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Schafer Jail, a Mass Murderer, and a Vigilante Lynch Mob

Schafer Jail, a Mass Murderer, and a Vigilante Lynch Mob

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.

Schafer, North Dakota Jail
The Schafer Jail where Charles Bannon was held is all that remains of the original town of Schafer, North Dakota.

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.

Schafer, North Dakota Jail

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

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

Legend of the Devils Lake Monster

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.

Devils Lake house
An abandoned home along the shores of Devils Lake, “Lake of the Spirits.”

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

Graham's Island, Devils Lake, ND
An abandoned road descends into Devils Lake

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?

See also: The Flooding of Graham’s Island
See also: Legend of the Miniwashitu

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

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

Sanish Rises from Beneath the Waves

Sanish was a thriving North Dakota town until 1953, when residents began to evacuate to higher ground. The construction of Garrison Dam, a project to provide hydroelectric power and flood control, would turn the Missouri River Valley in this part of North Dakota into a large reservoir to be named Lake Sakakawea. Sanish succumbed to the rising waters soon after the Garrison Dam embankments were closed in April of 1953, and the townsite disappeared beneath the waves of Lake Sakakawea.

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

The Legends of Tagus, North Dakota

Tagus was founded in 1900, on a rolling spot on the prairie, forty miles west of Minot, just off Highway 2. A railroad settlement town, it reached a peak population of 140 in 1940. It was originally named Wallace, but was later renamed Tagus to avoid confusion with the town of Wallace, Idaho. The origin of the name “Tagus” is still in dispute.

It is now primarily abandoned with a handful of residents and numerous vacant structures.

tagus15

The Minot Daily News ran a story about GND several days before our actual trip to Tagus. You can imagine our surprise when we were met by two of the residents of Tagus who had been keeping an eye out for us. They had quite a story to tell.

As it turns out, Tagus has weathered way more than it’s fair share of vandalism and mean-spirited behavior. For years, vandals from the nearby areas have used Tagus as a party place. One of Tagus’ residents told us a story about one Halloween night in the 1980’s, when 300 kids showed up in this tiny town for an all-out Halloween trashing session. The Mountrail County Sherriff had been tipped however and put a stop to it.

Tagus, North Dakota

Tagus, North Dakota

Tagus, North Dakota

Tagus, North Dakota

Tagus, North Dakota

Tagus, North Dakota

It’s not often we run across an old country home with a turret.

Tagus, North Dakota

Tagus, North Dakota

Tagus, North Dakota

That tree is huge!

Tagus, North Dakota

Tagus, North Dakota

Tagus, North Dakota

In 2001, vandals again did their damage when they were found to be responsible for a fire which destroyed Tagus’ only remaining church. The spot is now marked with a stone marker. Although there are reports the fire was electrical, the resident we spoke to was adamant the fire was caused by vandals.

Tagus, North Dakota

As you’ll see from some of the comments on this post, Tagus has been the subject of some very strange and persistent rumors and urban legends over the years, to a greater degree than any other town we’ve encountered. There are outlandish tales of Satanic activity, hellhounds, ghosts and ghoulish activity in Tagus. Anyone who has grown up in northwest North Dakota has likely heard them. At any rate, if you decide to visit Tagus, please be respectful of the town. They’ve already sacrificed far too much.

Tagus, North Dakota

Who knows what this structure used to be? Please leave a comment.

Photos by Troy Larson and Terry Hinnenkamp, © 2016 Sonic Tremor Media

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Troy Larson is an author, photographer, gentleman adventurer (debatable) from Fargo, North Dakota, and co-founder of Ghosts of North Dakota.
8 Terrible Fates Our Ancestors Faced

8 Terrible Fates Our Ancestors Faced

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.

Tetanus

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.

Exposure

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.

Fire

W.H. Johnson
The final resting place of W.H. Johnson

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.”

Tuberculosis

San Haven
San Haven Sanatorium

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.

Lynching

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.

Murder

The Wolf Farm on the day of the funerals.

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.

Trainwreck

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

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Troy Larson is an author, photographer, gentleman adventurer (debatable) from Fargo, North Dakota, and co-founder of Ghosts of North Dakota.
Legend of Miniwashitu: Missouri River Monster

Legend of Miniwashitu: Missouri River Monster

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.

miniwashitu-featureAnd 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

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Troy Larson is an author, photographer, gentleman adventurer (debatable) from Fargo, North Dakota, and co-founder of Ghosts of North Dakota.
Doctor Dibb’s Lost Gold Mine

Doctor Dibb’s Lost Gold Mine

Some of the earliest European travelers through Dakota Territory were in search of gold. Stories of gold mines in Montana and Idaho drew prospectors from all over with the promise of wealth and prosperity. Dr. William Denton Dibb, credited by the Quarterly Journal of the University of North Dakota (Vol. 13, 1922) as the first pioneer physician in the Dakotas, wanted his share of the gold.

goldIn 1864, Dibb left Minnesota as part of a wagon train bound for the gold fields of Idaho with Captain James Fisk (a man who would become infamous for his encounter with Sitting Bull.) Near Deep Creek in Bowman County, they reportedly discovered gold.

According to Dibb’s account, they stopped their wagon train and camped on a hill that had drawn their attention because it showed evidence of previous mining efforts. It is a curious detail in the story since there is no record of anyone ever mining in the area prior to their arrival. (It should be noted however that a settler named William Gay reported finding placer gold in the nearby Grand River a few years later, in the area known today as Haley, ND.) Dibb investigated an abandoned mine shaft and discovered a gold vein so rich that he and several others were reportedly able to extract several hundred pounds of gold. Locals reported Dibb suddenly appeared to be affluent.

The story diverges at this point. According to one source, Dibbs worked the mine for several months, then left for Montana, never to return. Another account claims the men concealed the opening to the mine when they left for Montana, but when they returned later, they were unable to find the mine entrance. The story of Doctor Dibb’s mine was pieced together in the early 1900s when copies of his journals were discovered. His story has been told and retold many times, and like a game of telephone, the facts have been muddied by the generational handoff. One version of the story even says the treasure was silver instead of gold. In the interest of full-disclosure, the Minnesota Historical Society, upon examining copies of Dibb’s journal in 1923, determined that the tale was likely a hoax — a fantastic fiction woven into the story at a later date by someone other than Dr. Dibb.

Discrepancies aside, if Doctor Dibb really did discover treasure in North Dakota, then Doctor Dibb’s lost gold mine is a ghost of North Dakota — still there, hidden away for more than 150 years, waiting for someone to come along and rediscover it.

Troy Larson is an author, photographer, gentleman adventurer (debatable) from Fargo, North Dakota, and co-founder of Ghosts of North Dakota.
The Great Bismarck Fire of 1898

The Great Bismarck Fire of 1898

Like Fargo in 1893 and Chicago in 1871, Bismarck fell victim to a massive wind-whipped fire on August 8th, 1898.

Bismarck Fire 1898
Photo courtesy BismarckCafe.com

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.

Bismarck Fire 1898
Photo courtesy BismarckCafe.com, from “History of the City of Bismarck,
North Dakota. The First 100 Years –1872-1972″

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.

Bismarck would again be touched by fire on December 28, 1930 when the State Capitol burned and in 1977 during the Flecks Buick Garage Fire, but neither fire would be the cataclysm of the 1898 fire.

This is a cooperative post from GhostsofNorthDakota.com and BismarckCafe.com. Read more here.

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Troy Larson is an author, photographer, gentleman adventurer (debatable) from Fargo, North Dakota, and co-founder of Ghosts of North Dakota.
The First Tornado Ever Photographed in North Dakota

The First Tornado Ever Photographed in North Dakota

I ran across this photo while I was perusing the photos at the Library of Congress and I was totally blown away.  Clinton Johnson took this photo, captioned “North Dakota Cyclone,” in an unknown North Dakota town in 1895, just six years after North Dakota statehood.  It appears to depict a menacing tornado bearing down on a North Dakota town.  If you look closely, you can see some people standing around, watching, proving that even in the 1800s, people were gawkers.  Farmer A.A. Adams took the first ever photo of a tornado in Kansas in 1884, a feat which was overshadowed by another tornado photograph taken a few months later in South Dakota.

I believe this is the first photograph ever taken of a tornado in North Dakota. You can read about the 1957 Fargo F5 tornado in Fargo Moorhead Lost and Found.

North Dakota Cyclone, 1895

We’re posting this photo here because a) it’s super cool, and b) there is a (very) slim chance that we might be able to identify this location. Mr. Johnson also appears to have also been one of the photographers who covered the San Francisco Earthquake in 1906.

Do you know anymore about photographer Clinton Johnson or the location of this photograph? Please leave a comment.

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

Christmas in Sanish

These photos of Christmas in Sanish, North Dakota come from Staci Roe, who came upon them in a hospital rummage sale and saved them from the trash. They are from the estate of Marvin L Knapp and the photographer is unknown.  Photos of the construction of the footings for Four Bears Bridge were in the same collection.

These photos were taken almost seven decades ago

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

Building Four Bears Bridge

Mighty rivers require mighty bridges and several impressive examples have spanned the North Dakota stretch of the Missouri River.  The river valley near the former town of Sanish has been home to several.  First, the Verendrye Bridge, a steel truss bridge completed in 1927, crossed the Missouri at Sanish.  In 1934, the first bridge to be known as Four Bears Bridge was built downstream near the town of Elbowoods.  They served North Dakota dependably through the thirties and forties. 

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Troy Larson is an author, photographer, gentleman adventurer (debatable) from Fargo, North Dakota, and co-founder of Ghosts of North Dakota.
Lost Beneath the Lake: Sanish, North Dakota

Lost Beneath the Lake: Sanish, North Dakota

Old Sanish, North Dakota came to an end in 1953, when the river valley it occupied for over half a century became the bottom of North Dakota’s newest reservoir, Lake Sakakawea. Sanish’s residents left for higher ground, as did the residents of other low-lying towns like Van Hook and Elbowoods.

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

Ten More Lost North Dakota Places

Sometimes we photograph a place and find out years later that it’s gone, sometimes the place is gone by the time we get there.  But the one constant is that the list of places is growing all the time.

Here’s another list of ten more significant North Dakota places that have unfortunately lost their battle with time. When you’re done with this one, check out 10 Lost North Dakota Places, and 8 More Lost North Dakota Places.

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

Ten Lost North Dakota Places

It’s always a thrill to see enthusiastic residents get involved in saving historically and culturally significant places in their communities, but in North Dakota’s vanishing small towns, the losses frequently outnumber the wins by a significant margin. It’s something we’ve seen time and again in over ten years of photographing North Dakota.

What follows is our personal list, by no means exhaustive, of ten significant North Dakota places that have unfortunately lost their battle with time.

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

The Wolf Family Murders

One of the worst crimes in state history occurred April 22, 1920 on a farm just north of Turtle Lake.

It was a gray, overcast day and light rain had been falling. Local resident John Kraft noticed the neighbors, the Jacob Wolf family, had left their laundry on the clothesline overnight and their horses untended. He went to investigate and stumbled into what might be the most horrific crime scene in North Dakota history.

Jacob Wolf and two of his daughters were found murdered in a barn. In the basement of the farmhouse there were five more bodies — the rest of Jacob’s family plus a chore boy, Jacob Hofer, son of a neighbor. They were brutally murdered with shotgun blasts and a hatchet. The only surviving family member was Emma Wolf, just nine months old, who had been confined to her crib for more than a day with the rest of her family dead.

The Wolf Farm on the day of the funerals.
The Wolf Farm on the day of the funerals.

John Kraft called the authorities who soon zeroed-in on neighbor Henry Layer as chief suspect. The Minot Daily News published a story in 2008 which describes the events of the murder, during which Jacob Wolf would be killed with his own shotgun, like this:

The killings happened when Henry Layer, another neighbor, had an argument with Jacob Wolf about his dog biting one of Layer’s cows. When Layer ignored Wolf’s orders to leave his property, Wolf got his double-barreled shotgun and put two shells in the chambers. Layer grabbed for the gun, and in the ensuing struggle, the gun discharged twice with one shot killing Mrs. Wolf and the other hitting the chore boy through the back of the neck and killing him.

When Wolf fled into the yard, Layer reached into a dresser drawer for more ammunition, fired at Wolf, hit him in the back and again at close range. Maria and Edna fled screaming to the barn, where they were pursued and shot by Layer. Bertha, Lydia and Martha were screaming wildly in the house. Layer silenced two of them with the shotgun and Martha, the youngest to be killed, was hit on the frontal bone with the broad side of a hatchet.

Layer then dragged Jacob Wolf’s body to the barn and covered it and those of his daughters with hay and dirt before returning to the house and pushing the other bodies in the cellar.

Layer was arrested two weeks later, convicted, and served five years of a life sentence before he died in prison. Emma Wolf lived first with relatives, then eventually a benefactor until she was an adult.  She later married Clarence Hanson and died in 2003 at the age of 84.

If the toll of eight victims isn’t tragic enough, the alleged killer’s family was torn apart when he was sent to prison and four of his children were sent to an orphanage. One of them, Berthold Layer, was killed in a farm accident when he was run over by a beet truck, his death announced in this 1922 Fairmont Sentinel story which describes him as a six-year-old “inmate” of a ward home. It seems even Mr. Layer’s family paid for the evil deeds he allegedly committed.

There is a book on the subject of the Wolf family murders by author Vernon Keel, The Murdered Family, a work of historical fiction in which the author questions whether the police got the right man. UND’s Patrick Miller covered this story in 2011 as well.

Order the book – The Murdered Family.

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

The Tappen Visitations

In the summer of 2006, the tiny town of Tappen, North Dakota briefly became the center of the UFO community when the Briese family experienced some unexplained events.

In April of that year, 16 year-old Evan Briese reported a triangle-shaped UFO on the family farm.  According to a story published in the Fargo Forum on Oct. 27, 2006 [reporter Dave Olson], Evan and his dog Buster were tending to the cows during calving season when they saw an intermittent glow.  Upon investigation, Evan discovered a triangle-shaped craft hovering over a watering hole, seemingly investigating the pond with a bright beam of light.  Buster took off toward the craft barking, at which point the UFO lifted off the ground and flew away into the night at such speed it created a sonic boom.  Evan’s sister Myra also heard the boom.  Later in July, Briese also reported seeing a bluish light in the sky.

However the most intriguing sighting on the Briese farm took place in Sept. of 2006.

In the early morning hours of September 12th, Evan Briese got out of bed to get a drink. Looking outside, he saw something moving in the pen that held his sister’s pregnant hog. Thinking an animal was attempting to harm the hog, Briese grabbed his .22-caliber rifle and went outside.

According to the article in the Forum:

There, he encountered two creatures standing 8 to 9 feet tall that were doing something to one of the hogs. The boy fired his rifle at one creature and was pretty sure he hit it, judging by the unearthly scream it emitted. Another creature then grabbed the boy and threw him to the ground, causing him to black out. When Evan Briese awoke, he found that Ruthy, a 450-pound sow that had been ready to give birth, was gone. The boy ran to the home of his older sister, Trista, a short distance from the house he shares with his parents. Trista Briese made a frantic phone call to her parents and it wasn’t long before they, and later the Kidder County sheriff, were on the scene. Evan Briese, whose shirt was in tatters, told his story.

The sheriff came to no conclusions about what happened to the hog.

According the story, Evan was later hypnotized and remembered more. He revealed five entities had been in the corral, and that two of them had been dragging a dead hog when he unexpectedly surprised them.

The credibility of the Tappen UFO story is indeterminate. Reports that come from teens tend to be viewed with skepticism, however Evan Briese was not known as a teller of tall tales. Other corroborating sightings have gone along with the Briese family’s tales, but there have also been confirmed meteor sightings which coincide with some of the events.

Truly unexplained.

Troy Larson is an author, photographer, gentleman adventurer (debatable) from Fargo, North Dakota, and co-founder of Ghosts of North Dakota.
The Great Fargo Fire of 1893

The Great Fargo Fire of 1893

June 7th, 1893 was a typical Wednesday in Fargo, sunny but windy.  Fargo’s six thousand residents were going about their lives, carrying out their business from mostly wooden storefronts and traveling from place to place in horse drawn carriages and wagons.

Winds were gusting to 30 miles per hour that day.  Even today, if you’ve spent any time in Fargo, you know these windy days all too well.  Rarely though do we give much thought to the danger that comes with a dry, windy summer day.

512 Front Street
The Island Park Ramp stands on the site of Herzman’s Dry Goods Store, alleged origin of the Fargo Fire of 1893.

Around 2:15 that June day, a fire broke out in the 500 block of Front Street, now known as Main Avenue.  It was the beginning of an event that would come to be known as the Great Fargo Fire of 1893.

One account claims the fire started at the rear of Herzman’s Dry Goods Store which stood approximately where the Island Park parking ramp stands today.  According to another account, the fire started when ashes were thrown from the rear of the Little Gem Restaurant, across the way from Herzman’s.  Regardless of the source, the fire quickly spread out of control on that breezy Wednesday.

A firehouse was located on Front Street, right across from Herzman’s.  They no doubt would have reacted quickly and extinguished the blaze before it got out of control, but in a tragic twist of fate, they were out hosing down Fargo’s dusty streets.  It was a regular duty for the fire department in those days — an effort to keep the dirt from the unpaved streets from blowing all over town.  The firehouse was empty.

Bank of the West
Former site of Moody’s department store.

A neighboring gun store caught fire and the block was rocked when a powder keg exploded, intensifying the fire.  Just down the block there was a fire alarm box in front of Moody’s Department store, where Bank of the West now stands.  The key to the alarm box was kept in the Sundberg Jewelry Store, but the clerk on duty was unable to find it. It was the pre-telephone era, and this simple problem further delayed the fire fighting effort.  The fire burned for forty-five minutes before the alarm was sounded, and by that time, it was too late.

In 1893, fire fighting technology was primitive and in a state of transition.  Municipalities that could afford them had the newest technology — steam powered fire engines.  More commonly, fire carts were horse drawn, or even hand-pulled to the scene of fires.  Automotive fire engines were just on the horizon at the time.

Fargo native John Caron built a very informative Fargo history website which now resides with the North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, and which contains a very nice accounting of the Fargo Fire.  In the accompanying photos, you can see Fargo firefighters attempting to fight the fire with hoses stretched for blocks.  Fighting fires in 1893 was a daunting task.  Fire crews from outlying cities in both North Dakota and Minnesota rallied to the scene and attempted to aid in the battle, but their efforts though valiant, were fruitless.

Fargo Fire 1893The fire spread northwest, first jumping Front Street and proceeding north.  It destroyed many of the buildings on the east side of Broadway, then eventually jumped across Broadway and burned all the way to the prairie on the west side of the city.  The result was total devastation.  31 blocks of businesses were destroyed and over 350 buildings burned to ruin, including City Hall.

Firefighter W.H. Johnson reportedly died the following day as a result of burns sustained fighting the fire, however his headstone puts his date of death at June 9th, two days after the fire.  He is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery near Hector International Airport.

W.H. Johnson
The headstone of W.H. Johnson at Holy Cross Cemetery

The rebirth of Fargo began almost immediately following the fire.  In the ensuing days and months, local businessman Alexander Stern led an impressive effort to rebuild, and eventually replaced nearly 250 buildings, many in fire-resistant brick, at a cost of almost one million dollars.  To prevent any future conflagration on the order of the 1893 fire, building codes and city regulations changed.  The Fire Department was no longer expected to sprinkle the streets.  The following year local businesswoman Ella J. Henderson was reprimanded by the city for laying wood sidewalks which had been outlawed following the fire.  Upon discovery, the city removed them.

In 1895, Fargo held the first Fargo Fire Festival to celebrate the rebirth of the city, a celebration which was held annually until World War I.  The final Fargo Fire Festival — a 40th anniversary event — was held in 1933.

This piece was posted in 2013 to commemorate the 120th Anniversary of the Great Fargo Fire. Nobody alive remembers the event firsthand, but it’s appropriate to reflect on an event that shaped our city and state.

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

Blanchard and a Really Big Stick

Blanchard is a small town in Traill county about a half hour north of Fargo.  Our Facebook fans warned us that there wasn’t much of a historic nature left to photograph, and they were right.  Linda Grotberg commented: “Blanchard, is another reason why your “ghost project” is so important! The two churches, Seim’s Store, Wally’s garage, Blanchard #1 (although the school bld is still there used as a house) Grandma Hazel’s house, the old bank building….all part of mine and my Mother’s childhood….gone forever!”

Troy stopped in and got the photo below.

Nearby is the KVLY TV antenna which was for decades the tallest structure on Earth at 2063 feet tall.  It’s status as the world’s tallest structure was finally surpassed with the construction of Burj Khalifa in Dubai.  However, the antenna remains as the tallest structure in the western hemisphere, and the third tallest structure on earth.  The Tokyo Skytree, completed in 2011, is second.  On a clear day, you can see this mast from 20 miles away.

Photos by Troy, copyright Sonic Tremor Media LLC

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

Standing Rock Hill Historic Site

This is the Standing Rock Hill Historic Site, south of Kathryn and west of Enderlin, just up the hill from Little Yellowstone Park, right off Highway 46.  It is also just a short drive from Jensen Cabin at Wadeson Park.  Standing Rock Hill Historic Site consists of four Native American burial mounds, the largest of which is marked with the small standing rock shown below.

Standing Rock Hill State Historic Site

There is a fairly serious grade up a minimally maintained road to get to the parking lot at the top of the hill, but in dry conditions, you shouldn’t have any trouble in the typical car.  Read more about it here.

standing-rock1

Photos by Troy Larson, copyright © 2016 Sonic Tremor Media

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

Jensen Cabin at Wadeson Park

This cabin 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.

I stumbled upon this place while taking a drive near Kathryn.

This is the Wadeson Park Spillway, right across the road from the Jensen Cabin.

Photos by Troy Larson, copyright © 2016 Sonic Tremor Media

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

The Last Resident of Heaton

North Dakota has dozens of small towns approaching ghost town status. As the population declines, they tend to go through a transition period during which the population fluctuates. Aging residents pass away and young people go off to college. It’s not uncommon for a town to be abandoned, only to be re-inhabited for a time–drawing in those who are attracted to the solitude and the dirt cheap cost of living. Heaton is one of those towns.

We had the pleasure of speaking with Brian Miller, the sole remaining resident of Heaton. We found him on the tractor, working well past sundown on a chilly November evening.

Only twenty five years old, Miller was raised on a farm about a half mile outside of town. As a child, Miller and his friends used to ride their bikes into town to get a can of pop and a candy bar at the local store. “There used to be an old bank there,” Miller says. “We’d sit on the steps and eat our candy bars.”  The store closed in 2003.  Miller says the Post Office closed when he was quite young, but he remembers going into Heaton early one morning to get their baby chickens off the mail truck. “We were excited about that,” he says.

There were perhaps fifteen residents in town in those days, enough to justify a trip to town on Halloween. “I remember we used go there and trick or treat when I was real young, too,” Miller says. There were two elevators, a lumber yard, a post office, a bank, and a church in Heaton back then.

But over the years, the population steadily declined. “Everybody that was there was getting older,” he says. “People passed away. Some just moved.” A tornado that wiped out some of the structures contributed to the decline.

The owner of the gas station went into the nursing home and then passed away some time later. Miller’s father bought the place and turned it into a meat processing facility. “That’s going pretty good for us,” he said.

In 2009, he bought a house and moved it to a vacant lot in the center of town. “I got in there about January of 2010,” he said.  He wasn’t the only resident at that time, however. “When I moved in, there was another family living in town and they had three kids,” he said. They split up and moved out of town last summer, leaving Miller and his dog as the only remaining inhabitants. Miller’s closest neighbors are now an elderly couple who live just west of town.

When asked if he gets lonely, Miller said “Yeah, I guess. I grew up on the farm and I’m pretty self-sufficient. I enjoy the freedom of that.” Miller had planned on returning when he finished college, and had hoped to find a farm to buy. But when he bought his house, he was attracted to the Heaton lot by the availability of water and electricity.  “I enjoy the freedom,” he says. “You can go and do what you want, but I guess it does get a little lonely.”

A farmer by trade, Miller works for a local rancher and maintains his own cows and chickens. Like any other farmer, Miller starts his day by feeding his animals, then spends most of the day at work. “You never know how many hours a day you’re gonna have to work,” he says. “During the busy times it’s morning ’til dark pretty much.” In his free time, Miller goes hunting and fishing.

In addition to water and electric, Heaton even has fiberoptic internet service. Last summer, Daktel installed it for all the farms in the area, Miller said. “Every farm in our area has it too, so we’re livin’ pretty good.” Miller has to provide his own heat in the winter via a propane furnace.

Despite the modern amenities, living in a ghost town is not without challenges. Although the mail comes via rural mail delivery, Miller drives to Jamestown or Bismarck about once a month for groceries. He visits the grocery store in Carrington, about twenty five miles away, for more immediate needs. The small town of Bowdon about eight miles away is a frequent stop as well. “They have a credit card gas pump there, and a little grocery store too,” Miller says.

We noticed on our last trip to Heaton that things had changed quite a bit in the six years since our previous visit–many structures were gone. Miller says many of the properties were forfeited to the county due to unpaid property taxes, and then Speedwell township took over and razed many of the properties due to health hazards.  And the process of ‘cleanup’ will continue. “They plan on burning a couple of the old buildings down this winter,” he said.

Miller says the property owner of several lots in Heaton is a Montana resident who only occasionally comes to town.  “He was back here about a month ago,” Miller says, “And he was coming to get some of his stuff out of these old houses, and he said a bunch of stuff was missing. And I said, the front door’s been open on the place, and there’s been a lot of people coming through and going through these places. It’s kinda like, what do you expect?”

Although proud to be a resident of Heaton, Miller doesn’t plan on spending the rest of his life there. “I’d still like to get out on a real farm,” he said. He expects to end up on his parents’ farm or his grandmother’s farm, which is just a couple of miles from Heaton.

I asked Miller if he plans to leave Heaton empty when the time comes. “I’d hope… I plan on selling my house, I mean if I could leave it there and sell it or if I have to sell it and have it moved, either way.” I asked him what are the chances he could sell his house to someone knowing they would be the only residents of Heaton. “You’d be surprised, I think. It would be pretty easy to sell it.” What does a house sell for in Heaton? Miller estimates he could get twenty thousand for his. And if he can’t sell it, he’s open to renting it. “There are a lot of jobs here,” he says.

Being the last resident of Heaton does have it’s advantages. “People ask me where I live and I tell them I’m the only one left in Heaton. I’m the Mayor, the Sherriff and everything,” Miller says. “They get a kick out of that.”

See our Heaton Galleries here and here

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

A Robbery in Merricourt

merricourt-11-1Host/Author/Producer Keith Norman was kind enough to share a story about a Merricourt robbery, from his book – ‘Great Stories of the Great Plains, Vol. 1

Self Defense on the Back Roads

Roy Michaelson listed his occupation as a professional Boxer from Minneapolis Minnesota. His record in sanctioned bouts was 1 win, 1 loss, and 1 draw. In all likelihood he fought in many unsanctioned fights across the Midwest in his brief stint in the ring.

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

Mose, North Dakota

Griggs County
Vacant as of 10/04

Mose, North Dakota is a true ghost town in Griggs County, about forty miles southeast of Devils Lake.  It was also known as Florence and Lewis prior to 1904. On Halloween 1904, it was renamed Mose in honor of a local lumberyard employee. It’s peak population is said to have been 25.

Mose was particularly hard hit by a tornado, hence the sign at the entrance to the town. Most of the townsite is on private property which is well posted.  The old home shown here appears to be the only original structure remaining on the town site.

Our expedition to Mose ended up being a little more eventful than we would have liked. Due to our poor planning, we found ourselves in the middle of an abandoned town during opening weekend of deer hunting season. And with no blaze orange to alert the hunters to our presence.  After hearing several rifle shots in the distance, Terry resorted to using the rainbow umbrella from his trunk to make himself visible to any prospective hunter who might think he was venison.

To further put a scare into us, on our way out of Mose, a carload of hunters zoomed off the shoulder of the road right into our path without looking. It took a little Hollywood stunt driving to avoid a bad accident.

Ghost town hunting during deer hunting season is bad.

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Mose, North Dakota

Mose, North Dakota

Mose, North Dakota

Mose, North Dakota

Mose, North Dakota

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Mose, North Dakota

Mose, North Dakota

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

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