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The Railroad and Settlement in Early North Dakota

The Cowboy Chronicle

North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame

Summer 2015 Edition

The first railroads entered Dakota Territory in 1871, making it easier for settlers to reach land available for homesteads. Land grants given to railroad companies encouraged expansion of transcontinental routes as well as development of towns all along the railroad, forever changing the landscape of the territory. NDSHS

As you drive around the prairies and badlands of North Dakota you will find countless ghost towns; old structures abandoned and falling victim to the weather and lack of use and upkeep. The majority of these ghost towns were once thriving railroad towns along a giant web of railroad tracks that spread across North Dakota.

At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century there was a huge wave of immigration and settlement in North Dakota. This influx of pioneers and settlers was largely due to the development of railroad lines. Between 1871 when the Northern Pacific Railroad entered North Dakota and 1889 when North Dakota achieved statehood, 2093 miles of track was laid across the state. By 1920 when the miles of railroad peaked, there was 5400 miles of track. The two main lines were the Northern Pacific which went across the state from Fargo to Beach, and the Manitoba, (later part of the Great Northern line), which ran from Grand Forks to Williston. In addition hundreds of miles of branch lines were laid; tracks that ran to the areas north and south of the main lines. As the rails reached new parts of the state new towns sprang up; and with the railroad came new businesses.

Prior to the railroads North Dakota was mostly populated by Native American Indian tribes and fur traders. The fur traders established outposts along its river system. These outposts diminished with the effects of wars, epidemics and dwindling bison herds. The arrival of the railroads opened the area to new settlers and investors. The demand for wheat grew and farms thrived. Many towns were founded to stock building supplies and the materials needed for everyday life. Town sites were often established at the end of a railroad line, while some towns already built would move their buildings to be near the railroad.

In 1864 Congress passed a bill signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln to charter the Northern Pacific Railroad. The Northern Pacific received the biggest tract of land Congress had ever awarded a railroad. However, construction was not able to start for five years. It wasn’t until 1869 that an investor showed interest in investing in the railroad. Jay Cooke and Company of Philadelphia finally became involved with the financial promotion and development of the northern railroad line. They signed a contract for $100 million worth of bonds; the largest single business venture ever undertaken in the U.S. up to that time.


The Villard “Gold Spike” Excursion. Photo by Frank Jay Haynes, from the State Historical Society of North Dakota

The Northern Pacific was the first railroad to enter North Dakota, but it soon had a competitor. The Great Northern Railroad had its beginning as The St. Paul and Pacific Railroad and was created from several predecessor railroads.  This new railroad company also had its share of financial difficulties, but after railroad tycoon James J. Hill, referred to as “The Empire Builder”, took over in 1878 it was on its way. In 1879 with the acquisition  of new lines it became the St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba. The Great Northern was the only privately funded and successfully built transcontinental railroad in In U.S. history. James Hill received no federal land grants for its construction. The Great Northern purchased its lands from the federal government and then resold it to farmers and ranchers. The Great Northern promoted settlement along its lines and operated agencies in Germany and Scandinavia that helped bring settlers over at a low cost. Eventually there were two main lines and two branch lines of the Great Northern. The railroad reached Minot in 1885 and Williston in 1887 which was a tremendous accomplishment. Construction averaged 3 ½ miles each day. Construction of the Pacific coast extension began in 1890 and the name was changed once again to the Great Northern Railroad, with the  line reaching the Pacific Coast in 1893.  Three other railroads were also built in North Dakota: The Chicago and Northwestern, The Soo Line, and The Chicago-Milwaukee and St. Paul.

All these railroads tied North Dakota to the grain markets in Minneapolis and St. Paul. As the rail lines progressed though the state, settlements and towns along the railroad sprang up. As Minneapolis grew and became the chief milling center, more and more wheat was needed. The railroads transported this wheat from the Red River Valley to the mills and brought back supplies to the settlers. The eastern part of the state was experiencing a “wheat bonanza”.

While wheat was dramatically changing the eastern part of North Dakota, the western side was having a “cattle bonanza”. The western side of the state and the badlands were ideal for raising cattle. The grasses were plentiful and nutritious, streams were abundant and there was protection for the animals in the coulees and ravines. The Little Missouri River Valley was opened up by the Northern Pacific Railroad. Horse trading was another business that prospered during the early part of the 20th century, and the railroads provided the means to get horses to the eastern and southern markets.

The building of the railroads provided jobs for many. In addition to the railroad workers themselves, local homesteaders were able to make money by supplying the workers camps. The railroad work was done with horses and they had to have hay to feed them. Locals found a ready market for their surplus hay. Local farmers and ranchers were also able to get contracts to furnish the railroad contractors with potatoes, pork and beef. They would do the butchering for them late in the evening and deliver the meat in the early morning hours. McKenzie County pioneer, C F Martell, remembers taking the contracted supplies by rowboat across the river to the camps.

Eventually hard times would drive away settlers and contribute to the decline of the small railroad towns. There were wind and dust storms, grasshoppers and the Great Depression. In the 1930’s people abandoned farms, ranches and towns by the tens of thousands. As modern methods of transportation arrived, small railroad towns continued to wane. The automobile and the modern highways often left these towns isolated. There was less need for stations and stops along the railroads routes. People were able to easily get to the larger towns and the smaller towns could not compete. The railroads themselves would leave these smaller towns as they became less prosperous for them which then hastened their demise.

Ironically, about a hundred years later, there is another wave of immigration and settlement along with a resurgence of the railroad; this time to haul the oil out of the booming Bakken region. New transfer stations are popping up, the rail lines are crowded, and new businesses are moving in. Once again North Dakota is  transformed and the railroad was a huge part of it.


  • Great Northern Railroad Historical Society
  • North Dakota State Historical Society; research material and photos
  • National Geographic magazine
  • ndstudies.gov
  • britannica.com
  • N D State Rail Plan; 2007
  • Autobiography of Charles Franklin Martell

                                   This is the original article. An edited version was  published in the Cowboy Chronicle

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