Ghost towns come in all varieties, and their abandonment happens for a multitude of reasons. Common on the upper plains are railroad ghost towns, places that vanished when the automobile became the norm. There are natural disaster ghost towns, like Mose, ND, and industrial disaster ghost towns like Picher, OK.
Silver City, North Dakota is another variety of ghost town — a settlement abandoned at the completion of an infrastructure project which employed most of the residents. In this case, the project was the Garrison dam.
We’ve written before about the Four Bears Bridge construction, made necessary by the Garrison dam, and ghost towns like Sanish, inundated in the ensuing flood, but Mrs. Mary (Weyers) Anthony, born in Page, North Dakota, and now a resident of Orlando, wrote to remind us that we have been remiss in not mentioning the Garrison dam boom towns, which sprung up virtually overnight to house dam workers. Mrs. Anthony also included some newspaper clippings and personal photos which we are thrilled to share.
Sometimes in our haste to visit places where there are “things left to photograph,” we don’t give the proper attention to a place now-gone, except in the memories of the people who lived there.
Let’s start with the newspaper article. We’ve transcribed the text below. Click the image to see it full-size.
Minneapolis Sunday Tribune
Sunday April 7th, 1957
Memories of Boom Days Haunt N.D. Ghost Towns
by Frank Wright
Minneapolis Tribune Staff Writer
Riverdale, N.D. — The boom is over for the once-flush, free-wheeling boom towns that helped build giant Garrison dam.
Stores, taverns, hotels, labor union offices have been boarded up, houses vacated.
In some places, weeds grow in the streets where hard-working, hard-spending construction men used to dance through the night.
Some of the towns are on the verge of becoming ghost towns, abandoned to the dust and the wind that sweeps constantly across the rugged North Dakota hills overlooking the virtually completed dam.
A few score residents remain, most of them in Pick City on the western end of the dam, keeping their homes and yards in trim, hoping for better days. Many are preparing to pull out.
Dakota City, American City, Sitka, Silver City, Big Bend and Pick City sprouted overnight in 1945 and 1946 when the federal government started pushing the rolled-earth dam, one of the biggest in the world, across the river here.
Founded mainly by promoters and businessmen hoping to turn a quick dollar, the boom towns clustered on the bluffs around Riverdale, government-owned headquarters for the dam project.
At first, the towns lived well off well-paid construction workers.
Graineries converted into cabins rented for as much as $80 a month.
A fat, middle-aged woman known as Silver City Dorothy is said to have grossed 1 1/2 million dollars in her around-the-clock restaurant before she left town.
Some old timers say it wasn’t that much, but they agree she didn’t leave poor.
Isadore Kramer, owner of Sitka’s Quality Supermarket, claims he took in $900,000 over a three-year period during the lush days.
He is going out of business, however. He says he barely has broken even over the long run. His is the last boom town grocery store.
Mrs. Steve DeTienne, whose husband owns all of the 120 acres that comprise Big Bend, glanced around Steve’s bar the other day. A half dozen customers sat at the long bar.
“I can remember when this place was so packed people had to wait to get in,” she recalled.
Mrs. Lillian Tusto, who runs the bar, said it employed seven bartenders and four waitresses in 1953, the best year.
The dam workforce then numbered 2,700. Total population was more than 5,000, including Riverdale.
After that, the number dwindled steadily as the dam neared completion.
Riverdale’s population leveled off at 1,500, most of them permanent government employees and their families.
Two weeks ago Riverdale’s weekly newspaper, the Missouri Basin Times, suspended publication. The reason: declining advertising and subscription revenue.
Mabel Stemwedel auctioned off her belongings Tuesday in the dusty unused dance hall and left.
DeTienne, 62, former Big Bend Mayor who now is Justice of the Peace, says he hasn’t tried a court case in three years.
The Post Office and Steve’s bar, which now employs three persons, are the only businesses left in Big Bend.
DeTienne, former carpenter at the dam, is counting on tourist trade and the possible coming of industry to improve things. He intends to stay.
But across the road, silver-haired 76-year-old O.A. Burgeson, credited with founding Silver City, is selling out.
He is trying to get rid of 17 two-room cabins, a four-room house and two empty stores. His price for the partly furnished cabins has dropped from $800 to $500 apiece with few takers.
Burgeson, a fast-talking, cigar-smoking former homesteader and one-time traveling salesman, arrived here in 1945 with a stake accumulated while working in the wartime shipyards.
He paid off $1000 of “Hoover depression” debts, plunged the rest into Silver City.
“I laid out the town with my own steel tape measure,” he said as he sat in his cluttered office. “It was the best town of the bunch. I knew how to do those things.”
Burgeson once rented out 29 cabins at $12 a week or $50 a month, take your pick. He expects to show a $9500 net profit for 12 years’ work, if he can sell all his buildings.
His last renter moved out in December. He lives alone in one of his cabins.
When Burgeson closes up shop in Silver City, he plans to head to another federal dam site in Arizona and build himself another town.
Mrs. Anthony sent along these photos from her personal collection. First, some early photos of Garrison dam construction.
Garrison Dam, 1947.
This is the Silver City Cafe, a Kodacolor print made in 1950. Mary Anthony says, “My folks and sister ran the Silver City Cafe.”
The photo above has “Rental Cabins, Silver City, N.D.” written on the back.
Snow over the top of Gulbranson’s cabin at Silver City, ND
Silver City Cafe Circus. June 25th, 1950. That’s an elephant in the foreground. Note the cabins in the background, originally occupied by dam workers.
This one says “Big Bend” on the front, but “Dakota City Bar. Dakota City, N.D.” on the back.
The photo above was printed in 1962 and reads “All that’s left of Silver City.” On the back is written “I believe this is gone.”
This photo is a color panorama taken in 1946. On the back it says, “Silver City, N.D. It started out as a wheat field and ended almost the same as it started.”
Today, nothing remains of Silver City. We have plans to visit a few places and photograph some remnants of the Garrison dam project, and we’d be happy to post your photos if you have anything you’d like to share from North Dakota’s Garrison Dam boom towns. Contact us.
Troy Larson is an author, photographer, gentleman adventurer (debatable) from Fargo, North Dakota, and co-founder of Ghosts of North Dakota. @NorthDakotaTroy