Section 1: Urban Growth

Though most of Dakota Territory’s earliest pioneers came for land and intended to farm, cities and towns grew up in every county. Most of the towns served farmers’ needs with hardware and lumber stores, grain elevators, and general stores where farm families could purchase such things as clothing or kerosene for cooking, heating, and lighting.

A few cities had other roles to fill. Some towns became county seats where the county government was headquartered. A county seat would have offices for the county court, the sheriff’s office and jail, and a county clerk to collect taxes. Bismarck was not only the county seat and a farm service town, but the state capital with offices of state government. Other towns such as Fargo became financial centers where bankers bought and sold land and securities and traded in grain. Banks also provided loans and other services to shopkeepers and homeowners. Cities were often railroad centers where trains and railcars were repaired, fueled, and stored.

Cities attracted professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and educators. The larger cities had high schools, business colleges, and colleges founded by churches. Fargo also had the state Agricultural College. Grand Forks had the University of North Dakota. Some of the colleges also had preparatory schools for students whose families lived far from a town with a high school. These students lived in a boarding house while they studied in a town far from home.

Why is this important? Most North Dakotans lived and worked on farms until 1990. The cities provided necessary services to farm families and the farm economy. Neither the cities nor the farms could exist independently of the other.


Fargo has been North Dakota’s largest city since the 1880s. It started as a collection of huts along the edge of the Red River known as “Fargo in the Timber.”  This little community of 600 rough and rowdy squatters (people who lived on land they did not own) lived by working on steamboats or by some less respectable occupations such as gambling.

In June, 1872, the Northern Pacific Railroad (NPRR) tracks crossed the Red River into Fargo. A second settlement greeted the NPRR. This community was called “Fargo on the Prairie.” (See Image 1.) Fargo on the Prairie was farther from the river and provided homes and businesses for railroad engineers, merchants, and professionals such as medical doctors. (See Image 2.) The two communities eventually joined to become the young city of Fargo. (See Image 3.)

Image 1: Among the earliest residents of Fargo on the Prairie were the engineers and construction workers of General Rosser’s Northern Pacific Railroad crew. They lived in this tent city from the summer of 1871 to 1873. The tent city was the beginning of Fargo in the Prairie. This photo was taken in 1871.SHSND A1572
Image 2: By 1873, some of the tents were replaced by frame buildings. The tracks had been completed to Bismarck, but in September 1873, the Northern Pacific declared bankruptcy. Train traffic stopped for a couple of years. SHSND B0617-02
Image 3: The Northern Pacific built a large hotel in Fargo and named it the Headquarters Hotel. This photo, looking east toward the Red River from the Headquarters Hotel, shows the little city growing along the tracks.SHSND A5804


Fargo’s growth depended on the agricultural economy of the Red River Valley. (See Image 4.) The settlement of small farms and large bonanza farms made Fargo an important shipping and business center. (See Image 5.) Fargo’s rail lines connected the Hard Red Spring Wheat farms of the valley to the flour mills of St. Paul.

The Northern Pacific faced competition from the Great Northern Railway in the 1890s. The presence of two rail lines made Fargo even more important as a business center. (See Image 6.) With grain trade and transportation as its economic foundation, Fargo’s population boomed.

Image 4: This bird’s-eye map of Fargo drawn in 1880 shows a much larger city than the 1871 photograph. The perspective is from the northeast looking southwest. The tracks run through the city to the west. The circle on the left side is Island Park. SHSND A2945-0002
Image 5: This photo taken in 1879 shows how Fargo grew out from the Northern Pacific tracks. There is a park along the south side of the tracks with a small gazebo set in the lawn. The corner of the Headquarters Hotel (left side of photo) can be seen on the north side of the tracks. By 1879, merchants have opened a variety of stores along Broadway. SHSND C0551-0002
Image 6:  Fargo merchants sold all kinds of goods including furniture, hardware, clothing, and groceries. In this photo, men visit inside the Charles Rose Grocery store in Fargo. SHSND 0025-B-06















This growth occurred while the population of the United States was also growing quickly. However, while the U.S. population nearly doubled between 1870 and1900, the population of Fargo grew 3.5 times larger between 1880 and 1900. Most of the residents of Fargo had been born in the United States. The largest group of foreign born residents had come from the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.

Image 7: Nineteen women worked for the J. Roen & Company millinery store in Fargo around 1915. Millinery stores sold hats and other accessories for women. Courtesy, ND Institute for Regional Studies.
Image 8: As Fargo grew, it built schools to educate children. This grade school photograph was taken in 1878. Fargo built a high school in 1882. SHSND C0552
Fargo Fire
Image 9: The city of Fargo suffered a widespread and devastating fire in 1893. Following the fire, many of the cities buildings were re-constructed with brick which reduced the danger of fire sweeping through the entire city. Courtesy ND Institute for Regional Studies.
Image 11: Fargo’s residential areas were elegant. Many of the city’s residents lived in large homes. When this photo was taken in 1915, about one-third of the homes had clean water piped in from the city water plant and city sewer connections. Automobiles were becoming common in Fargo. SHSND A5593
Image 10: Though Fargo was a railroad town, riverboats used the Red River to carry passengers and freight north to Grand Forks and Winnipeg until 1915. The Red River also supplied Fargo's water supply. The water was often contaminated by raw sewage. SHSND A0346
Image 12: Fargo had many small manufacturing businesses. The Anders carriage and wagon shop was located on 2nd Avenue and 4th Street. SHSND C0692
Image 13: The Ford Motor Company had a small plant in Fargo. It was the 15th largest Ford plant in the United States. SHSND 2004-P-19-006

Fargo’s active economy opened opportunities for women to find employment. (See Image 7.) Most women worked as household servants, nurses, or teachers. Women also worked in retail stores, dairies, and restaurants. Educated women could work as stenographers (workers who typed letters and records for businesses) and in retail. Two hospitals in Fargo had training programs for nurses. Many young women who left their farm homes went to Fargo to find work.

The city offered many educational opportunities. (See Image 8.) Fargo’s first high school opened in 1882, and Fargo College opened in 1887. North Dakota Agricultural College organized as a land-grant college in 1890 before its buildings were ready. Today, NDAC is North Dakota State University. Dakota Business College opened in 1893.

 In 1893, about three-fifths of the city’s buildings were lost in a major fire. While the loss was tragic, the fire forced Fargo’s property owners to re-build and expand. The new buildings were mostly of brick. (See Image 9.)

The city had a problem with typhoid fever that was probably caused by contaminated drinking water. (See Image 10.) The city’s water supply came from the Red River, which also served as a sewer for other cities along the river’s banks. In 1912, Fargo built a new water treatment plant that provided safe drinking water to the city’s homes. However, by 1915, only one-third of Fargo’s 2,900 homes had connected to the city’s water system and even fewer homes had connected to the sewer system. These households used simple outhouses instead of indoor bathrooms. (See Image 11.)

Fargo’s middle-class citizens tended to live northwest of the business district. The wealthy lived south of the railroad tracks along 8th Street. The poor lived close to the river, just south of the tracks. A 1915 survey of the city’s poor residents found 111 permanent residents living on one block. That neighborhood increased in population during the winter when farm workers moved to the city to wait for the next summer’s employment.

After 1910, Fargo modernized rapidly. (See Image 12.) More than 11 miles of Fargo streets were paved with wood blocks, concrete, brick, or a new “hot mix” asphalt called bithulithic. Street lights were installed on 8th street in 1916. Much of the change in the streets was brought about by the use of automobiles. (See Image 13.)

With its economic growth came political power. Fargo merchants helped to bring the capital to Bismarck in 1883. Fargo was the political center of Cass County, known to the rest of North Dakota as “Imperial Cass.” 

Why is this important? North Dakota’s agricultural economy supported the growth of cities. Fargo was the largest and most important North Dakota city, even before statehood. It was the most important retail (shopping) center between Minneapolis, Minnesota and Spokane, Washington for many years. It was the first place that visitors traveling on the Northern Pacific railroad saw as they entered North Dakota. The progressive city surrounded by fertile farm fields made a good impression on newcomers.

Ethnic Diversity

North Dakota’s cities were more racially and ethnically diverse than rural communities. African Americans made land claims and farmed as did Jews in small, scattered communities. However, African Americans, Jews, and a few Asian immigrants found work, homes, and social life in the state’s towns and cities. (See Document 1.)

This article, “History of the Jews of Fargo” appeared in a national publication, The Reform Advocate on December 13, 1913. The article tells of the situation of the Jewish community in Fargo and some of the important Jewish city leaders. This article, “History of the Jews of Fargo” appeared in a national publication, The Reform Advocate on December 13, 1913. The article tells of the situation of the Jewish community in Fargo and some of the important Jewish city leaders. This article, “History of the Jews of Fargo” appeared in a national publication, The Reform Advocate on December 13, 1913. The article tells of the situation of the Jewish community in Fargo and some of the important Jewish city leaders.

Throughout North Dakota’s history, more African Americans lived and worked in cities than on farms. The men worked as day laborers, steamboat hands, and railroad workers. (See Image 14.) Many African American men worked as barbers in small towns and cities, a job that gave them the opportunity to own their own business and acquire property. A few African American men were professionally employed as musicians or doctors.

Although most black women did not work outside of their homes, those who did often worked in private households as cooks and servants. Some worked in restaurants as cooks or dishwashers. Others worked in their own homes doing laundry for others. Educated women sometimes were able to find work as school teachers. (See Image 15.) One of these was Mattie Anderson who taught at Venturia School from 1907 to 1914.

W. H.W. Comer arrived in Bismarck in 1873 and set up a barber shop which he advertised as “neat and clean Hairdressing and Bathing Rooms.” (See Image 16.) Comer, who was possibly born free in Massachusetts, had come to Dakota Territory to work as a barber at military posts. Bismarck offered him an opportunity to set up his own business and to purchase property while the city was just beginning to grow. Comer and his wife Virginia became prosperous and respected residents of Bismarck. Comer was included among the first grand jurors appointed in Burleigh County in 1874. His clients were among the leading citizens of Bismarck and he considered some of them as personal friends. (See Image 17.) Comer died in 1888, but his wife continued to own and manage the city property that they had purchased.

Many African Americans enjoyed the respect of their white neighbors and prospered in their work, but North Dakota was not paradise for African Americans. In the cities, vandalism, verbal abuse, and threats were directed toward African Americans or their property. Black men and women who traveled outside of their own neighborhoods to towns where they were not known, often heard racial slurs and hurtful comments. In 1909, the North Dakota legislature passed a law that outlawed interracial marriage or cohabitation. Violators could be punished by imprisonment and fines. The law was not revoked until 1955.

While lynching (a horrible and public form of murder) occurred frequently in southern states during this time period, it was rare in Dakota.  However, there were at least two lynchings and some black men were threatened with lynching. In 1882, blacksmith Charles Thurber was taken by force to Grand Forks after being accused of raping two white women. The evidence was not strong, but a mob of 200 lynched Thurber by hanging him from the railroad bridge over the Red River. Thurber had not been tried or convicted of any crime. Years later the two accusers confessed to having lied about the crimes.

The number of African American residents was not large in this time period (it peaked at 617 in 1910) and the hard times of the 1930s forced many to leave for better opportunities. By 1940, only 201 African Americans lived in North Dakota. In recent years, immigration and excellent job opportunities have brought more African Americans to the state.

Jews found Fargo a welcoming city where they were able to engage in commerce and city politics. Many Jews that emigrated from cities of Europe had experienced legal restrictions that prohibited them from owning land and confined them to certain occupations. Jews also saw Fargo as a place where they could prosper as the city grew. By 1913, there were about 100 Jewish families in Fargo. [Document 1]

Jews settled elsewhere in North Dakota, too. There were communities of Russian Jews who settled on Homestead claims near Devils Lake and Painted Woods Creek south of Washburn. Jews lived and worked in smaller towns around the state as well. Though many of the Russian Jews who lived on farms eventually left the state, the Jewish population of Fargo remained fairly stable.

One problem that Jews faced in North Dakota’s cities and farms was forming a congregation big enough to hire a rabbi and build a temple. In 1897, Fargo’s Jewish residents formed a congregation. In 1908, they built a temple. Though the Jewish population remained relatively small as the city of Fargo grew, Jewish residents continued to find Fargo a welcoming city.

Why is this important? North Dakota had an ethnically diverse population from the earliest years of non-Indian settlement. People from different countries, different faiths, and different traditions all found a place to live on the prairie. In part, this diversity was due to the time period when North Dakota settled. These were the decades of great immigration to the United States from all parts of Europe. In addition, North Dakota welcomed all immigrants who could contribute to the state’s economic growth.

Frithjof Holmboe’s Films

Throughout the 19th century, inventors and photographers tried to capture motion on film. In 1891, Thomas A. Edison and his associate, William Dickson, patented a machine called the kinetograph. The images produced were shown through a machine called a kinetoscope (kinesis is the Greek root word for movement.)   In 1897, Robert W. Paul invented a rotating camera that allowed filmmakers to shoot panoramas, or scenes that move from one place to another.

By 1905, filmmakers were showing novelty films in theatres around the United States. Although the film subjects were often animals, such as running horses, or events like a man sneezing, film proved to be a popular form of entertainment. These films were usually only a few minutes long and did not have sound.

While the silent movie industry grew, individuals began to purchase film equipment for local or home use. In North Dakota, one of these early filmmakers was Frithjof Holmboe. Holmboe was born in Norway in 1879. His parents moved their family to Minneapolis in 1882. When Holmboe was a young man, he became a photographer for the Northern Pacific Railroad. This job brought him to North Dakota.

In 1907, Holmboe married and moved to New Salem, North Dakota where he set up a photographic studio. In the studio he photographed individuals, but he also took photographs of local events.

Holmboe moved to Bismarck in 1909 and opened a studio on Main Street. He became interested in motion pictures and created the Publicity Film Company in 1913. One of his clients was the North Dakota Department of Immigration. He also worked for businesses that wanted to use motion picture film to promote their products. Holmboe accompanied Governor Hanna to Norway in 1914. There, he filmed the governor’s presentation of a statue of Abraham Lincoln to the city of Oslo.

Frithjof Holmboe’s films are a visual historical document of work and town life in North Dakota. (See Document 2) His films, most of which are dated 1916, show people shopping, working, playing, loafing, driving automobiles, and riding horses. Pedestrians, especially children, watch carefully for automobiles before crossing the streets. Both horses and automobiles were used for transportation. Holmboe also shot film of trains and airplanes. Frithjof Holmboe left North Dakota for California when the economic depression that followed World War I took much of his business.

Document 2. Holmboe's Films

These films were made in 1915 and 1916 by Frithjof Holmboe of Bismarck. They document urban life in the early 20th century. Each film is quite short. There is no sound.

Wilton and vicinity. 2 min, 54 secs.

August 28, 1916 The Washburn coal mine, rural home, business on main street. SHSND 10269-4-3000


Killdeer and vicinity. 4 min, 5 secs.

September 28, 1916. Blacksmith, cattle driving to market, cattle cars on tracks, downtown businesses. SHSND 10269-3-2323.


Children and Families in Mandan Park. 28 secs.

1915. Children play as families gather in the railroad park in Mandan (Dykshoorn Park). It seems to be a special occasion, but not a national holiday such as the 4th of July. SHSND 10269-3-2767.


Bismarck. 55 secs.

1915–1920. An ordinary weekday in downtown Bismarck showing the railroad station, cars and horses on the street, and the trolley which took passengers to the capitol building. Holmboe’s studio was about one block from these scenes. SHSND 10269-6-0928.


Bi-plane. 5 secs.

1915–1920. This plane with two wings on each side, is being serviced before take-off. SHSND 10269-6-0893.


Ferry Boats on the Missouri River. 12 secs.

1915–1920. The bridge in the background is the railroad bridge. The road bridge has not yet been built. Ferries took cars, passengers, and livestock across the river several times a day. SHSND 10269-6-0859


Why is this important? Frithjof Holmboe was a pioneer of technology. He used technology to record events during a time when technology was changing the way North Dakotans worked, traveled, and conducted business.  Holmboe’s films are primary documents that show how ordinary people lived and worked in North Dakota's cities and towns.