Booming Settlement to Ghost Town: Whispers of the Living History of Charbonneau
Dickinson Press; The Drill
Dickinson, North Dakota
September 24, 2014
All across North Dakota’s prairies are the abandoned remnants of people’s lives; real people like our own parents and grandparents. North Dakota has over a thousand ghost towns, once the places of hopes, dreams, success and failure; places where lives were lived with all its heartbreak and joy. As you pass abandoned homesteads, schools, depots and the myriad of other buildings left alone to face unforgiving elements, don’t you wonder about the stories that may be whispering in the crumbling walls or have been blown away by a prairie wind?
Once these vestiges were places of great activity; history was made in little towns across the west. They tell the history of not only North Dakota, but also give a glimpse into the westward movement in the history of the United States. A wave of settlement moved across the country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The arrival of the railroad and the Homestead Act opened this vast expanse of land to homesteaders and investors. Towns and settlements sprang up along the railroad lines.
Some of these towns lasted only a few years and others boomed for many decades. As time marched on, more and more little towns saw their usefulness taken over by larger towns. As transportation became increasingly efficient and agriculture became more mechanized the need for many stations and stops along the railroad lines decreased. The advent of the automobile also led to the fading of many small towns. The larger towns could offer more goods and services at a better price. The car made the extra miles to these bigger towns feasible and worth the trip.
While some of these settlements could withstand the changing times, they could not survive the weather and climate changes. The weather can be harsh on the northern plains and many settlers found they were not able to support their families with what they could produce on the amount of land they had to work. During the “Dustbowl” years windstorms blew though the state and swarms of grasshoppers would consume crops. Drought left the land barren. For many settlers and towns this was the final blow.
Those that survived remembered these years. C. F. Martell, a pioneer homesteader spoke of what became known as the “Dirty Thirties” and noted: “During this time the drought had reduced the range to desert. The homesteaders were adventurous people and were not to be discouraged easily. They hung on to their holdings as long as they could… some just walked off, leaving their stock, machinery and farm.” This happened to many towns as well: folks just walked away leaving furnishings and other items in the buildings. Sometimes it would look as if they just stepped out and would be back at any time giving an eerie and poignant feel to the old buildings. Over time antique hunters claimed and removed many of the pieces left behind. Sometimes vagrants would find a temporary shelter in the old abandoned structures. Mostly, the buildings deteriorated and seemed to be consumed by the prairie.
Exploring these ghost towns can be captivating, whether it is a site with a number of buildings still standing, in some cases barely, or now just a pile of rubble. Sometimes you can still find a place with furnishings and other reminders of what they once were scattered about. Some of these buildings were plain and simply utilitarian while others showed creative and interesting architectural details.
Many of these ghost towns can be seen along the highways and major roads of North Dakota. There is however a great many more tucked away on lesser traveled roads. One such town is Charbonneau in McKenzie County. Charbonneau is eighteen to twenty miles south of Williston tucked back in the hills along what was once the old Great Northern Railroad track on a small county road. The tracks are gone, and all that is left there now is an old two room schoolhouse, a couple of grain elevators and the house where the postmaster lived. North of town is a small cemetery.
Charbonneau was founded in 1913 after the bridge over the Yellowstone River was built. It was one of many towns that sprang up along the Great Northern Railroad. Charbonneau was named for nearby Charbonneau Creek, which was in turn named for the interpreter on the Lewis and Clark expedition, Toussaint Charbonneau.The main street was never more than a dirt road. Since the town was built on a hill there were deep ditches on each side of the street to keep the road from turning into a river when the rains came and thaw occurred. The main street which started at the post office ran south up the hill past the general store, bank and hotel. The depot which also had a telegraph was along one side of the railroad track and the grain elevators across the on the other side close by the post office.
The post office, depot and grain elevator were usually run by the same family; typically the wife ran the post office and the husband the grain elevator and depot. One side of the building housed the post office with small metal post boxes all in a row. Each had its own number and a little window so one could look in before it was opened to get a peek at what was waiting. The postmistress would sell stamps and keep large packages that could not go in the box. The family lived in the other side of the building. When the telephone made it out to rural western North Dakota and before it was common to have a phone at one’s place, the post office took on added importance. There was a wooden crank wall phone there that members of the community could use. They just paid the postmistress the charges. (The post office stamp window, clerk’s area, and post office boxes are now part of the Lewis and Clark Trail Museum in Alexander, ND.
At one time Charbonneau was a bustling place. A lot of history was lived there and as the world changed so did Charbonneau. Lloyd Lester, whose family moved to Charbonneau in 1940, commented that “Charbonneau was quite a little town in its day”. There were two to three grocery stores; some residents would sell groceries straight out of their home. There was a bank in town and even a newspaper, and “one old guy had a blacksmith shop”. There was a lumber yard, a hotel and café where one could get a meal late into the evening. McKenzie County’s first creamery opened in Charbonneau near the depot. In the 1940’s a John Deere dealership was opened in what was originally a little store. Also in the mid-forties there were enough children around the area to hire a second school teacher and make the school into a two room schoolhouse.
Things ebbed and flowed in Charbonneau. The John Deere dealership came in but the pool hall closed. It still served a purpose though; local kids would climb in broken windows and roller skate inside. August Lindecker remembers all the bottle caps that littered the floor from its less innocent days. Eventually the old pool hall was bought and moved away to serve as a granary on a place down by the river.
Charbonneau reached its peak population in the 1920’s with about a 125 people living in the town limits. The thirties and forties still saw a lot of activity but things were beginning to change. By the early to mid-fifties the school was no longer used, the bank was gone and so was the John Deere dealership. The depot saw very few passengers and was eventually torn down. Times were changing; electricity was arriving in the rural areas, people were getting their own phones, and the automobile was making the distances shorter. Businesses started to close and residents started to leave.
The town managed to hang on to its post office until the late 1960’s when it was closed and Charbonneau was no longer included in the census. Most businesses were gone by the mid 1950’s. From the late sixties until the mid-eighties Charbonneau had a few lone residents. The only business still operational was the grain elevators. In the mid-eighties the last resident died. The elevator closed and the tracks were pulled up. A new modern transfer station had been built in Fairview.
Today, there are no residents in Charbonneau and the few remaining buildings sit alone. As people left some of the structures were torn down, a few were moved and many over time deteriorated and fell into their basements. The last grocery store in town was hit by lightning and burnt to the ground. Vandalism was a problem and many buildings burnt because of fires people started who were up to no good in places they didn’t belong.
Charbonneau is now one of North Dakota’s numerous “ghost towns”; but if you stand by where the track used to be and look up the hill toward the old gravestones or across to the school on the hill, maybe you can hear voices whispering in the wind and imagine the lives once lived there.