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. …
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? …
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. …
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.
It occurred to me the other day that we’ve told the story about how Ghosts of North Dakota began in countless interviews over the years, but we’ve never posted it here, so for those who might be interested in how this project began, this is the tale.
In 2003, myself and Terry Hinnenkamp, my roadtrip friend and fellow adventurer, were working at the same Fargo Top 40 radio station, Y94. Halloween was coming up and we had this goofy idea that it would be neat to find an abandoned place and spend the night in it while recording our experiences for a program we would put together later, to air on Halloween — a kind of radio campfire story. …
Tunbridge Scandinavian Evangelical Lutheran Church is in Pierce County, about five miles west of Rugby, North Dakota, or ten miles west of another place we recently visited, Meyer Township School #1.
This church is particularly beautiful, and you can see it from US Highway 2 if you find yourself traveling in the area. I’ve driven by it a dozen times and always said “I’ll stop next time.” This time, I finally did.
There is surprisingly little information available about this church, so if you know any of its history, please leave a comment.
There is a small cemetery out back, and the Pierce County Tribune ran a story in 2010 about a gentleman who was working to catalog all the graves. The old pump remains behind the church, too.
What a pleasant change of pace this was. I approached the door to see what the sign said, and I was very surprised to find it read:
“Welcome to Tunbridge Scandinavian Evangelical Lutheran Church. This church was built in 1915 by Norwegian settlers to this area. No regular services were held after 1988. You are welcome to enter the church and look around. PLEASE BE RESPECTFUL. Secure the door when you leave. Thank you.”
I was very grateful that the property owner took the time to make this sign, and that I was able to go inside and look around.
I pushed through the double swinging doors which led to the sanctuary and my jaw dropped. Aside from a thick coating of dust, it looked like the parishioners just walked out of this place yesterday.
Of all the pews in the church, this one in front of the piano appears to be a favorite sitting spot. I couldn’t resist the urge to plunk out the opening bars of “Let It Be.”
Like prairie churches? Check out our hardcover book, Churches of the High Plains.
This church is still in such good condition, I really hope someone takes up the cause before it begins to deteriorate. The inside is largely dry, the windows are intact, and a new roof would go a long way toward extending the life of this place by decades.
After I finished photographing the main floor, I headed for the basement. The door at the bottom of the steps was unlocked, but it required a firm shove to open.
On the other side of the door, the darkened dining room. It was considerably darker than it appears in these photos, and I had to stand there for a moment to let my eyes adjust.
The fact that these items were still present and largely unbroken is emblematic of the respect with which previous visitors have treated this church. Let’s hope future visitors continue to treat this place with the same reverence.
Photos by Troy Larson, copyright © 2016 Sonic Tremor Media
A while back we posted a blog about the Nielsville/Cummings bridge over the Red River between Cummings, North Dakota and Nielsville, Minnesota. The bridge has deteriorated significantly and is presently closed pending replacement by a new bridge.
Max Schumacher (YouTube Channel here) recently visited and sent us an email to share the drone video he captured. It’s amazing footage of this historic Red River crossing, and it’s available in HD too, so if you have the capability, stream it to your largest TV for full effect.
Oak Park Theater in Minot has been vacant almost as long as I can remember. I was born and raised in Minot, and I attended quite a few movies in this theater as a kid. I saw Jaws here (through my fingers, because my hands were clasped over my face every time that music started…. duuuuuuh duh), the forgettable ensemble movie Earthquake, Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and most notably, Stars Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, in 1977. By the time The Empire Strikes Back hit theaters in 1980, Oak Park Theater had fallen out of favor and Cine 5 at Dakota Square Mall was the new place to see a movie. For most of my young adult life, I remember this theater, and the strip mall in the same parking lot, as a vacant, derelict facility in somewhat sad condition.
The building has been used off and on over the years since then (as a church, a pool hall, and a discount theater), but has stood largely unused of late with only the memories of locals to color the tale — remembrances of the sparkling, lighted star atop the pole out front, and lines of people stretching across the parking lot, waiting to get in. After a showing, moviegoers in the balcony could exit out the door on the south side of the building, and it was always a shock to push open the door and emerge on the metal staircase into the cool night air.
The era of the multiplex called an end to Oak Park Theater, but unlike the Empire Theater in downtown Minot (which was a paradise paved to put up a parking lot), the Oak Park Theater has managed to avoid the wrecking ball all these years, and now, nearly four decades later, this old lady might be poised for a comeback.
According to the Minot Daily News, a Minot businessman has plans to re-open the Oak Park Theater in June of 2016 after a sizeable renovation and expansion. Plans include adding a second screen, and the renovated Oak Park Theater will become a theater for discount movies, indie features, film festivals, and onscreen gaming.
Do you have memories of Oak Park Theater? Please leave a comment below.
These photos were taken in November of 2014.
Photos by Troy Larson, © 2016 Sonic Tremor Media
The book, and the website, are an in-depth look at the visual landscape of the Fargo-Moorhead metro, yesterday and today, through the use of vintage photographs and postcards juxtaposed with contemporary photographs from the same locations. (Grab the slider in the photo above and drag it back and forth!)
What was the first significant building in Fargo? What did downtown Moorhead originally look like? What did North Fargo look like in the aftermath of the 1957 tornado? Landmarks lost, and local history found. Check it out!
In our quest to find lonely, out-of-the-way places to photograph, we often get recommendations from people, and many times, the coordinates of those places are just a search away. However, we’ll occasionally run across the name of a place, and when we enter the name into mapping software, the search turns up zero results. Here’s one way to find places no longer on the map.
Banks, North Dakota is shown above on a Rand McNally railroad map from 1942, not far from the banks of the Missouri River, and not far from Seneschal, North Dakota, another pioneer settlement that would end up underwater after the construction of the Garrison Dam. Banks, however, was on high ground, and the location should still be dry. However, it no longer appears on modern maps, and a search in Google Maps returns nothing for the location. Let’s use GNIS to pinpoint the location.
The United States Geological Survey maintains a database (admittedly in a somewhat dated web presentation) of most named geographic locations. If it ever had a Federally-recognized name, it is likely in this database, known as the GNIS, or Geographic Names Information System. Visit the site, and click on “Domestic Names,” as shown above, then click “Search.”
On the next page, type the name of the place you’re looking for in the field labeled “Feature Name,” and select the state from the dropdown menu. Here, I’ve typed “Banks” and selected “North Dakota” from the dropdown. When you’re ready to search, click “Send Query.”
On the next page, we get three results. Watford City was originally known as Banks, so it appears in the search shown above. However, we want to see the location of the other “town” of Banks, so we click the one designated as Banks, “Populated Place.”
At the bottom of the “Banks, Populated Place” page, take note of the geographic coordinates, highlighted in blue in the image above. That’s what we’re looking for. With your cursor, highlight the lat/long coordinates. We want to plug these in to our favorite mapping software.
I like to use Google Earth. In the upper left corner search field, paste in the coordinates from the GNIS page and click “Search.” Voila. The location of Banks, North Dakota.
In this case, it appears there’s no remnant of a town. Further research would reveal Banks was only a rural post office, located on a farm, but if we wanted to check it out, we would have the coordinates.
Using GNIS is just one way to find old places no longer on the map, and we’ll cover a few others in a future post. Do you have any tips or tricks for finding lost places? Please share in the comments.
Original content © 2017 Sonic Tremor Media
We got an email request from someone not too long ago to do another “More North Dakota Sites You’ll Love” post (the original is here), so we’ve gathered up another handful of North Dakota-related sites you should check out.
Border Marker Project — We just discovered this one ourselves and it is really cool. The description of the Border Marker Project from their “About” page: In 1891 and 1892 the North and South Dakota state line was surveyed and marked with quartzite state line markers. Originally there were 720 of these marker placed every 1/2 mile from the Minnesota state line to the Montana border. Now less than half remain and are badly in need of restoration. It is the intent of our project to restore as many of the existing leaning markers as possible. In a few cases misplaced markers will be returned to their original location where possible. [facebook]
FMlostandfound.com — The website for FM Lost and Found is a look at the visual landscape of Fargo and Moorhead, yesterday and today, through classic postcards and vintage photographs, juxtaposed in many cases with current photographs taken from the same spot. There are plenty of ways to waste an hour on this website if Fargo and Moorhead interest you, and much more in the book. [website]
North Dakota Badlands Horse — North Dakota Badlands Horse is a non-profit dedicated to the well-being of the wild horses in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. “North Dakota Badlands Horse (NDBH) is a nonprofit made up of people from around the country and the world who are passionate about these magnificent North Dakota wild horses. We were able to save all but 8 of the 77 horses sold in 2009 and all 103 of them sold in 2015. Now that NDBH has a Partnership agreement with TRNP we are able to help capture horses using low stress herding on foot. A few excess young horses selected by park staff are removed and adopted out to pre-approved homes so that they will be able to be trained and cared for the rest of their lives.” [website] [facebook]
Travel North Dakota — The official state portal for North Dakota travel. You’ve likely seen the advertising campaign commercials starring Minot-native and Hollywood actor Josh Duhamel, and the website is loaded with ideas for fun North Dakota travel excursions, plus accommodations and more. [website] [Facebook]
Preservation North Dakota — If you’ve been a GND fan for any length of time, you know we support Preservation North Dakota and the good work they do to assist in the restoration and preservation of North Dakota’s historic places. Their website has been redesigned since we last checked-in, so check it out. [website] [Facebook]
The Minot Voice — The Minot Voice is a frequently updated feed of North Dakota stories and sites. The Minot Voice is sometimes politics- heavy, but the site encompasses everything North Dakota-related, and you’ll occasionally see Ghosts of North Dakota articles pop-up on the Minot Voice, too. [website] [facebook]
Do you know of an interesting North Dakota-related site or community? Let us know about it in the comments.
One of the more helpful techniques we’ve used in finding abandoned and out-of-the-way places to photograph is examining old maps. Abandonment frequently happens in the name of “progress.” When a highway was expanded, it frequently left places to wither. Similarly, the Garrison Dam project forced the abandonment of numerous places, like Sanish and Elbowoods (to name a few), and prompted the demolition of bridges and the abandonment of highways.
We recently found this Rand McNally World Atlas page that shows North Dakota in 1942, before the Interstates (actually, no roads are shown on this map, railroads only) and before Garrison Dam created Lake Sakakawea, and it’s fascinating. There are towns that no longer appear on the map, as well as some places that we’ve been planning to visit. Hopefully, we’ll have pictures of some of those places for you this summer. Until then, enjoy the map. Click on it to enlarge.
1942 Map by Rand McNally, original content © 2016 Sonic Tremor Media
We’ve all heard the stories from our parents and grandparents about having to walk to school with no shoes, uphill (both ways), and there’s certainly an air of humorous exaggeration in many of those tales, but not too much exaggeration. The truth is, daily existence as a pioneer on the prairie was a hard life, and the people who came to the northern plains were taking their lives in their hands, and facing dangers we can scarcely imagine today. Yes, we have our own challenges today, but take a moment to imagine living on the frontier when there were no antibiotics, or in a small city when there wasn’t a fire hydrant on every corner. At risk of sounding morbid, examining some of the terrible fates our ancestors so frequently faced helps us understand and appreciate the sacrifices they made so we could have a better life.
The idea for this post came to me as I read “With Affection, Marten” by Richard K. Hofstrand, a partly fictionalized chronicle of his ancestor Marten Hofstrand’s experience as an immigrant from Sweden who became a settler in the area of Brinsmade, North Dakota. The portion of the book dealing with the death of one of the Hofstrand children from tetanus was horrifying. A tightening of the muscles in the back caused the boy to literally bend over backwards, his hands clenched to his chest. His jaw locked, and eventually, respiration stopped. The Hofstrand boy’s only misfortune had been to step on a rusty rail. It was a simple mistake that resulted in an illness that could not be reversed with the technology of the day. It was a terrible fate for a tiny misstep.
The harsh prairie winters on the northern plains claimed victims every year. Animals needed to be tended, and someone had to get water from the well, or get wood from the pile. People did not always have the luxury of simply staying inside until the storm blew over. After a terrible series of blizzards in January of 1888, the Springfield Daily Republic reported on deaths in Dakota Territory. “Near Raymond, Dakota, two sons of WILLIAM DRIVER were frozen to death within a few feet of their barn. CHARLES HEATH is missing, and J. H. CLAPP has been discovered badly frozen, he having been out all night wandering upon the prairie. JAMES SMITH and two sons, aged 15 and 7, started for a load of hay six miles north from Minot, Dakota, on the 11th, and have not since been heard from.”
Sister Jeanne d’ Arc Kilwein, who once taught at the school in Haymarsh, North Dakota, related a story about how she and another sister tied themselves together with rope to avoid getting lost in the snow when they had to go to the well in a snowstorm. They made it back safely and had a good laugh about it, but in truth, going out in a blizzard was a dangerous undertaking that sometimes had to be done, and sometimes people paid with their lives.
In the days before electricity was widespread, fires were commonplace, partly due to the use of candles, oil lamps, and gas lighting, and partly due to the all-wood construction of so many pioneer-era structures. Much of the city of Fargo was destroyed in a fire in 1893, and firefighter W.H. Johnson died soon after from burns he sustained fighting the fire. Bismarck also suffered a devastating fire in 1898.
In 1899, just across the river from Fargo, in Moorhead, Minnesota, a former policeman was killed. The Fargo Forum and Daily Republican reported on February 18th, 1899, “Moorhead is in gloom over the tragic death of Sandy McLean last night. A fire broke out just before midnight at the residence of John Hokstad […] McLean attempted to pass between the burning house and that of Mrs. Nelson when the chimney toppled over and a mass of bricks struck him on the top of the head, causing instant death.”
One of the most tragic examples of death by fire involves the deaths of a schoolteacher and six pupils near Belfield, North Dakota, in 1914. 22 year-old schoolteacher Gladys Hollister and six of her students died when a wind-whipped prairie fire caught them in the open. The Bismarck Daily Tribune reported Hollister and the six students ran from their country school and attempted to reach a plowed field when they saw the fire approaching. They were overtaken by the fire less than seventy feet from safety. In a tragic twist of fate, the thirty mile per hour winds fanned the flames with such force that the fire raced by the school without consuming it. If they had just stayed in the school, they would have survived. The Tribune reported, “Miss HOLLISTER, who was in a most pitiable condition, with 90 percent of the skin of her body burned, was unconscious, but regained consciousness long enough to say that she realized she made a mistake in leaving the school house, but did what she thought was best.”
Sometimes referred to as consumption in the early days, tuberculosis was a real danger in the pioneer era, before antibiotics made the disease manageable. The disease affected the lungs and was typified by an infectious cough that spread the bacteria easily through the air. Treatment often involved fresh air and quarantine at tuberculosis sanatoriums, and North Dakota was home to just such a facility, San Haven Sanatorium, near Dunseith, in the Turtle Mountains. More barbaric treatments, like intentionally collapsing a lung, were sometimes ordered. Photos taken by Nora Thingvold, a nurse who worked at San Haven in the 30s, and the first person account of Mary, a ten year old girl who was a patient in the 1960s, tell the tale better than I can.
Vigilante justice was a reality on the prairie, and lynchings happened. Deserved or not, Charles Bannon was lynched on a cold January night in 1931, in the tiny town of Schafer. When the Haven family stopped picking up their mail, and debts went unpaid, McKenzie County Sheriff C. A. Jacobson went to the Haven homestead to investigate. There he found Bannon living in their home, and claiming to have dropped them off at the train station, where they had left for Oregon. The Haven’s bodies were later discovered on the farm and Bannon charged with the crime. On January 29th, 1931, a lynch mob, fearing that Bannon would be taken from McKenzie County and escape justice, broke down the door on his tiny Schafer jail cell, and took him to the bridge over Cherry Creek. In 2005, the Bismarck Tribune reported, “They tied Bannon’s hands behind his back, tied the hangman’s noose around his neck and the other end to the bridge railing. The men lifted him to the railing and yelled at him to jump. Charles Bannon’s last words, it’s said, were ‘You boys started this, you will have to finish this.'” He was found at 2:30 am by the Watford City Police Chief, still hanging from the bridge. He was the last recorded person to be strung up by vigilantes in North Dakota.
Although we like to remember “the old days” as a simpler time, where things were “better” and people more good-natured, the truth is, there were still evildoers, just like today. One such bad guy was responsible for the death of seven members of the Jacob Wolf family, and a chore boy, Jacob Hofer, on April 22nd, 1920. All the victims were killed with shotgun blasts, except the youngest Wolf girl who was murdered with a hatchet. Baby Emma Wolf was the only survivor. All told, it is considered the worst mass-murder in North Dakota history. The Wolf’s neighbor, Henry Layer, was tried, convicted, and died in prison, but many believe the police, and politicians eager to further their careers with a conviction, condemned the wrong man.
Death by Horse
I consulted our friend Derek Dahlsad, who runs the excellent Dakota Death Trip blog [Facebook here], and he reminded me that simply living in the age of horse and wagon forced our ancestors to risk death every day, simply by riding in a wagon or tending to the horses. “The driver falling out of a moving vehicle and being run over by it happened a lot — and seeing that these are horse drawn vehicles, it’s not like a car accident, where the car goes off the road and crashes when the driver is gone, but when you’ve got horses running the machine then they’re just going to continue on to wherever they’re headed towards; likely the dead body is found on open prairie and the horses are at home, or the horses and plow are waiting at the end of the field for instructions on how to turn around and the body is in the furrows.” In one gruesome example, a White Rock, South Dakota man died in 1906 when he was dragged by a horse-drawn wagon. In another more common circumstance, a Fort Rice, North Dakota man died after he was kicked by a horse.
After horses, trains were the primary means of transportation for nearly fifty years for settlers on the prairie, and trains also posed a danger to their passengers. The Williston Graphic reported in April 18th, 1907, “The Great Northern palatial coast train, Oriental Limited No. 1, running at a rate of thirty five miles an hour, was ditched at 1:23 a.m. three quarters of a mile east of Bartlett, N.D., and eleven passengers were killed and twelve seriously injured as a result. With the exception of the Pullman sleeper and the observation car, the entire train consisting of eight coaches was completely destroyed by fire which was started immediately after the passenger train left the track. The ten unknown passengers killed were burned to death in the wreckage before their bodies could be rescued.”
Have you heard stories about the dangers your family faced in life as settlers on the prairie? Please leave a comment.
Original content copyright © 2016 Sonic Tremor Media
One of the things we’ve always loved about photographing North Dakota’s abandoned places and roadside attractions is that it feels like an alternative form of tourism–that is to say, most of these places are interesting and fun to visit, but there are generally no crowds and no admission fees. However, when you have the kids in the car, or Grandma and Grandpa tagging along on a day trip, sometimes you need something a little more family friendly, with fewer rusty nails to step on (and cheap is always good). So, gas up the family truckster. Here are eleven North Dakota attractions you can visit for free.
The original Fort Abercrombie was constructed in 1858, and it was the first military settlement in what would become North Dakota. Fort Abercrombie is a relic of the first transportation boom in the Dakota Territory — riverboats. Before the railroads, riverboats were one of the most efficient means of hauling cargo, and the Red River became a highway between Fort Abercrombie and Winnipeg. Two reconstructed blockhouses and the original guard house now reside at The Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site. Fort Abercrombie is right on the Red River, about forty minutes south of Fargo.
Gingras Trading Post
Gingras Trading Post is northeast of Walhalla about four miles from the Canadian border. The trading post was established in 1801 as a center of commerce on a sometimes hostile frontier. According to the State Historical Society: The buildings at Gingras State Historic Site are the oldest standing structures in North Dakota. They have been restored to their original appearance by the State Historical Society of North Dakota.
Cartwright Tunnel and Fairview Lift Bridge
Cartwright Tunnel and Fairview Lift Bridge, in McKenzie County, just a short drive southwest of Williston, is a two-for-one attraction–a lift bridge on the Yellowstone River (which was only raised one time), and North Dakota’s only railroad tunnel. Both have now been converted to tourist attractions, and are free to explore. Bonus: on a hot summer day, the Cartwright Tunnel features natural air-conditioning in a pitch black and blissfully cool tunnel.
Dakota Thunder and Frontier Village
Dakota Thunder, in Jamestown, is billed as the World’s Largest Buffalo. It’s a concrete statue of a North American Bison which stands at the east end of Frontier Village, a replica frontier town with actual buildings from places around the state. It’s free to get in, and for a few extra bucks, you can visit the National Buffalo Museum which is also on-site.
Standing Rock Hill Historic Site
Standing Rock Hill Historic Site, not to be confused with Standing Rock Reservation much further to the west, is a scenic and sacred site south of Kathryn and west of Enderlin, in Ransom County. Standing Rock Hill Historic Site consists of four Native American burial mounds, the largest of which is marked with the small standing rock shown here. Getting to the site requires a fairly steep uphill drive on a minimally maintained road, and the trip should only be taken by the adventurous if the weather is bad.
White Butte is the highest point in North Dakota, in Slope County, near Amidon, and of the fifty state high points, one of only seven on private land. It’s a fairly strenuous thirty-minute hike to the summit. The property owners are known to be friendly to the climbing community as long as you’re respectful and pick up after yourself. The last time we visited, there was a porta-potty at the base, but there are no other services of any kind, and no admission fee.
Northern Pacific High Line Bridge #64
High Line Bridge is the longest railroad bridge in the state, and like the Gassman-Coulee Trestle in Minot and the Sheyenne River Bridge near Karnak, we chose to photograph it and feature it here due to the railroads’ pivotal role in settling North Dakota. High Line Bridge is in Valley City, there’s a park at the base of the bridge, and plenty of restaurants and accommodations in town. No admission fee.
Painted Canyon Visitor Center is right off the north side of Interstate 94, a few miles east of Medora. If you’re entering the Badlands from the east, this is your first chance to get a look at them from a scenic overlook, and it is amazing. While it costs a few bucks to get into Theodore Roosevelt National Park a few miles west, the Painted Canyon Overlook is free.
Jensen Cabin at Wadeson Park
Jensen Cabin, in Barnes County, was built in 1878 by Norwegian immigrant Carl Bjerke Jensen, made from hand-hewn oak. The cabin and the land were donated to the State Historical Society by the Wadeson family in 1957. This cabin was in pretty bad shape until it was restored in 1981. It’s a beautiful drive to get here if you drive the Sheyenne River Valley Scenic Byway from Valley City, and the placid and soothing Wadeson Park Spillway is right across the road. It’s a nice history lesson, and it’s free.
Gassman Coulee Trestle
Gassman Coulee Trestle is one of three very large railroad trestles we’ve photographed, the others being the High Line in Valley City and Sheyenne River Bridge near Karnak. Gassman Coulee Trestle, just west of Minot, is an attraction in the roughest sense–you can drive under it, photograph it, or just stand in awe of it, but there’s no visitor center or anything like that. It’s just a great place to be outside with your camera on a hot summer night. There was once a ski resort under this trestle, and the former ski lodge is still there, but now it’s a private residence.
The site of Old Sanish
Old Sanish lies beneath the waves of Lake Sakakawea most of the time, but sometimes, if the water is really low, you can see the remains of Old Sanish. With the water at normal levels, the ruins are submerged, but you can still visit Crow Flies High Butte, see the monument to Old Sanish which features photos of the town, and get a fantastic panorama view of Lake Sakakawea and Four Bears Bridge.
Photos by Troy Larson and Terry Hinnenkamp, copyright © 2016 Sonic Tremor Media
Mariah (MJ) Masilko is a talented artist and photographer, a kindred spirit who has shared a number of places with us over the years, including ghost town Stady, North Dakota, the end of the Masonic Lodge in Calvin, and others. We caught up with Mariah in between artist and mom activities, and she was kind enough to give us some insight on her work.
Q: Where do you live, and what is your connection to North Dakota?
I’m currently in South St. Paul, MN. I was born in Grand Forks, and my parents still live there. I also lived in Fargo for a short time when my first son was born in 2004, and my husband managed the Red Bear restaurant in Moorhead.
Q: What do you do for a living?
I’m a KeyCite Analyst at Thomson Reuters, the former West Publishing. I determine relationships between court cases and hook them together to help legal researchers.
Q: If I’m not mistaken, you have a connection to some places in Grand Forks that no longer exist, correct? Can you tell us about that? Does your personal connection to a place that’s gone now inspire your art?
Well I grew up in the Riverside neighborhood, and my street and the houses that were on it are now gone. I think growing up in an old neighborhood like that may have helped shape my love for old buildings, but the most important building to me was the old St. Anne’s Guest Home. It was just a few blocks from my house, a former old folks’ home and before that, a hospital. It was abandoned around 1982, and walking past this big abandoned building every day made me curious. I was 13 when I first got up the courage to go inside, and my life has never been the same since! I have always been drawn to old things and historical things, but this was when I became addicted to abandoned things. St. Anne’s isn’t technically gone – it was threatened a few times but luckily it was saved. It is no longer abandoned, and while it’s great that they’re using it and it lives on, I still miss the days of exploration and adventure, walking down those long dusty halls and finding something new every time. I look for St. Anne’s in all the places I photograph. Sometimes I see an arch or a color of paint on a wall, and it will bring me back to those old hallways and all the excitement I felt back when I was an 8th grader, poking around St. Anne’s with my Kodak Instamatic 126 camera.
Q: Tell us about some of the North Dakota places you’ve photographed. Do you have a favorite?
San Haven would have to be my favorite! I’ve been there 5 or 6 times. It’s the most creepy place I’ve ever been (and I’ve been to some creepy places!) Sadly every time I’ve gone, more things have fallen down. I last was there in 2011, and most of the buildings were in bad shape. I’d love to go again some time!
Another place I love is Sarles, because my grandparents lived there and I spent so much of my childhood in that town. So there’s an emotional connection I have to the abandoned school because my mother and all her brothers and sisters went there. That’s another building that’s in bad shape. I find it beautiful, but also sad. When I explored it with my mother she walked through the rooms, telling me about an amazing teacher who made the school more than just bricks and glass and plaster. The materials that go into a place are only part of what makes buildings – they are built for humans and the things humans do inside them shape their character as much as their physical form.
The ghost town of Charbonneau was another favorite of mine, along with Brantford, Temple, Antler, and the radar base at Fortuna. Really I have many favorites – there are so many beautiful lonely places in North Dakota! Abandoned schools, churches, and hospitals are my favorite subjects.
Q: You have an affinity for Kirkbrides. Can you explain what a Kirkbride is and tell us why you love them?
“Kirkbride” refers to a style of asylum architecture and mental health treatment that was popular in the mid to late 19th century. It was based on the ideas of Dr. Thomas Kirkbride, who believed the mentally ill were human beings suffering from an illness which could be cured. Before then the mentally ill were kept in prisons and chained up in basements. Doctor Kirkbride came up with his design based on his theory that such illness could be cured through beauty, rational order of architecture, fresh air, sunlight, and being far away from urban centers. The building itself was part of the treatment. The Kirkbride Plan called for a central administration building with wings set back at regular intervals. Of course the moral treatment Dr. Kirkbride had envisioned never really worked out. Mental health is much more complex than that, and the institutions were victims of their own success. By the mid 20th century, overcrowding and underfunding had led to patient neglect and abuse. About 75 Kirkbride buildings were built – some are still in use today, but many were abandoned due to shifting attitudes about mental health care, the deinstitutionalization movement, and new drug treatments. They fell into disrepair and because of their size have often been deemed by cities and states to be too expensive to reuse, and most of those have been demolished. Only 34 still stand today. Many people know the negative history of mental institutions, but few also take into account the history and positive intentions of their design, and the sad fact that we’ve come full circle and ironically, more of the mentally ill are in prisons again today than are being cared for in psychiatric hospitals.
I never thought I’d get into such a thing, but when I stood next to my first Kirkbride (the one in Fergus Falls, MN, which I visited for the first time in 2006), I couldn’t put into words the intense feelings I felt next to such an immense structure with such a complicated history. I rarely have words, but I do have a camera! It’s how I say the things I don’t know how to say.
In May of 2013 I was part of a group of photographers who took on the entire Fergus Falls State Hospital in an event called “Project Kirkbride.” Now I’m involved with a new advocacy group, “Preservationworks,” which is committed to preserving the remaining Kirkbride asylums.
Q: Is there a place you want to photograph, in North Dakota or beyond, that you haven’t been to yet? Why do you want to shoot it?
In North Dakota I haven’t explored the southeast corner, so I’d love to check that area out sometime. I don’t have any specific places in mind yet. Outside of North Dakota my dream is to shoot in Pripyat and the exclusion zone around Chernobyl. It seems like the ultimate in abandoned places! A place that was vibrant and full of life one day, and a couple days later was empty, with everything left behind. A haunting reminder of a terrible tragedy.
Q: Your artistic pursuits extend beyond photography. What do you do? Any exhibitions coming up?
I paint some of the lonely, abandoned things that I photograph. I sometimes work with oils, and more recently I’ve been mostly doing watercolor. I have four young children and finding time to paint is a challenge! I’m looking for a place to exhibit at Art-A-Whirl in Northeast Minneapolis in May (editor’s note: 2016), and am considering applying for the Grand Cities Art Fest in June.
Q: Where can people see more of your work?
My website, www.mjmasilko.com is mostly my paintings and drawings, but has some of my photography as well. It is a work in progress, and I hope to get some more blog posts up soon about various places I’ve photographed!
Q: Where can we follow you?
The best place is my Facebook page.
Photo by Mariah Masilko. Original content copyright © 2017 Sonic Tremor Media
Ghosts of North Dakota has been lucky over the years to make the acquaintance of a number of talented artists and photographers who share our passion for the history and austere beauty of the prairie. One of those artists is John Piepkorn, who has contributed photos of Hanks, North Dakota (population one), the Hamlet School, and the Wheelock School, among others.
John took a few minutes from a busy schedule of photography, fat tire biking, and holiday festivities to answer a few questions for us.
Q: You’re in Minnesota now, correct? Where do you live, and what is your connection to North Dakota?
I live in Minnetonka, Minnesota. I went to college in the Fargo-Moorhead area where I met my wife Ann, who grew up in Fairview, Montana, which is literally on the state line with North Dakota. We would go to my in-law’s house one or two times a year, and as a result, I have driven across the state of North Dakota too many times to count. I have always been fascinated by the abandoned farmsteads, schools and churches that dot the landscape and wanted to know the stories behind them. North Dakota is really under appreciated. I think the scenery in some parts of the state, while sometimes stark, is still beautiful.
Q: What do you do for a living?
I am a photographer for a cataloging company in Minneapolis. Our company sells aftermarket products for motorcycles, ATVs, snowmobiles and personal watercraft.
There are so many really interesting places in North Dakota. It’s tough to pick just one favorite, but I would say some of the one room schoolhouses in the SW part of the state, like Griffin, or Gascoyne or Nebo or Grand River. The landscape in that part of the state really gives the images a feeling of desolation. I think it really “fits” the subject matter. When you are out there, it’s hard to imagine being a kid and attending school in a place like that.
I’m also fascinated by the abandoned churches, they were the things that were often the center of the community and anchored people to the land. Of those, I would say Hurricane Lake Church in Pierce County is on of my favorites (maybe because it has such and interesting name).
Also, not to be too long winded, there are some really beautiful grain elevators, especially the faded wooden ones like in Charbonneau, ND.
Q: Is there a place you want to photograph, in North Dakota or beyond, that you haven’t been to yet? Why do you want to shoot it?
I’ve been across the state multiple times, but I haven’t been to the NE part of the state all that much. I enjoyed the western part of the state from a photographic standpoint simply because the lack of trees makes it easier to compose my photographs. There are too many spots I have mapped out to pick just one, I want to find all these abandoned places and capture these images before the structures fall down or are torn down.
Q: What is your process for finding out-of-the-way places? Do you use mapping software? Navigation? etc…
You will eventually find some interesting spots to photograph by driving down just about any gravel road in North Dakota, but since I have a limited amount of time to be out taking photos, I try to make the most of my time. I purchased some ND DOT maps which are pretty detailed, and show the old schools and churches that I like to shoot. I cross-reference those sites with Google maps to see if the structure on the map is still standing, then try to plan out an effective route to see as much as possible in as short a time as possible. Panoramio is also a great site to find some of these out of the way places. When you are out driving around, a GPS is a necessity. Sometimes you don’t get phone service, so a Garmin or Magellan system is invaluable.
Q: Artists frequently strive to monetize their craft and achieve the dream of making art for a living. Is that something you work toward? What do you do? Any exhibitions coming up?
My goal is make enough off my photos to fund my next North Dakota photo trip. I’ve had two photo exhibitions so far featuring images of these abandoned places. I’m working on my proposal for my next one. I’ve sold a number of photos and have had images published in a number of publications.
Q: Where can people see more of your work?
Q: Where can we follow you?
Original content copyright © 2015 Sonic Tremor Media
Last summer, we had the opportunity to go back to White Butte for the first time since 2007, so we couldn’t resist the chance to go to the summit and get some GoPro video in HD.
White Butte is in Slope County, and of the fifty state high points, it is one of only seven that is on private land — North Dakota, Nebraska, Maryland, Louisiana, Kansas, Indiana and Illinois. The rest of the states’ high points lie mainly within state or national parks.
We opted not to include any narration on this one, just the beautiful view from the summit of North Dakota’s highest point.
Stream this one to your TV if you have the capability. It looks great on a big screen.
The pseudo-scientific field of cryptozoology deals with theories of creatures unknown to science, many of which have their origins in Native American lore. Stories of Sasquatch in the Pacific Northwest, and the Wendigo in Minnesota and the Great Lakes region, originated with native people. Even North Dakota has a mysterious but little-known monster.
A legend of the Dakota nation tells the story of Miniwashitu; a Missouri River monster of terrifying appearance and effect. Author Melvin Randolph Gilmore, one-time curator for the North Dakota State Historical Society, wrote about Miniwashitu in 1921.
It is said that in the long ago there was a mysterious being within the stream of the Missouri River. It was seldom seen by human beings, and was most dreadful to see. It is said that sometimes it was seen within the water in the middle of the stream, causing a redness shining like the redness of fire as it passed up the stream against the current with a terrific roaring sound.
And they say that if this dreadful being was seen by anyone in the daytime anyone who thus saw it soon after became crazy and continued restless and writhing as though in pain until he was relieved by death. And it is said that one time not a very great many years ago this frightful being was seen by a man, and he told how it appeared. He said that it was of strange form and covered all over with hair like a buffalo, but red in color; that it had only one eye in the middle of its forehead, and above that a single horn. Its backbone stood out notched and jagged like an enormous saw. As soon as the man beheld the awful sight everything became dark to him, he said. He was just able to reach home, but he lost his reason and soon after that he died.
It is said this mysterious “Miniwashitu” (water monster) still lives in the Missouri River, and that in springtime, as it moves up-stream against the current it breaks up the ice of the river. This water monster was held in awe and dread by the people.
It’s not hard to imagine the dread people felt considering the horror of the legend–a red, hairy serpent of the Missouri River, with one eye, a horn, and sharp spines along its back. Its appearance was accompanied by a terrifying roar, and it imparted blindness and insanity on anyone who saw it. Death followed soon after.
Come spring, perhaps it’s best to avert your eyes from the Missouri River, and avoid the terrible visage of the Miniwashitu.
Original content copyright © 2015 Sonic Tremor Media
This is part two in our series about historic North Dakota automobile bridges. In part one, we focused on Sheyenne River crossings in southeast North Dakota. This time, we’ve photographed historic steel bridges in East-Central North Dakota, on the Sheyenne, Goose, and James Rivers.
Some of these bridges are closed and abandoned, others are still in use, and one has been restored, but they will all share the same fate without human intervention, so we’ve chosen to document them here.
Norway Bridge spans the Goose River in Traill County, about halfway between Hillsboro and Mayville, North Dakota. It’s a Pratt pony truss bridge constructed by Jardine & Anderson of Fargo and Hillsboro in 1912 at a cost of about four thousand dollars. It is on the National Register of Historic Places, and is considered significant because its construction by a local contractor makes it rare considering most bridges at the time were built by larger firms like Fargo Bridge & Iron Co. and other out-of-state bridge builders.
Norway Bridge was our first stop on this trip and we arrived early in the morning, when frost was still present on the timber deck. The bridge still gets frequent use — we saw several vehicles cross just in the few minutes were were there.
Viking Bridge is the oldest documented automobile bridge still-standing in North Dakota. It was built in 1885 by C.P. Jones out of Minneapolis and originally spanned the Goose River between Mayville and Portland, but in 1915, Jardine & Anderson were hired to move this bridge to its present location, about a mile and a half northwest of Portland, North Dakota, in Traill County. It served traffic until 2006, by which time it had deteriorated to the point that it was no longer safe.
In 2010, Viking Bridge was rehabilitated by architecture and engineering firm KLJ. Today there is a informative plaque on-site detailing the bridge’s history.
Washburn Township Bridge
This abandoned Washburn Township bridge was one of our favorite destinations on this trip. It spans the Sheyenne River at a spot in Griggs County, about four and a half miles east of Cooperstown, but today it has fallen into serious disrepair. There’s a dam just a few dozen feet to the southeast of this bridge, and the sound of rushing water coupled with the beautiful location make it the perfect spot to drop a line, or just dangle your toes in the river. It’s hard to imagine how someone hasn’t led an effort to turn this into a public park yet.
Tyrol Township Bridge
This Tyrol Township bridge is in Griggs County about nine miles northeast of Cooperstown. It is built from steel supplied by the Inland Steel Company of East Chicago, Indiana, a company which existed for 105 years from 1893 to 1998, when it was absorbed by a multinational. We don’t know the year of construction or builder of this bridge, so please leave a comment if you know more.
Nesheim Township Bridge
If you were to approach this bridge from the south you would travel a road that is now barely more than a tunnel through the trees as it descends into the Sheyenne Valley.
This Nesheim Township bridge (not to be confused with “Nesheim Bridge,” which is next) is in Nelson County, just over three miles south of McVille, North Dakota.
Nesheim Bridge was built in 1904 by Fargo Bridge & Iron Company, in Nesheim Township, Nelson County, about 2 1/2 miles southwest of McVille, North Dakota. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Dayton Township Bridge
Dayton Township Bridge is a tiny steel bridge on the Sheyenne River in Nelson County, about 28 miles southeast of Devils Lake. It was built sometime in the 1910s by the Fargo Bridge & Iron Company.
New Rockford Bridge
The New Rockford Bridge, on the north edge of New Rockford, North Dakota in Eddy County, was once New Rockford’s main bridge across the James River. It was built by Fargo Bridge & Iron Co. in 1904. It is on the National Register of Historic Places, partly due to its Warren truss construction, which is rare in North Dakota. Unfortunately it is now closed to vehicle traffic and falling into disrepair.
We found the scenery of the marshy wetlands along this stretch of river beautiful, but we only had to look below the bridge to see bicycles dumped in the river. It would be really nice to see a rehabilitation happen here. As with several of the other closed bridges on this list, this could be a real attraction as a fishing bridge or public park if it was just given a little TLC.
If you’ve followed this site for any length of time, you know we occasionally like to photograph bridges, for a number of reasons. Sometimes it’s for their historic significance (like Caledonia and Romness Township bridges), and other times it’s because the bridge is huge and awe-inspiring, as is the case with the High Line, Karnak, and Gassman Coulee railroad trestles.
In this case, we’ve decided to photograph most of the historic automobile bridges of the Sheyenne River Valley, some abandoned but many still in use, while they still exist. Just like the structures of prairie ghost towns, these bridges are endangered by time and natural events. Floods, weather cycles, and normal wear and tear take a toll on these bridges, and without restoration, they will be gone someday. Also, it’s hard to resist the urge to go out and shoot photos when it’s sixty-some degrees in November.
Just a final note, I’ve labeled these bridges geographically, or in accordance with how I’ve seen them referenced online. If you know the official name of any of these bridges, please leave a comment.
Walcott Township Bridge
The Walcott Township bridge is in Richland County, about a mile or two south of Kindred, North Dakota, twenty miles southwest of Fargo. It is closed to all but foot traffic.
Richland County Bridge
This Richland County Bridge is along a decidedly lonely and particularly beautiful stretch of unpaved road, about two and a half miles southwest of the Walcott Township bridge shown previously, or seven and a half miles directly south of Davenport, North Dakota.
This bridge is in Richland County in the small rural community called Barrie, about eight miles southeast of Leonard, North Dakota, or twenty seven miles southwest of Fargo. Barrie Congregational Church, established in 1889, has a beautiful building just down the road from this bridge.
Shenford Township Bridge
This bridge is in Shenford Township, Ransom County, about thirteen miles northeast of Lisbon, North Dakota. As I traveled to the site, I was overcome with the ambience of the harvest as I passed farmers’ trucks lining the unpaved roads. I could see four pillars of smoke on the horizon from those who were already burning off their fields, and the smell of rich earth and smoke washed-over me.
I arrived to find a beautiful, steel bridge spanning the Sheyenne River. This bridge was built by Hewett Bridge Company sometime between 1907 and 1911. A pickup rumbled over the span while I was there and it was thunderous.
Colton’s Crossing is a 128-foot pin-connected Pratt through truss bridge, and it is on the National Register of Historic Places. The bridge was built by Hewett Bridge Company of Minneapolis in 1907. They were the main bridge contractor in Ransom County at the time, and they were also responsible for the other Ransom County bridges in this post. Colton’s Crossing is the oldest surviving through truss bridge in Ransom County.
Martinson Bridge is in Ransom County, about thirty miles south of Valley City, in the Sheyenne State Forest. This bridge was built in 1920 and has undergone substantial reconstruction and improvement over the years. Of all the bridges I visited on this day, this one was probably in the best condition.
Little Yellowstone Bridge
At the east end of the bridge — once a pleasant little roadside attraction, now vacant.
I wonder if Mindy and Nathan are still together.
This bridge is in Little Yellowstone Park, on the border of Ransom and Barnes Counties, just south of Kathryn, North Dakota.
In part two of this series we’ll be sharing more bridges in the region north of Interstate 94. To get notified when we post a new installment, drop your email in the form below.
Photos by Troy Larson, © 2015 Sonic Tremor Media
Defining what exactly constitutes a “ghost town” can sometimes be tricky. In our years of exploring North Dakota’s abandoned places, we’ve often encountered former towns where the townsite itself is empty, but there’s a farm about half a mile down the road. Sometimes a former town like Sims, North Dakota has an active church, but nobody actually lives on the town site. And still other times, we will hear objections from people who feel as though we’ve misrepresented their town, or somehow labeled it a ghost town because it appears on this website, in which case we clarify that this site is about ghost towns and abandoned places, like the former First National Bank and Barber Auditorium in Marmarth, North Dakota, a town with a population over a hundred.
Here we’ve assembled our most strictly defined list of ghost towns in North Dakota, places where there are zero residents, and in some cases, zero remains. It’s life after people, North Dakota style.
Griffin, North Dakota
Griffin, North Dakota is a true ghost town in Bowman County, about halfway between Bowman and Rhame. It was once home to some of the largest stockyards in southwest North Dakota, and it was also a stop on one of America’s first cross-country highways–a route from Massachusetts to Seattle, marked in places by three foot stone markers painted yellow, known as the Yellowstone Trail.
Sherbrooke, North Dakota
Nobody lives in Sherbooke, North Dakota anymore, and only two homes remain standing on the town site, but there is a well-tended cemetery in the area and farms just down the road.
Bluegrass, North Dakota
Bluegrass, North Dakota, a true ghost town, population zero, in Morton County, about thirty-five miles northwest of Mandan. The railroad never came to Bluegrass, and the peak population was only twenty. Today it is a true ghost town. The former service station shown here has since burned.
Josephine, North Dakota
Where there was once a mercantile store and residents numbering a dozen or two, there are only two remaining grain elevators in the town that was once Josephine, North Dakota.
Trotters, North Dakota
Trotters, North Dakota is a ghost town just outside the official boundary of the Little Missouri National Grasslands — a boundary visible only on maps. The church is still sometimes used for weddings and special events. Nobody lives here anymore.
Temple, North Dakota
Temple is a rapidly disappearing ghost town in the oil patch and we have several user contributed galleries from Nicole Simpson and Mark Johnson, featuring the church shown above and the school which no longer stands on the town site.
Freda, North Dakota
A train depot and the crumbling remains of Freda, North Dakota lie in the tall grass, nestled among the rolling green hills of Missouri River country. It’s a short drive southwest of Mandan to this true ghost town in Grant County.
Lincoln Valley, North Dakota
Lincoln Valley is one of our all-time favorite ghost towns. It’s been vacant since Joe Leintz moved out in the 1970s, and we’ve been back for a visit on several occasions. The former bar and ice cream parlor stills stands on the site, as well as several abandoned homes.
Arena, North Dakota
St. John’s Lutheran Church is the most prominent landmark in this former town. Two homes plus a small country school building that was moved into town from somewhere else are still standing in Arena.
Sims, North Dakota
Possibly the most beautiful ghost town we’ve ever been to, Sims is home to a still-active church, an abandoned home, and a cemetery on top of the hill. There are several other abandoned structures nearby, and a few inhabited farms just down the road. This photo was featured on the dustjacket of our second book.
Straubville, North Dakota
Straubville is a crumbling ruin of a ghost town, with just a handful of structures still standing and several that have collapsed.
Hesper, North Dakota
As it frequently happens, Hesper, North Dakota became a ghost town when the last resident passed away just a few years ago.
Deisem, North Dakota
This former Seventh Day Adventist Church is all that remains of Deisem, North Dakota, a rural settlement where the ruins of a general store and post office still rest in tall grass.
Nanson, North Dakota
Nanson, North Dakota might be the most remote ghost town we’ve ever visited. There are no telephone poles or power lines in the area, no residents, and four abandoned homes plus some miscellaneous outbuildings onsite.
Eastedge, North Dakota
Only the ruins of a railroad loading dock and two abandoned homes remain on the site of Eastedge. This town comes with some spooky lore provided by visitors to the site, including a claim that the last resident committed suicide, and that a gentleman was electrocuted by power lines while moving the white house which is now going through a slow motion collapse.
Stady, North Dakota
Mariah Masilko took these photographs of Stady, North Dakota, a town which we’re told has since been razed. Stady is no more.
Omemee, North Dakota
Omemee, North Dakota once had 650 residents, but has now virtually disappeared and will soon pass into history as only a memory. Mark Johnson contributed the photo above of a place referred to as the “Superintendent’s house” and when we visited in 2017, we found it was only a pile of bricks.
Thelen, North Dakota
Thelen is in Golden Valley County, southeast of Beach. It had a post office for one year, and boomed to a population of 20. Dave Thorson sent in these photos of Thelen which is today, a ghost town.
Charbonneau, North Dakota
Charbonneau, North Dakota is a true ghost town in western North Dakota, about fifteen minutes west of Watford City. These photos were taken by John Piepkorn in 2010.
Aylmer, North Dakota
Although there is an inhabited farm about a quarter mile down the road, there are only these few structures remaining from the town that was once Aylmer, North Dakota.
Do you know of a true, North Dakota ghost town we haven’t photographed yet? Please leave a comment.
Original Content © 2017 Sonic Tremor Media
The Dust Bowl was a contributing factor in the abandonment of farms and rural towns in North Dakota during the 1930s, a subject we’ve covered before. Western North Dakota was particularly hard hit, documented in these photos of Grassy Butte.
In 1936, the American economy was struggling to recover from the Great Depression. The Depression hit bottom in 1933, but the recovery was slowed in rural states by droughts and grasshopper plagues, leading to crop loss and economic hardship. In July and August of 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt toured nine drought-stricken western states, including North Dakota, to observe the conditions firsthand. In a fireside chat one month later, on September 6th, 1936, the President addressed the drought, the plight of farmers, and labor issues.
Watch the video, featuring the photos of FSA photographer Arthur Rothstein, accompanied by the first few minutes of FDR’s fireside chat.
Photos by Arthur Rothstein. Original content copyright Sonic Tremor Media LLC
April 14th, 2015 is the eightieth anniversary of Black Sunday, arguably the worst day of the Dust Bowl era. Dust storms that had plagued North America for a decade reached a terrible crescendo on that day, with dust clouds taller than the tallest buildings enveloping and blanketing Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado and many other places.
PBS’ American Experience describes the experience of one family who was caught traveling on that day as a Black Blizzard approached:
Ed and Ada Phillips of Boise City, and their six-year-old daughter, had to stop on their way to seek shelter in an abandoned adobe hut. There they joined ten other people already huddled in the two-room ruin, sitting for four hours in the dark, fearing that they would be smothered.
In his memoir, Farming the Dust Bowl, Kansas farmer Lawrence Svobida describes an approaching dust storm:
At other times a cloud is seen to be approaching from a distance of many miles. Already it has the banked appearance of a cumulus cloud, but it is black instead of white and it hangs low, seeming to hug the earth. Instead of being slow to change its form, it appears to be rolling on itself from the crest downward. As it sweeps onward, the landscape is progressively blotted out. Birds fly in terror before the storm, and only those that are strong of wing may escape. The smaller birds fly until they are exhausted, then fall to the ground, to share the fate of the thousands of jack rabbits which perish from suffocation
The northern plains states and Canadian provinces suffered from these dust storms for years, a subject we’ve covered before. The Farm Security Administration employed a number of photographers to document the effects of the Dust Bowl, and we’ve posted the work of several who photographed North Dakota, including Arthur Rothstein’s photos of Dust Bowl Grassy Butte, and The Grashhopper Plagues, plus Russell Lee’s photos in this piece.
Please take a look and take a moment to remember those affected by Black Sunday.
It is looking like an early spring this year, and you need no more evidence than these photos, taken on March 15th, 2015, in south central North Dakota.
March 15th is the earliest in the season Terry and I have ever gone out on an official shoot. Previously, the third week of April was the soonest we had ventured out.
This spring weather reminds me of the warm winter followed by the drought and heat of 2011. Let’s hope that’s not what we’re in for again this year.
The weather was so nice, we kept finding excuses to stop the car and shoot scenery stuff.
This was by far the most unexpected thing we saw all day, though. It was 75 degrees and we were in our shirtsleeves, but if you look really close, you can see a man standing on the ice in the photo above, just below the horizon on the far right. With the ice melting everywhere, he was out on the ice with a rod, fishing.
Hope you have a great spring and summer. If it turns out to be as dry as it’s looking, please practice fire safety.
Photos by Troy Larson and Terry Hinnenkamp, copyright Sonic Tremor Media LLC
In 1883, Bismarck had only been “Bismarck” for ten years, having existed first as a tiny frontier settlement called Missouri Crossing, then as Edwinton, until 1873. Bismarck assumed an important place in the history of the American west when it supplanted Yankton as the capital of Dakota Territory in 1883. Settlers were soon streaming in.
Here’s a vintage view of Bismarck circa 1883 in the form of a lithograph from the JJ Stoner Company of Madison, Wisconsin. The size of this photo is HUGE, so if you click the photo it may take a moment to load the full-size image.
Note the four landmarks in the corners — the NP Bridge across the Missouri, the Dakota Territory Penitentiary, Bismarck High School, and the original State Capitol. Update: In my original post, I neglected to mention that the Capitol building was not yet complete when this lithograph was done, and the building did not actually look like this when it was complete.
Like Fargo in 1893 and Chicago in 1871, Bismarck fell victim to a massive wind-whipped fire on August 8th, 1898.
As was the case with so many pioneer-era cities around the nation, Bismarck in 1898 was a city constructed largely of wood. When coupled with a frequently unrelenting prairie wind, any unusual dry spell created extraordinarily dangerous conditions.
In fact, the city of Bismarck had dodged a bullet eight years earlier when a fire in the spring of 1890 nearly set off an inferno downtown. The Sunday Inter Ocean newspaper in Chicago reported on March 26th, 1890:
Incendiarism at Bismarck, N. D.
Some one tried to burn up the town this morning. At 2 o’clock an incendiary started a blaze between two empty buildings, with the wind blowing sixty miles an hours. The old opera-house on Third street, the laundry building belonging to George P. Flannery of Minneapolis and the Judkins photograph gallery were burned. The sparks also set fire to two small houses two blocks distant. Only the wet roofs from the recent snows saved half of the town. About the same hour a fire was started in a lumber yard in the east end of town, but it was put out in a short time.
Considering that close call, it’s somewhat surprising to note that eight years later in 1898, just five years after Fargo suffered a devastating fire, Bismarck still had only a volunteer fire department.
According to a story published in the New York Times on August 10th, 1898, the Great Bismarck Fire broke out in the Agent’s office of the Northern Pacific depot and spread to the freight warehouse. Someone raised the alarm around 9 pm, but the winds were already fanning the flames out of control.
The Bismarck Daily Tribune reported on August 9th, 1898:
“So vast a volume of smoke poured forth that in ten minutes Main Street was a stifling, blinding atmosphere in which it was difficult for firemen to breathe. A slight wind which had been in progress when the first alarm was given freshened and carried dense clouds of smoke and vast showers of sparks and firebrands northward into the principal business portion of the city. The freight warehouse, a hundred feet in length and fifth in width stored with all manner of inflammables, was in a moment a seething furnace.”
At least two powder kegs exploded and Bismarck blogger and author Randy Hoffman recounts the explosions as reported by the Bismarck Daily Tribune the next day:
“Simultaneous with an explosion in the freight warehouse, an immense section of the roof was lifted high into the air, and the flames, which had been checked for a time, leaped forward with renewed vigor and fury.”
The fire raged out of control until midnight and smoldered until the following morning. The list of structures completely destroyed by the fire is shocking in magnitude:
- First National Bank
- Kuntz’s and Wan’s cigar factories
- Gussner’s, Slattery’s, Kupitz’s, and Sweet’s grocery stores
- Penwarden’s confectionary store
- Morris’s and Braithwaithe’s shoe stores
- Hare’s Hardware
- Tribune Publishing Company
The full list is much longer, including judges’ and attorneys’ offices, restaurants and numerous other stores. According to the New York Times story, every drug store in the city burned, most of the grocery stores, two newspapers, and even some residences. People were homeless. Wired communications were also disrupted for a time and Western Union struggled to continue operating. According to the Tribune story, communications were so poor that Mandan Fire Departments weren’t able to respond until local residents noticed the glow of the fire on the horizon, by which time it was much too late.
The news of the fire overshadowed another major event the morning after the fire. Governor Frank A. Briggs, the fifth Governor of North Dakota, died of consumption. The Bismarck Daily Tribune reported on August 9th, 1898:
Since his return from California, where he went last winter, the governor has been gradually failing. About two weeks ago his illness resulted in such feebleness that he was taken to his bed, and his weakness has grown until the end, which came this morning. […] The news of the death of the governor cast an additional gloom over the residents of the city, already prostrated in many cases from the fearful conflagration of last night.
He was placed on a couch on the porch of the executive mansion where he spent his last hours watching the capital city burn. He was the first North Dakota Governor to die in office.
Like Chicago and Fargo, Bismarck would be rebuilt bigger and better in brick and stone.
On the rebirth of the city, Randy Hoffmann says:
The Fire of 1898 helped propel Bismarck from its shantytown frontier roots. Rising from its ashes, the seed for a modern city would soon sprout, one better suited for meeting the needs of a major economic and government hub. Bismarck saw its rebirth.
At the time of the fire, much of Bismarck was built of wood… food for the raging fire. In response to the fire, the city enacted stricter fire codes, making way for sturdier, modern structures built mostly of brick and reinforced concrete. “Fireproof” labeling became a common advertising gimmick for the new, modern buildings.
Original content copyright © 2014 Sonic Tremor Media
The construction of Garrison Dam flooded the Missouri River Valley and created Lake Sakakawea, something we’ve covered before in posts about Sanish and Four Bears Bridge. We’ve photographed both a church and a home that once stood in Elbowoods — structures that were moved to higher ground to avoid the flood. …
The 1930s could be described as a perfect storm of hardship in America. The Great Depression devastated the national economy and job market, and a persistent drought compounded matters in the Midwest, contributing to the Black Blizzards of the Dust Bowl era. The skies from Texas to the Canadian plains were sometimes so dark, cities would light their streetlamps in the daytime. Crops had already failed due to the drought, causing families to relocate, businesses to close up, and populations to sink. When you dared think things couldn’t get any worse, they did. …