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There was danger in leaving town

By Staff | Nov 6, 2009

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was dangerous to leave town. When you got back, it could have become someplace else.

As towns were platted and founded across the state, the names chosen by the locals were not always acceptable. Sometimes, the railroad company didn’t like the name; in other cases, the U. S. Post Office Department thought it sounded too much like some name in Minnesota or South Dakota. In any case, the name had to be changed. Actually, most of our major cities went through this name change trauma.

Douglas Wick of Bismarck spent 10 years tracking early place names and, in 1988, published North Dakota Place Names, a 238-page book packed with brief descriptions of 3,000 place names. He followed some of these name changes. For example, he reports that Beulah was founded in 1914 as Troy and then later incorporated as Beulah.

Bismarck started as Edwinton in 1872 and was changed to Bismarck in 1873 when area promoters hoped to attract more German settlers by exploiting the name of Germany’s Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. It worked. The eight counties around Bismarck reek with sauerkraut.

Devils Lake was founded in 1882 as Creelsburgh, but became Devils Lake in 1884.

Dickinson was Pleasant Valley Siding in 1880 and renamed Dickinson in 1881 for Wells Stoughton Dickinson, land agent and politician from New York.

Fargo started its existence in 1871 as The Crossing, then Tent City, then Centralia before getting named in 1872 for the president of the Wells-Fargo Express Company William George Fargo.

Mandan was founded in 1872 as Morton and Lincoln before becoming Mandan in 1878. Then a new postmaster arbitrarily changed it to Cushman in March of 1879, creating such a local uproar that it was returned to Mandan in September of that year.

Valley City was a town you didn’t want to leave without a forwarding address. In 1872, it was the Second Crossing of the Sheyenne, then it became the Fifth Siding, followed by Wahpeton, and then Worthington before becoming Valley City in 1878. (Yes, Valley City was once Wahpeton.)

Wahpeton started in 1869 as Richville, then Chahinkapa in 1873, and finally Wahpeton in 1874. (Valley City had its chance.)

West Fargo was founded in the 1870s as Sheyenne Stockyards, then became West Fargo, then split into West Fargo Industrial Park, Riverside, and somehow a Southwest Fargo appeared to become West Fargo. (Frankly, I got lost in West Fargo. Check your local cartographer for details.)

Grafton, Jamestown, Minot and Williston did not get into the musical names business, boring though it may have been. In some towns, people were glad to come back to a different place.

Many of North Dakota’s towns were given English names to attract English investors. Conway was one such town, but no investors appeared. Some towns were named at a whim, e.g. Bucyrus was named for a steam shovel working nearby. Butte was the only town where people had a choice. They voted for Butte over Dogden.

Wick’s book went through four printings and is no longer at book stores. Your only hope is the library.

Omdahl is a UND professor emeritus in political science and a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota.

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