Ghost Towns,  History,  North Dakota History,  The Cowboy Chronicle

“Little Misery”: The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Badlands Town

Published in the Cowboy Chronicle

Publication of the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame

Volume 24 Issue 5

Newspapers from New York to Paris and London in the late 1870’s and early 1880’s were abuzz about the Dakota cattle boom on the northern plains of America.  Books, such as James Brisbin’s The Beef Bonanza or How to get Rich on the Plains (1871) and Trans Missouri Stock Raising; the Pasture Lands of North America by Hiram Latham ( 1881), fueled the excitement for the expanding cattle industry.  In 1879 The Bismarck Tribune proclaimed that that western North Dakota possessed “the best grazing lands in the world”.  A writer for the New York Times was cautious but ultimately concluded “….the subject has not been overstated”.

In 1883 the first Texas longhorns arrived on the northern plains via the great cattle drives.  The longhorns thrived on the wide open northern range even with the brutal winters and so ranches began to be established in the Little Missouri River Valley.   In 1879 the discovery of gold in the Dakota Territory and the Black Hills gold rush of 1876 added more fuel for westward dreamers.  Construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad, with its route across the northern plains from Lake Superior to the Pacific Coast, began in 1870. As surveyors, soldiers and builders came into the area they noted the abundance of wildlife in the Little Missouri Badlands, again adding to the excitement about the region.  When the Northern Pacific Railroad (NPR) reached the Little Missouri River in 1880, almost immediately the region became a prime destination for hunters.  With the NPR now operating, the journey from the East to the Little Missouri region was a relatively easy five day trip, making the region more accessible than ever before; as a result the town of Little Missouri sprang up.

Construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad in the badlands c. 1879

In the early 1880’s it was fashionable for those with means on both sides of the Atlantic to own a piece of the west.  Anyone who could invest or make their way to these great expanses could be part of a great and romanticized adventure with a promising future. A young Theodore Roosevelt had already invested in a ranch a Harvard classmate was running in Wyoming. A young French nobleman, the Marquis de Mores, would soon make his mark in the Little Missouri Valley.  The town of Little Missouri was perfectly situated to grow and be a part of it all.

In 1883 the Northern Pacific Railroad was essentially complete all the way to the west coast.  A commemorative train called the “Golden Spike Special”, on its way to Montana for ceremonies to mark the completion of the Northern Pacific corridor with a host of VIP’s, including former president Ulysses Grant, passed through Little Missouri on September 7th.  Just five days earlier on September 2nd, the then current President of the United States, Chester A.  Arthur, stepped off the train at Little Missouri station on his trip home from Yellowstone National Park.  A young man arriving in the middle of the night on September 8th disembarked at the Little Missouri depot for a much anticipated hunting trip. His name was Theodore Roosevelt and he would someday be the 26th president of the United States. Surely, Little Missouri was destined to be significant in history.

The Badlands Catonement , a military garrison stationed in Little Missouri, provided protection for the railroad construction workers c. 1880

Little Missouri’s story began in November 1879 when a company of the Sixth Infantry built a military post along the west bank of the Little Missouri River about a mile northwest and across the river from present day Medora. This small encampment was known as the Badlands Cantonment, and provided protection for the railroad construction workers.   The post store was run by a civilian named Frank Moore and became a gathering spot for the post and the surrounding area.  The town itself was founded in 1880 at the site of the railroad depot nearby the cantonment. Soon there was Big Mouthed Bob’s Bug Juice Dispensary (a saloon), general store and boarding house. Frank Moore in late 1880 built the Pyramid Park Hotel near the cantonment, an establishment that nowhere near reflected its grand name, which he ran as an outfitter for hunters.  In a bluff few hundred yards away from the town a coal mine operated. A short spur line had been put in to carry the coal.  The cantonment was abandoned in early 1883 and an acquaintance of Theodore Roosevelt, retired naval officer E. G. Gorringe converted the drab and ramshackle Army buildings into a “tourist resort”.  The Dakota newspapers as well as Northern Pacific tourist brochures touted the region as a hunter’s paradise.  The little town continued to grow with the arrival of hunters, tourists, and ranchers.Newspaper accounts brimmed with optimism for the entire region.

Pyramid Park Hotel and Depot, LIttle Missouri c. 1881

 In September 1883, the month of Little Missouri’s brush with three presidents, The Dickinson Press described Little Missouri thusly:

This town, situated in Pyramid Park on the banks of the Little Missouri River, and surrounded by the Bad Lands with their fine scenery is, at the present time one of the most prosperous and rapidly growing towns along the line of the Northern Pacific. New buildings of every description are going up as fast as a large force of carpenters can do the work and an air of business and enterprise is apparent that would do honor to an older town. . . . Game of all kinds is plentiful in the surrounding country and it is becoming quite a resort for pleasure seekers and those who love the chase. The country is well adapted to stock raising and Little Missouri will soon become the center of a large and growing stock interest.

This may have been a little over overstated.  The settlement was in fact unimpressive, described by a young Theodore Roosevelt when he arrived for his first buffalo hunt as, “a handful of ramshackle shanties”, and unofficially called by the railroad, “the toughest town on the line”. The military cantonment had provided some semblance of law and order but that was gone. Ironically, the town’s name pronounced by the locals, “Little Misery”, foretold its future more accurately than news reports and tourist brochures.

“LIttle Missouri” c. 1880

The year 1883 was pivotal to Little Missouri’s destiny in many ways, but perhaps none was as significant as the arrival of the Marquis de Mores.  De Mores was a French aristocrat and graduate of the St. Cyr Military Academy in France. He was enthralled by the American West and became famous as a duelist, ranchman and hunter.  He saw the open range of western Dakota as his opportunity for innovation in the beef industry and unimagined economic success. He came to Little Missouri with the financial backing of his father in law and a plan to invest in the local beef industry, buying up as many steers as the Badlands could produce and then importing many more by rail. He intended to build a gigantic slaughterhouse and meat packing plant in the valley, process the cattle onsite, and then ship it east in refrigerated cars. This would save the expense, trouble and loss of quality that came with transporting beef on the hoof long distances. 

The Marquis de Mores

He determined where the Northern Pacific crossed the Little Missouri River was the perfect place; this was the eastern edge of the prime cattle range and therefore the shortest distance to market. The natural resources he needed were abundant. The valley was the perfect place to hold cattle with the natural protection of the badlands.  The Marquis bought 9,000 acres of land. The only thing he needed was a town; its infrastructure and people. He boasted, “I shall become the richest financier in the world!” He was so sure of his plan’s success he was willing to spend millions of dollars if necessary. With the billons he expected to make in return he was going to buy control of the French Army.     

The citizens of Little Missouri were skeptical and wanted nothing to do with the “crazy Frenchman”.  When De Mores realized he could not convince the people of Little Missouri to cooperate with his grandiose ideas he crossed the river, erected a tent, and broke a bottle of champagne across it.  He was going to build an entirely new town named after his wife, Medora. The new town was christened April 1, 1883. The citizens of Little Missouri wryly noted he christened the spot for his new town across the river on April Fool’s Day.

Gangs of workers soon arrived from St. Paul and the new town arose with amazing speed.  By early 1884 Medora had 84 buildings and a population around 250 with an additional floating population. Businesses included: five saloons, three hotels, a newspaper office (The Cow Boy), laundry, barbershop, blacksmith shop, 3 hotels, 2 groceries, 2 general stores, a dry goods store, photography gallery, and a freight outfitting house. De Mores predicted Medora would be the “Omaha of the northern plains”.  Many Little Missouri businesses ended up moving across the river to the new boom town of Medora.  In 1884 the Northern Pacific ceased operations in and out of Little Missouri and by June Medora was a bustling town and Little Missouri was already on its way to being a ghost town. The Cow Boy boasted that Medora had “a larger freight, express and passenger business than any point on the Northern Pacific division, Mandan and Glendive included.”  The Medora boom continued throughout 1884 and 1885.

Office of The Badlands Cowboy;
Medora Meat Packing Plant c.

The drought of 1886 and the killing winter of 1886-1887 wreaked havoc in the cattle business. The hard winter had dealt an overwhelming blow to the open range cattle industry in the Little Missouri Badlands and most of the outfits which were backed by eastern or foreign capital pulled out. 

View of early Medora

All of the Marquis’ various enterprises were facing financial failure by the fall of 1886. The great losses along with de Mores impulsive decision to fulfill his dreams elsewhere brought the village of Medora into rapid decline.   The packing plant closed for good in 1887 and by the spring of that year only a saloon, boardinghouse and general store was left. The rapidity of the towns rising was mirrored in its demise.  Medora continued to decline, until it was almost a ghost town. It was too late however for a comeback of “Little Misery” and the village of Little Missouri across the river eventually disappeared. The economy had changed; many of the large Texas outfits gave way to smaller ranches and other towns had grown along the railroads’ route.  Little Missouri was gone, just a spot for an historical marker.  Medora was almost a ghost town, a shell of its former self, until its revival in the 1960’s.   Medora was given new life with the establishment of the Theodore Roosevelt and Medora Foundation in 1963 by Harold Schaefer, who bought and refurbished many of the buildings and helped turn Medora into a tourist attraction. ‘Little Misery” across the river remains a forgotten footnote in the history of the American West.

References:

Theodore Roosevelt in the Dakota Badlands, An Historical Guide, Clay S.  Jenkinson, published by Dickinson State University, Dickinson, N D, 2008

The Way it Was, The North Dakota Frontier Experience, Book Three: The Cowboys and Ranchers, Everett C. Albers and D. Jerome Tweton, Editors, Grass Roots Press, Fessenden, N D , 2004

Theodore Roosevelt and the Dakota Badlands, Chester L. Brooks and Ray H. Mattison, National Park Service, Washington DC, 1958, reprinted 1962. Reprinted 1983 with revisions by the Theodore Roosevelt Nature and History Association, Medora, ND

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Edmund Morris, The Modern Library, New York, 1979

https://www.inforum.com/news/4615948-The-romance-of-Theodore-Roosevelts-life-%E2%80%94-and-a-few-myths-%E2%80%94-began-in-the-ND-BadlandsThe Romance of Theodore Roosevelt’s Life – and a few myths – began in the Badlands, August 21, 2019

 https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=87982, The Historical Marker Database, Little Missouri: The Town

https://books.google.com/books?id=nt41AAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false , The Beef Bonanza or How to get Rich on the Plans, by James Brisbin,  1881

https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/hh/thro/throb.htm Early History of the Badlands, Theodore Roosevelt and the Dakota Badlands, National Park Service

https://medora.com/about/#:~:text=The%20town%20of%20Medora%20was,the%20arrival%20of%20the%20Marquis.  About Medora

Roosevelt’s Ranches ; The Maltese Cross and the Elkhorn, by Rolf Sletten, Theodore Roosevelt Foundation, 2018

https://www.history.nd.gov/historicsites/chateau/chateauLesson/background.html, Chateau de Mores Lesson Introduction and Background

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *