High Plains Migration
Ghost Towns of North Dakota

Photograph by: Eugene Richards, National Geographic January 2008

In North Dakota most of the ghost towns—communities that have been abandoned, but whose structures are still standing—are remnants of a wave of settlement dating from the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, driven largely by the development of railroad lines through the territory. Earlier, the land had been populated by a variety of Indian tribes, both nomadic and sedentary. Then fur traders established outposts along the region's river systems; war, the smallpox epidemic of 1837, and the widespread killing of bison diminished the number of outposts.

The arrival of the railroads and the opening of the area to settlement by homesteaders and investors led to dramatic changes in North Dakota's landscape. And as the demand for wheat grew, thanks to new milling methods developed in Minneapolis, North Dakota’s farm economy thrived. Incentives from the federal government, optimism on the part of the railroad companies, and aggressive recruitment of immigrants across northern Europe led to a swelling population and an explosion of new towns—what historian Elwyn Robinson dubbed the "Too Much Mistake."

Some towns existed for a few years; others boomed for decades, only to be hit by a devastating combination of economic forces and climate changes. Windstorms similar to those that would later blow through the southern plains during the Dust Bowl years tested the endurance of settlers, and swarms of grasshoppers devoured crops across the state. In the midst of these hardships the Great Depression exacted its toll. In the 1930s people abandoned farms and businesses by the tens of thousands, leaving dozens of ghost towns across the western portion of the state. Today some of those towns are totally deserted; others claim only a few remaining residents, who recall lives rooted in this striking, hardscrabble landscape.

Bibliography

Bowden, Charles. “The Emptied Prairie.“ National Geographic. (January 2008), 140-57.

Robinson, Elwyn B. History of North Dakota. University of Nebraska Press, 1966.

Wishart, David J. The Fur Trade of the American West. University of Nebraska Press, 1979.

Incentives for Settlers

Around the turn of the 20th century the promise of owning land helped lure more than 100,000 immigrants to the deep frontier of North Dakota and other unsettled western territory. Both the federal government and the railroad companies sold land, but it could also be obtained by homesteading. The Homestead Act of 1862 provided willing settlers with tracts of 160 acres; in exchange, homesteaders had to live there for five years and agree to plant trees and cultivate a portion of the land. Two other federal laws, the Pre-emption Act of 1841 and the Timber Culture Act of 1873, also provided land at little or no cost. Under the Pre-emption Act, settlers who owned fewer than 320 acres could buy property for as little as $1.25 an acre; the Timber Culture Act gave 160 acres to anyone who would plant 10 acres with trees and keep 675 trees per acre alive for at least eight years.

The Homestead Act, which remained in place until 1976 in most of the country (and until 1986 in Alaska), led to homesteading claims on approximately 270 million to 285 million acres of land—about 10 percent of the nation’s total area. The last person to receive land under the law was Kenneth Deardroff, who claimed 80 acres along Alaska's Stony River.

Bibliography

Bowden, Charles. "The Emptied Prairie." National Geographic. (January 2008), 140-57."

View photos of settlers in the northern Great Plains between 1880 and 1920.

Read more about the Homestead Act.

The Homestead Act, Library of Congress

Plan a visit to the Homestead National Monument of America and learn about the efforts to preserve the land records and oral histories related to homesteaders."

Read about the last homesteader in the U.S.

Documenting North Dakota's Ghost Towns

Recognizing a gap in preservation efforts by established sources, a group of North Dakota history enthusiasts is using photos and video to document the deteriorating ghost towns sprinkled across the state. The group offers a code of ethics and some cautionary words: Leave things as you find them, taking nothing but litter from a town you visit. Don’t assume that a town is public property. Don't expect your cell phone to work, and bring a bike along in case your car breaks down. When you finish your trip, contribute to the effort by sharing your photos or video of these old haunts on their interactive forum.

Bibliography

Bowden, Charles. “The Emptied Prairie.“ National Geographic. (January 2008), 140-57.

Take a virtual ghost town trip through North Dakota.

Ghost Towns Outside of North Dakota

A variety of factors can turn a once-thriving community into a ghost town. Many towns declined because of economic changes—the rerouting of a major transportation corridor, the decline in importance of a major industry, the exhaustion of a natural resource. Disease wiped out others, including Providence, Ohio, which was hit hard by a cholera outbreak in 1854. Some were deserted following a natural disaster, as was Hemming, Texas, most of which was blown away by a tornado in 1907; some were submerged, including St. Thomas, Nevada, after the Hoover Dam was built (though it can still be seen when Lake Mead is low).

Bibliography

"Bowden, Charles. The Emptied Prairie.
National Geographic. (January 2008), 140-57.

Two sites featuring images of ghost towns across the western U.S. and Canada:
Ghosttowns.com and Ghost Town Gallery

These web rings refer visitors to a variety of sites created by ghost town enthusiasts: Ghost Towns and another site

Little Mosque on the Prairie

Immigrants recruited from northern Europe weren’t the only people drawn to North Dakota at the turn of the 20th century. Muslim settlers from the eastern Mediterranean also ventured there to raise crops and families. Among them was a homesteader named Hassen Juma, who claimed 160 acres in 1899. Thirty years later, after 20 or so more families had arrived, the community built a simple, mostly underground structure for worship; it was one of the first mosques in the U.S. Located in Ross, a small town in the northwest portion of the state, the mosque fell out of use in the middle of the century and was torn down in the 1970s, though a cemetery remains. In recent years a new mosque was built on the site.

Bibliography

Bowden, Charles. “The Emptied Prairie.“ National Geographic. (January 2008), 140-57.

Other Resources

Read about Muslim American history, including the Ross mosque, on this timeline prepared by the nonprofit organization Collections & Stories of American Muslims.

“The Mosque in America: A National Portrait.” Council on American-Islamic Relations, 2001.

New Uses for Old Tracks

During the rapid expansion of the railroads, lines were laid in every part of North Dakota, and soon the land was punctuated with fledgling towns—the state’s population boomed in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. But as these rural areas lost population to warmer or less isolated locales, many out-of-use lines were decommissioned. Since 1979 some 1,500 miles of track—enough to stretch from Fargo to New Orleans—have been removed. So what has become of these once-popular corridors?

It takes some heavy lifting to remove the foundation of this frontier economy: Just the tracks from a mile of railroad weigh hundreds of tons. And that doesn't take into account the thousands of spikes, plates, and hefty wooden railroad ties in each mile. Though it’s often washed away, the ballast rock can add up to thousands more tons.

Nonetheless, the removal seems worth the effort. Some of the rails have found new life as the ethanol plants sprouting up across the heartland increase the demand for trains and rails to move their products to market. Others are heated and cut into fence posts, rebar, or even bed frames. And the true scrap is melted down to make raw steel.

Intact wooden ties, or crossbeams, are often incorporated into retaining walls and other landscaping features. Those that are too damaged can be chipped and used as fuel at power plants, though many people are concerned about possible carcinogens in the creosote coating that’s often used as a wood preservative.

Once the tracks have been taken up, the underlying land is still considered valuable. North Dakota has already opened four recreational paths on former railroad lines, totaling about 28 miles in length, and three additional trails, which would add up to 75 more miles, are under consideration.

Bibliography

Bowden, Charles. “The Emptied Prairie.“ National Geographic. (January 2008), 140-57.

Robinson, Elwyn B. History of North Dakota. University of Nebraska Press, 1966.

Wishart, David J. The Fur Trade of the American West. University of Nebraska Press, 1979.

Other Resources

Bowden, Charles. "The Emptied Prairie." National Geographic. (January 2008), 140-57."

"Recycling Keeps Railroad Ties Off the Landfill Track." WasteAge, September 1, 1995."

"Preliminary Risk Assessment for Creosote." Environmental Protection Agency, August 2007.

Find recreational trails with this service sponsored by the Rails to Trails Conservancy, which helps communities convert unused railway lines into trails.

See photos of the track removal process and some of the uses for decommissioned railroad components on the website of this company, which specializes in track removal.

"Issues Related to Preserving Inactive Rail Lines as Trails: Report to the Honorable Senator Sam Brownback, U.S. Senate." General Accounting Office, October 1999."

Last updated: December 2007