by Lauren Donovan of the Bismarck Tribune in 2005.
What do you know about the Schafer affair? Please leave a comment.
Photos by Troy Larson and Terry Hinnenkamp, copyright © 2017 Sonic Tremor Media
At Ghosts of North Dakota, we occasionally like to check-in with artists and photographers (like Mariah Masilko and John Piepkorn) who’ve shown a passion for North Dakota and its vanishing, forgotten places and Jack Dura certainly qualifies. We caught up with Watford City journalist, photographer, and frequent explorer “Travelin’ Jack” between road trips to find out more about his background, his thirst for adventure, his favorite bird dog, and favorite places, from the Badlands to the North Dakota prairie.
Q: I first became aware of your work when you were still at NDSU in Fargo. Tell us about your background. Where are you from, where have you been, and what are you doing now? …
Venturia, North Dakota is located in McIntosh County, just north of the South Dakota border, forty-five miles east of the Missouri river, about nine miles southwest of Ashley, North Dakota. Like most shrinking rural communities across the state, Venturia was founded as a railroad town, but today the tracks are gone.
We visited Venturia on an overcast day of intermittent sprinkles, and we were excited by the photo opportunities but we needed a break from the rain. It took us a few minutes of sitting in the car, waiting for the rain to pass, before we realized the neon sign on the bar behind us was lit — OPEN. We decided to go pay a visit. …
Leal is a small town in Barnes county, an hour northeast of Jamestown, or 73 miles northwest of Fargo. It was founded in 1892, and incorporated as a village in 1917, but in 1967, North Dakota eliminated the “village” and “town” incorporations in the state, making all incorporated places “cities.” So, today, Leal is a “city” with a population density of 142 residents per square mile. Sounds like a hoppin’ place, right? Not really. The population density figure is a mathematical quirk of a city with an area of .14 square miles and a population of 20 in the 2010 census.
Our stop in Leal was quick and we found just a little to photograph… a few select buildings and an abandoned farmstead outside of town. …
During their historic journey to the Pacific, Lewis and Clark reported enormous herds of North American Bison in the midwest, so large that they “darkened the whole plains.” Wagon trains sometimes waited days for passage through herds numbering in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions. But by the early 1900’s the bison were reaching their low-point. Over-hunting, drought, and encroachment on their natural habitat by humans and cattle drove the population of bison down to only several hundred animals (the actual number is disputed) — the bison were almost extinct. …
Corinth is a near-ghost town in Williams County, about thirty-four miles northeast of Williston. Although one of the residents has taken over a portion of the town, Corinth is still fairly intact with lots of original buildings in time-worn condition.
Corinth was founded in 1916 and reportedly had a peak population of 108 around 1920, and although that figure began to dwindle almost immediately, the Post Office stayed open until 1969. Corinth was an unincorporated town and as a result, there are no reliable census figures to be found. …
In the late 1890s and early 1900s, residents near the tiny town of Niagara, in the new state of North Dakota, began to hear strange noises in the night. The sound of galloping hooves punctuated the quiet countryside. It was Farmer Eugene Butler again, who had recently started riding his horses late at night, yelling at the top of his lungs. It was strange behavior from a man who was known to be a wealthy, successful farmer, if somewhat reclusive.
The townsfolk had no idea that, in the coming years, the story of Eugene Butler would get much stranger.
On February 4th, 1904, the Jamestown Weekly Alert republished a story that ran a few days earlier in the Grand Forks Herald:
From brooding over the hallucination that all the widows and old maids in the country wanted to marry him, Farmer Eugene Butler became insane and was committed to the insane hospital at Jamestown. Butler is about 40 years of age and has lived by himself for years on a farm at Shawnee. He is probably the wealthiest man who has ever been committed to an asylum from this county, his property being valued at from $40,000 to $50,000. In addition to the hallucination that all the women have designs on him–owing probably to its being a leap year–Butler claims that men are in the habit of coming to his home during the night, forcing him to get up and dress and take long walks and horseback rides.
In hindsight, there are a couple of clarifications that should be made to the Herald story. Butler’s home was reported as being in a tiny railroad stop known as “Shawnee,” but today we know he lived in Niagara, about 6 miles to the northwest. Second, Butler was actually 54 years old at the time, not 40. At any rate, Eugene Butler was deemed insane and committed to the State Hospital in 1904.
Butler lived an apparently uneventful 8 years in the State Hospital in Jamestown, but in November of 1911, two weeks after his death on October 22nd, 1911, Butler’s name again appeared in the paper, this time the Saturday, November 4th issue of the Bismarck Tribune. The story, “Filing of Petition Recalls Old Case,” details the appointment of Butler’s former attorney as the administrator for his estate and concludes that his estate would be divided between two brothers, a nephew and a niece. We’re also offered a further glimpse into Butler’s story:
Butler came to Grand Forks County in 1880 with a number of others, from New York State. He picked out three quarters of a section of land near Larimore and started in to farming. He rapidly improved the land and built a substantial home. He was accounted a moderately well fixed farmer. In spite of the fact that he had made many friends, he continued to live alone on the farm, doing all the work about the house.
About ten years ago he was noticed to have changed considerably and at times at night would ride his horses at breakneck speed about the country. Those who are familiar with the case state that he lost his mind through his hermit habits. He gradually became worse and was brought here and taken before the insanity board.
By 1915, Butler had been dead for years and many had no doubt nearly forgotten about the strange man who had occupied the now-vacant farmhouse on the edge of Niagara, but on June 27th, 1915, the Bismarck Daily Tribune’s headline announced a horrifying discovery in large type:
SIX BODIES WITH SKULLS CRUSHED ARE FOUND AT NIAGARA, N.D.
Are Believed To Have Been the Victims of Eugene Butler, an Insane Patient
Beneath the terrible headline, other details were disclosed in successively smaller fonts. “Gruesome Find by Workmen in Old Basement. Bodies Are Those of Men Who Worked for Butler on His Farm. Accused Man Died at Jamestown in 1913. Victims Dropped Into Basement by Cleverly Made Trap Door.” The story read:
Workmen excavating under a house occupied until a few years ago by Eugene Butler, who died in 1913 in state insane asylum, unearthed the remains of six men. It is believed by the authorities they were murdered by Butler while employed by him as farm hands. The skulls of each had been crushed. The bodies had been dropped into the basement through a cleverly constructed trap door.
An added note near the end of the story added specifics from Butler’s doctor while he was at Jamestown:
REMEMBERS BUTLER. Dr. Hotchkiss over the telephone last evening said that he remembered Butler but that there was little about his case to distinguish him from the other insane patients. He showed great surprise when he learned of the gruesome find in the former home of Butler.
Again there is a detail in the story that should be clarified. Butler actually died in 1911, not 1913, and the belief that Butler killed six individuals in separate acts would later be called into question. In a story from the Bismarck Daily Tribune, July 1st, 1915, the new theory became clear:
BELIEVED BUTLER MURDERED FAMILY
Again, details were added through subheadings in successively smaller type. “Examination of skeletons indicate five crimes were committed at once. Bodies had been stripped of clothing. No one in neighborhood can throw light on gruesome tragedy.” The story continues:
Five murders at one time, when he wiped out an entire family, and one at a later date when he slew a male adult, are the crimes laid at the door of Eugene Butler, the recluse farmer of Niagara, whose death in the asylum for the insane at Jamestown four years ago effectively draws a curtain before one of the most mysterious cases ever brought to light in the northwest.
Examination of six skeletons found under the Butler home near Shawnee, this county, shows that five of the murders were committed at one time when a man, a woman, and three children were slain. At some later date one man was killed.
Bodies of the five members of the family were buried in a single hole, while that of the other victim was buried about ten feet from them.
The horrible record of the crime was unearthed by a workman engaged in excavating for a basement under the former Butler home. He first unearthed the body of the lone victim, which had been concealed under about three feet of dirt, under the middle of the Butler home. The body had been dropped to its place of concealment through a hole cut in the floor.
Buried from the Outside. The five bodies were buried in a hole that was dug from the outside of the house, under the foundation. The hole into which these bodies were dumped was sloping in nature, and while time may have rotted the bones there are indications that in order to hide his crime, Butler was compelled to break the legs of at least two of his victims.
The foundation wall where the bodies had been buried was disturbed after its construction, which was about 20 years ago. That fact limits the period within which the murders occurred. In order to bury the victims, the three bottom stones of the foundation wall were loosened. In refilling the hole, black dirt was thrown in, and the manner in which the burial place was dug, indicated by the marked lines of distinction between the black dirt used as a covering and the red clay subsoil.
Clothing Removed. There is absolutely no trace of clothing of any kind. The dirt about the skeletons was carefully examined for trace of buttons, shoes, etc… but nothing was found, indicating that the bodies had been buried nude — their clothes probably destroyed by fire, thus effectively destroying the possibility of identification at this time.
Examination of the skull of the single victim, and probably the most recent murder victim, indicates that the man had a crooked nose, the nasal bone being bent slightly toward the left.
Each Killed in the Same Manner. That some sharp instrument was used in killing the members of the family, also is indicated. There is a sharp and clearly defined hole in the left side of the skull of each. The skull of the single victim is similarly marked.
The authorities had apparently determined that the original theory, six transient farm laborers killed one at a time, was incorrect, and that a family of five was killed first, followed by one individual. Neighbors, however, did not remember a family of five ever visiting the farm, and nobody ever reported a family of five missing. One theory was that perhaps five of Eugene’s family members came to visit and he dispatched them before anyone had seen them at the farm. The passage of time between the murders and the discovery of their bodies further hindered any identification of the victims.
On July 22, 1915, The Valley City Times Record published a story about a possible identity for one of the victims. Leo Urbanski, a wealthy businessman and former saloon keeper from Minnesota, wondered whether his brother might be the single male victim whose remains were found at Butler’s farm, and asked his attorney to send a letter to States Attorney O.B Burtness:
“I have been requested to make inquiry concerning one John Urbanski who disappeared near Niagara, N.D. in 1902. The last heard from him was a letter received by his brother stating that he was working for a bachelor near Niagara. The post mark showed that the letter had been mailed at Larimore.”
“John Urbanski was a young man about five feet seven inches in height, weight 145 pounds, light hair (almost white) and light complexion.”
“He was sometimes called John Miller and such may have been the name he was called when working near Niagara.”
In the century since Butler’s crimes were revealed, little progress has been made and the victims have never been positively identified. There have been a number of theories proposed. The age and gender of the victims has been disputed with some claiming they were all male. Others have speculated that they were all housekeepers on the Butler farm.
In the age of DNA, some identification of the victims should be possible, right? A story from the Ward County Independent on September 2, 1915 said the bones of the victims were held in Grand Forks at the Office of Sheriff Art Turner, but WDAY TV/Fargo reported in 2016 that, upon hearing of the crime, townspeople flooded to the Butler home and looted the bones of the victims. The whereabouts of the bones are unknown today. Unless someone comes forward with the remains, no DNA analysis is possible. In a further blow to the investigation, the original case files, if they ever existed, are missing, possibly destroyed or lost over the years. The Butler home was razed, and today a workshop owned by an area family stands on the site.
Who were the victims of Eugene Butler? We might never know. Really, our only hope for resolution at this point is in the slim chance that someone still alive can provide a break in the case. Perhaps someone reading this might have their memory jogged, maybe they found some bones in a box in their attic, or remember a story told by their parents or grandparents that could provide a break in the case of the midnight rider, Eugene Butler.
See also: The Wolf Family Murders
See also: Niagara, North Dakota
We visited Hamberg, North Dakota, a near ghost town in Wells County, about 18 miles east of Harvey, for the first time in 2008, to photograph an old school which has since burned in an accidental fire.
Thanks to Heidi Ermer, we can now take a brief look at Hamberg as it appeared in yesteryear when there were residents numbering in the hundreds, as versus the approximate 20 residents who live there today. Heidi sent us the following postcards. The exact year of these photos is unknown. …
If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you know “ghosts” is a metaphor that refers to the ghosts of our past, and most of the time, that manifests itself here in the form of photos of our vanishing places. Sometimes though, we run across a story so interesting, a piece of forgotten history or local lore so fascinating, that we feel compelled to write about it. This is one of those instances.
There are published accounts from as far back as 1894, and Native American legends going back much further, about a Loch Ness-style serpent in Devils Lake, North Dakota’s largest natural body of water, named in an approximate translation of the Lakota name, “Lake of the Spirits.”
Devils Lake-area residents are, of course, quite familiar with the legend, sometimes known as the Devils Lake Monster (not to be confused with a reported lake monster in Oregon of the same name) but there are surprisingly few modern references to a creature that has been reported for hundreds of years in Devils Lake.
One of the earliest accounts comes from the New York Sun, October 21st, 1894. It reads in part:
All descriptions of the serpent agree that it has alligator jaws and glaring red eyes. Its tail is about 80 feet long. The serpent usually appears in August and about sunset. The red glare of the sunset sky is often reflected in the eyes of the serpent like mirrors and the flashes of red light that go darting here and there as the serpent turns its head strike terror into the hearts of those on whom they fall. The serpent moves slowly along about a half mile from the shore, and in the course of a day or two makes the round of the lake. At times it lashes the water furiously with its tail and it leaves a simple shining wake as it pushes its way along.
The Sun article further describes the appearance of the serpent:
Its color is a slimy green, and it is easy to trace the waves of motion that begin at its head and follow along to its tail, three or four distinct waves being in evidence at the same time. It has ragged and enormous fins on its side and horny substances that project from its jaws, or directly behind them, and trail along in the water, but which, when it is angered, stick out in a horrible bristling attitude. Its scales sometimes glisten and sometimes lie so close to its back that they seem to be simply an ordinary snakeskin
In July of 1895, The Bismarck Tribune published a story which told the tale of a fisherman who reportedly hooked the monster and got towed on a high speed joyride around the lake. These early accounts of the Devils Lake Monster are frequently dismissed as sensationalized accounts by newspapers seeking readers and/or local business interests trying to draw tourists and settlers on the freshly laid railroad line. Nevertheless, reports of a serpent in Devils Lake would continue.
In August, 1904, The Wichita Beacon published a story that would be reprinted in other newspapers around the nation for months afterward.
Mrs. C.F. Craig, of Leeds, Mrs. Edgar Larue and Mrs. Carr Cleveland, while strolling along the bank of Devils Lake, at Chatauqua grounds, were terribly frightened by an object that resembled a sea serpent, which was lashing the water into white foam about a mile from shore.
The party secured opera glasses, and on returning, were horrified to see on a close examination, that the serpent was swimming north across the lake, and was leaving a vast wake behind it, as with slow but powerful and irresistible motion, the monster threaded its way through the water, with its long sinuous folds which were like a weavers beam.
The serpent’s body was very thick, and covered with huge and horribly loathesome-looking black scales. Its head was of snake-like formation, with a flashing, darting tongue, and two angry eyes as big as goose eggs, glowed in the monster’s head.
Another published mass-sighting of the serpent occurred in 1915 with a number of eyewitnesses reporting their accounts separately, including E.M. Lewis, a businessman, who sighted the creature from a train passing near the shore of Devils Lake. From the Grand Forks Daily Herald, July 21, 1915:
That Devils Lake Sea Serpent Basks in Sunshine For Admiring Crowds; Now They’ll Hunt it
(Herald Special Service) Devils Lake, N. D., July 21. — Stretched out on the surface of the bay of Devils Lake, fronting Chautauqua, the monster sea serpent basked. In the delightful evening sunshine shortly before sundown last night, while residents of Chautauqua and Greenwood looked on in silent amazement. The serpent was viewed from several different points.
There was no mistake about it. The monster, that has figured in the legends of Devils Lake for half a century, when only the Indians inhabited the country, or a descendant which answers the earliest description, was seen by so many that no one disputes the fact that it lives in the waters of the lake.
E. M. Lewis and Chas. Pillsbury, well known business men, saw the serpent very distinctly, unknown to each other. It was stretched out on the water about a quarter of a mile from shore. It is described as between fifty and sixty feet long and between a foot and two feet in diameter. Captain Walter Fursteneau of the police force, accompanied by his wife also witnessed the sight.
The last time the serpent was seen was a couple of years ago by Rev. C. L. Wallace of the M. E. Church. At that time it was in the extreme east end of the lake. It happens that this section is separated from the section where the serpent was seen last night, by a bridge at the Narrows, which in reality is a dike, there being no water passage. How the monster got into the west-end of the lake is the present mystery. That it vaulted the bridge, or else that there are two serpents in the lake, is the conclusion reached today. In any event, it has been established beyond the question of a doubt that a monster lives in the lake and already there is talk of expeditions to get in closer touch with the freak.
The legend of the Devils Lake Monster is certainly a fanciful and interesting tale, an entertaining story to be told around a campfire on a summer night, but there are no photos of the creature that I could find, and it’s interesting to note that actual sightings of the monster seem to have died down in the last fifty years, perhaps due to the seeming scientific impossibility of the creature.
Devils Lake is a body of water with no natural outlet, disconnected from any larger sea, and skeptics frequently question where the serpent could have come from. While re-tellings of Native American legend say the creature was stranded in Devils Lake after the last glaciers retreated, that would necessitate a lifespan of 9,000 years or more for the beast.
We have visited sites around Devils Lake, and although we have sometimes found a haunting panorama of imagery which includes abandoned homes and inundated roads from a time when the lake level was much lower than today, we have yet to see anything that resembles a serpent in Devils Lake. Have you?
Photos by Troy Larson and Terry Hinnenkamp, original content copyright © 2017 Sonic Tremor Media
On occasion we’ve been asked if we know how many miles we’ve driven in pursuit of North Dakota ghost towns and abandoned places, but we’ve never really had an answer because we didn’t really start keeping track of our mileage until a few years ago. We did, however, have a metric we used to keep track of how much driving we’ve done… the number of vehicles we’ve gone through. We’ve driven about ten different vehicles, and worn-out three of them on the backroads of North Dakota, and two of them actually gave up during a trip to shoot abandoned places.
As of 2017, our best estimate is that we’ve driven about 65,000 miles inside the borders of North Dakota in pursuit ghost towns and abandoned places, and if you include the places we’ve photographed for Ghosts of Minnesota and Ghosts of North America, the number is probably closer to 90,000 miles. At any rate, this story is about that time our vehicle went to the ghost town in the sky.
It was early winter of 2005, and even though we don’t usually go out shooting in winter, it had not yet snowed and we decided to go on a trip to the Devils Lake area.
We had several places on our agenda with the ultimate goal of visiting Silva and Fillmore, North Dakota. It was planned to be an overnight trip, during which we would shoot some places on the way to Devils Lake, spend the night in a hotel, and photograph a few more places on the way home the next day. (As a sidenote, I’ll say this was at a time when we were each working full-time jobs, but not making a lot of money, and we were driving some beater cars. Thank you, Jesus, that we’re in a little better place these days and driving more reliable vehicles.)
It started out fine. As we approached Devils Lake, we stopped along the highway to photograph the home shown above. It was abandoned due to the rising waters of Devils Lake, just a short distance from the former road to the casino, which was also inundated by the rising water. Terry was taking the photograph above while I was standing in front of the car shooting something else, and I thought I noticed the car, a used Ford wagon, making a funny noise. It didn’t seem like anything major, it just sounded a little different than usual.
We continued down the road, checked in at our hotel, and although the weather was gloomy, it was good enough that we could keep shooting, so we headed out for our next place.
It started to drizzle on the way to our next destination, the former Grand Harbor school. Actually, it was more of a mist than a drizzle, and we waited in the car a few moments when we arrived at the Grand Harbor school to see if it would stop. It didn’t. Instead, the mist became a fairly steady light rain, so we got out and photographed the school building quickly, and then headed out for Silva and Fillmore with the hope that the weather would be better by the time we got there.
We were heading west, about 15 minutes from Fillmore when the rain turned to snow. We were on a back road, a pretty rough dirt road, and it wasn’t long before the snow started to accumulate on the road, which was already a little muddy from the rain. The car started to slide around a little bit, and even though I slowed down quite a bit, it was one of those North Dakota weather situations where we decided to let the conditions win. We decided we would go back to the hotel and come back the next day.
We were finally back on the pavement and headed for Devils Lake when, suddenly, the car just died. I looked down and all of the dash lights came on. Engine light, oil light, everything. We rolled to a stop on the side of the road, at the end of a farmer’s driveway, and I tried to start the car again. It made a groaning noise and I suspected it wasn’t going to be starting again. Ever.
So, we called Devils Lake for a tow and we were informed it would be about an hour and 45 minutes. People were sliding off the road all over the place, and they were pretty busy.
While we waited for the tow truck, a weird thing happened. Right behind us, Terry noticed another car roll to a stop on the shoulder. The driver got out and walked away from the car as steam poured from under the hood. Another car had broken down in the exact spot where our car had given out. We made jokes about how maybe this was the Devils Triangle for cars or something.
The tow truck arrived and we had the car towed back to the hotel while we figured out what we were gonna do. In the room, we picked up the phone book to call a few places about the car, and… cue the Twilight Zone music… the phone book said “Durum Triangle” on the cover.
Seriously though, we eventually concluded that the car was done, like, forever. It had likely lost oil pressure and the engine was seized up entirely. We had to call an end to our adventure for that day, and we needed to get home.
Enter my cousin Brad. Actually, he’s my ex-wife’s cousin, but I never got out of the habit of calling him “cousin”. He’s the kind of friend who will help you fix a leaky pipe, cut down a dying tree that’s threatening your roof, or rescue you when you get into trouble, and never make you feel bad about it. Everybody needs a friend like Brad. He lived back in Fargo, and when I called him and told him what happened, I heard him say “Hey. Chris, you wanna go on a road trip to Devils Lake?” Within ten minutes, he was on the road with his friend Chris to come pick us up in Devils Lake.
They arrived just before nightfall. We packed up all our stuff and loaded it into Brad’s new Subaru, which was all-wheel drive, with plans to have a local salvage yard pick up our dead car the next day. Brad and Chris sat in the front, and Terry and I were in the back.
We were heading east on US Highway 2, and conditions were getting really bad. If you’ve driven in North Dakota for any length of time, you’ve likely encountered a snow storm like this. It was hovering around freezing, and a light, wet snow was falling. The wind was blowing the snow horizontally across the highway. Brad slowed down a little bit, but the Subaru seemed like it was handling the slippery road surface fine. Suddenly, we hit a section of highway where the grade rose a little bit. We felt the car squat down on its suspension a little, but when it hit the crest of the rise and started to come down the other side, all four tires broke loose. The road surface in that spot was glare ice. There was a queasy feeling as the car started to rotate clockwise, with the nose pointing toward the ditch.
Time seemed to slow down. There was a moment, a split second really, when Brad was calculating what to do. Then, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well…” then stepped on the gas slightly and drove the car right down into the ditch. Our first lucky break was that this happened in a spot where the grade down into the ditch was at a very shallow angle and the ditch was a wide one with a fairly flat bottom. A moment later, we were in the bottom of this ditch going about 50 miles per hour, with prairie grass sticking up through the snow, pelting the bottom of the car.
Very gingerly, Brad turned the wheel back to the left and started heading back up the grade to the road. Terry and I were in the back seat, leaning toward the middle of the car so we could see what was happening through the windshield. I remember thinking, just for a moment, “Is this it? Is this the end?”
The car popped back onto the highway, fishtailed a little bit, Brad wrangled it under control, and continued driving like nothing had happened. It was dead silent in the car. Then, I said the only thing I could think of to say.
“Nice driving, Brad.”
“Thank you,” he said.
A moment later, the car exploded in laughter and excited chatter. We couldn’t believe that had just happened.
We made it home without any further trouble. Brad swore us to secrecy on our off-road adventure, lest his wife find out what had happened in their brand-new Subaru (she knows, now. He confessed.) Our car in Devils Lake was picked up by a local salvage yard, and we managed to make it to Silva and Fillmore in the summer of 2006.
Thankfully, we haven’t had another trip as eventful as that one.
We’ve passed this place a dozen times in our travels. It usually happens something like this… we’re on a tight schedule, wanting to get to all of the places we’ve planned to shoot before the sun sets, or the weather turns bad, so we pass on by, promising to hit it next time. Then, we usually get ten minutes down the road, and we start regretting the choice not to stop. So, this time we decided to stop and photograph this lonely James River Church on a hill overlooking Highway 200, about 16 miles east of Carrington, or 30 miles west of Cooperstown. …
Charbonneau, North Dakota is in a very sparsely populated area of western North Dakota, in McKenzie County, about fifteen minutes west of Watford City. As far back as 1960, Charbonneau had already been de-listed from the Census, but according to North Dakota Place Names by Douglas A. Wick, Charbonneau was founded in 1913 and a peak population of 125 was reported in 1920. Charbonneau’s name was derived from nearby Charbonneau Creek, which was in turn named for the interpreter on the Lewis & Clark expedition, Toussaint Charbonneau. …
We’ve visited the ghost town of Lincoln Valley a number of times, and we’ve posted about why it became a ghost town ( a railroad that never arrived, primarily). We’ve heard stories and read newspaper articles about the glory days, and marveled at descriptions of a town that included churches, stores, a gas station, an implement… all the things you would expect in a small rural town. It was hard to imagine, though, considering we visited for the first time in 2004, long after Joe Leintz, the last resident, had gone, and after almost all of Lincoln Valley’s structures had disappeared. …
Once upon on a time there was a pioneer settlement named Genin at this spot in Benson County, about halfway between Maddock and Oberon, North Dakota. That settlment was later renamed Josephine, but it never really became a town. The highest population ever recorded was approximately 30, and some of those were folks who lived in the surrounding countryside. The truth is, Josephine was really just a glorified railroad siding along the Northern Pacific Railroad. The remains of the town are gone, and only two crumbling grain elevators remain. …
Lincoln Valley, North Dakota is in Sheridan County, about 8 miles NE of McClusky. Lincoln Valley was a primarily German/Russian settlement when it was founded in 1900 by George and Conrad C. Reiswig as Lincoln. In 1912 the name was changed to Lincoln Valley. There were hopes that the railroad would come through Lincoln Valley and spur a boom, but the tracks never came and Lincoln Valley slowly withered.
We first visited Lincoln Valley in 2004 and took these photos. Before we even made it into town, we ran into an intriguing home on the northeast edge of town. It was in the middle of a field with no driveway or outbuildings… just a lonely home, all alone and decaying. …
At one time, there was a “town” near Hurricane Lake, in the northeast corner of Pierce County, about 7 miles northeast of York, North Dakota. It was a “town” because it had a post office, but in reality it never had a sizable population. Hurricane Lake was founded early in relation to many of the towns we visit — in the 1880s — and was a stage coach stop, never having had the benefit of a railroad line to boost development. There was a hotel at the north end of Hurricane Lake to serve travelers on the stage line, but the post office shut down in 1905 and today there is nothing left of the original Hurricane Lake. At present, the area is home to the Hurricane Lake National Wildlife Refuge, and this crumbling church and still-used cemetery are the only man-made signs of the settlers who once lived in the vicinity of Hurricane Lake. …
We visited Nanson, North Dakota, a true ghost town with zero residents in southern Rolette County, in 2012. We traveled through waving country to get there (when an occasional car or truck passed, the drivers frequently waved) and found a townsite rapidly disappearing. There were only four significant structures still standing in Nanson, and the Great Northern Railroad tracks that led to the founding of the town were long gone, too. On Easter weekend, 2017, we decided to make a return trip to Nanson on our way home from another ghost town, Omemee, North Dakota, and see if anything had changed. …
Get all four of our books with a Ghosts of North Dakota 4-book combo:
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- Churches of the High Plains (hardcover)
That’s 426 total pages, in four full-color books featuring some of the best photos from the Ghosts of North Dakota project — ghost towns, near-ghost towns, churches and abandoned places across the state of North Dakota (plus a few places in surrounding states and provinces like Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Manitoba), plus comments from the photographers, historical tidbits, and more.
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Omemee, North Dakota, a ghost town in Bottineau County, has been a source of intrigue since we first became aware of it in 2005. We were initially made aware of Omemee by a North Dakota resident who alerted us that someone was trying to sell lots in Omemee to out-of-state buyers under questionable circumstances, an effort which amounted to nothing in the end. Later, Fargo resident Mark Johnson sent us some photos of Omemee taken around 2010, and we also received some correspondence and photos from people who had family roots in Omemee, too, but we had never visited Omemee ourselves until Easter weekend, 2017. …
We visited this beautiful place, Norway Lutheran Church, in April of 2017. It’s in McHenry County, about 15 miles southwest of Towner, North Dakota, and it is perched on the hill above the Souris River Valley. The Souris, known to locals as the “Mouse River”, has flooded many times, particularly in 1969 and 2011 (a 1976 flood was serious, but not as severe as ’69 or ’11), and 6 years later, the legacy of the 2011 flood can still be seen everywhere. Just down the way from this church, a gravel road still stands blocked-off, partly underwater. Dead wood lies along the river bank in heaps, piled there by land owners after thousands of trees, live and dead, were uprooted and sent drifting downriver in the deluge. In places, there are the remains of flooded buildings, but in many more, new constructions, nicely landscaped and brightly painted. From a safe spot well above the flood plain, and in the tradition of the hardy settlers who came here more than a century earlier, Norway Lutheran Church overlooks perseverance. …
If you didn’t know better, it would be easy to look at these photos and assume this place was struck by a powerful prairie tornado. Grain bins are ripped open, the roof of the former bar has caved-in, and the building leans at a precarious angle. Pieces of several structures have blown down and lie decaying in the grass some distance away with their rusty nails pointed skyward, waiting for an unsuspecting explorer to test their tetanus shots with an errant step. Nobody would blame you for believing Dorothy and Toto just blew away minutes before, but the reality is, it’s been a slow-motion disaster in ghost town Aylmer, North Dakota. …
The cornerstone for this church along County Road 5 reads “Bethel Hauges Norsk E.V. Luth. Kirke, 1915”. Put more plainly, that’s Bethel Hauges Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church. The building is located in northern Wells County, about 10 miles east of Harvey, and although the cemetery is still active, the building stands abandoned and boarded-up. In the place where the Lord’s word could once be heard on Sunday mornings by 80 or 100 parishioners at a time, Bethel Lutheran awaits just one more potluck. …