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Published: January 2008

North Dakota

Emptied Prairie

The Emptied Prairie

In the early 20th century, railroads lured settlers into North Dakota with promises of homesteads. Towns were planted everywhere. Houses rose from the sweep of the plains, many, like this one, with a story no one can trace. People believed rain would follow the plow. But they were wrong.

By Charles Bowden
Photograph by Eugene Richards

The robin’s-egg blue kitchen looks out on the brown grass of the empty plains. The gas stove lurches away from the wall, and, in the wild yard, the white bones of a deer bleach in the sun. Plaster fragments litter the floors of the rooms, and down in the cellar a galvanized wringer washer stands watch by the long-dead coal furnace. In the upstairs bedroom, a window sash has slipped and become a trapezoid framing the abandoned orchard to the west. Two old cars rust nearby, caressed by the moan of the wind. The stone footing of a vanished barn stares east at wheat and grass. Ghost towns stud North Dakota, and this empty house is just one bone in a giant skeleton of abandoned human desire.

This is the place where American assumptions about the land proved to be wrong. The homesteaders believed rain followed the plow. In the grasslands of western Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, they learned better. And so for almost a century we’ve watched stranded towns and houses fall one by one like autumn leaves in the chill of October. In most of the United States, abandoned buildings are a sign of change and shifting economic opportunities. On the High Plains, they always mean that something in the earth and the sky mutinied against the settlers.

Successive human waves have been bested on the High Plains of North Dakota. Indians on horseback lived a dream of motion and buffalo for more than a century before the U.S. military and hide hunters destroyed their world. For several decades in the early 19th century, trading posts thrived off fur-bearing animals until both the beasts and the traders were also gone. For three years in the 1880s, a cattle kingdom rushed into the cemetery of the bison until blizzards and drought snapped everyone back to reality.

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