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Wes' World: Valley City 140 Years Ago

July 12, 2012

August 2012 Marks a foundation point for Valley City according to my predecessor Tom Elliott. He created an elaborate telling of the foundation of what would become Valley City for print in the 1983 Centennial book.

I'm not entirely sure where Tom got his detailed information from especially about conversations and such but here it is. A few of the then modern places have changed since the writing but I am sure you can figure out what he's talking about.

"Now wait a minute," you might think, "How can Valley City measure its centennial in 1983 and now its most recent 125th Anniversary in 2008 to 1883 if things got started in 1872?" Well, the story is complicated, but interesting. Suffice it to say as we "enjoy" these heated days of July that 140 years ago in a similar weather pattern, the Northern Pacific Railroad crossed the river and on the other side put us here....for better or worse.

The Story of the Settlement of Valley City
By Thomas P. Elliott
It was a hot day in July, 1872, when the worktrain slowly steamed westward from the miserable tent city of “Centralia” on the west bank of the Red River of the North.
Just a month before, track had been laid to the river on the east side and a village had sprung up overnight. Moorhead by name, it was destined to be known as the “The Wickedest City in the World.”
A bridge had been thrown across the river at this point and a rude collection of huts and tents housing a motley group of camp followers and speculators had materialized overnight. This was “Centralia.” Squatters would have been a better name for them as the land on the west side of the river still belonged to the Indians and had not been surveyed.
Among the more affluent of the tent dwellers was Charles Mulherin. He had opened a grocery store in a tent, stocked with a few of the staples necessary to keep life together in the little frontier village. As the railroad moved west, Mulherin moved with it, finally to be tied to his wagon and burned to death by Indians somewhere in the west.
Nearby, in another tent, there lived a man named George Peoples. Peoples also followed the railroad and later became the first mayor of Edwinton, later called “Bismarck.” Still later, he became mayor of the sister city of Mandan.
A log cabin had been built in the woods south of the river crossing the previous fall by a Mr. A.H. Moore. With the coming of the railroad, this cabin served as the first hotel in what was later Fargo. Mr. A.H. Moore was the grandfather of Dr. Max M. Moore of Valley City. He served as a Deputy United State Marshal during the next few years and later opened a store in Lisbon, Dakota Territory.
General Rosser, chief engineer of the railroad construction train, had set up his headquarters on the west side of the river, with some fifty tents laid out with military precision to house the various offices, mess halls and barracks of the railroad workers. A detail of infantry and a troop of cavalry were camped just to the north of the railroad camp. As the worktrain moved slowly forward, the engineers, escorted by a squad of infantry, staked the right of way. The graders followed closely and behind them, the track layers. Infantry soldiers provided protection in the event of an Indian attack.
Out in front of the engineers there was a screen of cavalry, constantly on the lookout for possible raids by the ever-dangerous Indians.
The going was tough. The prairie grass, centuries old, was difficult to cut with the horse-drawn implements of the time. Although the right of way in general followed high ground, it was necessary to cross low places. Extensive filling and grading, using pick and shovel, horses and scrapers and some wagons consumed much time. Men and horses suffered from the summer heat and the inevitable hordes of voracious mosquitoes.
There was precious little fresh water to be had as the summer rains had passed and what little water they did find in the low spots was brackish and foul to the taste. The water barrels had been filled at the first crossing of the Sheyenne River, but were nearly empty when the head of the track crossed the Maple River. Here the water was so low that it took a long time to fill not only the water barrels but the engine on the worktrain.
The track edged westward as the days went uneventfully by.
No large bodies of Indians were sighted although several small Earliest Valley City scene. groups, usually families, were seen in the distance and the cavalry rode off to investigate. General Rosser made his daily visit to the head of the track and conferred with his engineers. The graders and track layers, mostly Irish but with a “Duke’s Mixture” of other nationalities, respectfully doffed their hats and caps as the general rode by. Many secretly wondered what they and the general were doing out here in the “great nowhere” with the everlasting heat, mosquitoes and wind.
July passed into August and the head of the track reached the westward side of the Red River Valley. The country became more hilly and the problem of cutting through the low hills to maintain a good grade slowed the pace somewhat. However, August passed and September found the going better as the tracks began to descend a long ravine and the next morning the workers found themselves overlooking a wide, tree-covered valley with a river winding its way to the south.
The spirits of the workers picked up as they swung their picks and shovels and there was talk of having a swim and a good bath. There is little doubt that they needed a bath ... two months on a worktrain with a shortage of water makes for poor bathing. One of the men remarked that perhaps they could get a bath and a swim while the bridge was being built. Another answered, “Don’t worry, Ole Rosser ain’t going to let us rest while the bridge crew works. We will be on the other side of the river, laying iron like our lives depended on it. This here train has to have some track to run on after it crosses the bridge.”
By noon of the fourteenth, the grade had been completed to the river and the bridge builders took over. Located just to the north of the grade as it approached the river and in a cleared area, there was a large log cabin. Everyone wondered “What in tarnation” anyone would be doing living out here in nowhere. A foreman spoke up and said that it was a stage station and that he had heard that this place was called “Carson’s Crossing” but he wasn’t sure.
The graders and track layers did not get their much desired chance to swim but were ferried across the river where they found a line of staked ground leading across the valley and up another ravine to the west. Grumbling, they set to work, hoping that nightfall would mean a swim in the inviting waters of the Sheyenne.
As they toiled in the scorching heat, one worker raised up from his shoveling to mop his dripping brow. Looking to the northwest, he was amazed to see a stagecoach, drawn by four horses, rolling down the hill toward the river, even though the driver seemed to be following some sort of a path as he moved back and forward to cut his speed. The actions of the driver as he guided the team down the crude prairie road to the river, made for an exciting break in the monotony of track building.
As the stagecoach and its horses descended to more level ground, the driver slowed the pace somewhat but did not hesitate to splash through the ford of the river just north of the site of the unfinished bridge. With a whoop and more hollering, the coach lurched up the east bank of the river and pulled to a halt in front of the log cabin, the horses steaming and the coach dripping.
The driver swung down from his perch up in front and reached up and opened the door to the coach. Slowly and stiffly, several army officers and one lone civilian climbed down to the ground and filed into the darkness of the cabin door.
As the long, hot day drew to a close, the men on the west side of the river walked across the stringers of the bridge to the east side and supper on the worktrain. They wearily swung aboard and seated themselves at the long tables in the mess cars. Not much time was wasted in small talk while eating as each was thinking of the cool swim and bath in the offing. Finished eating, they trooped back to the bunk cars for a change of clothing and like a bunch of boys, raced one another to the river’s edge.
Reaching the site of the nearly completed bridge, they noted a couple of strangers, surrounded by workers, standing at the east end of the bridge. It seemed that the strangers were explaining something and all edged up to the group to find out what was so interesting.
“My name is McFadgen and my friend here is named Morrison. We came out here last spring in May and scouted the country. We decided the railroad was going to cross the Sheyenne here, since there was already a stagecoach line crossing the river and the grade in and out of the valley seemed about right.” The speaker was a well-built man, possibly thirty-five years of age and obviously quite confident that he knew what he was talking about. In truth, he had been a foreman with the railroad when the initial survey was made and he had been through the Sheyenne Valley and knew that the crossing was planned here and that the managers of the road were planning the location of a town at the crossing.
He had quit his job and with his friend, Morrison, had indeed arrived in May of 1872.
“Are there any other white people here?” came a query from the group. John Morrison replied, “McFadgen and I are the only white people here that we know of. There are several families of half-breed French fur traders and trappers living in dugouts in the river bank just south of the river bend, McFadgen has a cabin just north of the grade on the west side of the river and I have a small trading post south of the grade.” McFadgen spoke up, saying, “There is a fort south of here called Fort Ransom but we have never been there. Soldiers from the fort have stopped here with us, however.”
“Are there any Indians about?” one worker asked.
“There are several families living south of here in a loop of the river but they are friendly Chippewa and remain here only during the summer time. I buy beaver and muskrat pelts from them,” replied Morrison.
One of the bystanders asked what McFadgen intended doing here, now that he had a cabin erected. McFadgen, with a grin, replied, “Well, some people say this country is not fit for human habitation. When I came here in May I planted a bit of grain and a small garden, and, believe it or not, I’ve had a bumper crop of everything. I think this will be good farming country and I’m going to file a claim at the land office in Pembina as soon as I can. It is a dang long way up there, you know. On top of that, who knows, there may must be a sizeable city here someday and I’ll be in on the ground floor!”
The answers to the questions had been interesting. It created a subject for conversation among the more mature of the workers.
Some stated that perhaps McFadgen and Morrison were pretty smart fellows and might have a real good thing. Others, remembering the heat and mosquitoes, seemed to think they were a bit crazy in the head. They noted that the nearest civilization was sixty miles to the east and not much civilization at that. Still others, looking at the beautiful valley and remembering McFadgen’s story about the crops, quietly said to themselves that this might be the place they were looking for, where they could start life anew, what with the new homestead law and cheap land.
The next day, about noon, September 15, 1872, the bridge was completed and track laid across the valley and the first train, into what was known as “Second Crossing of the Sheyenne,” puffed across the bridge and stopped to pick up workers. A squad of soldiers was detailed to guard the bridge against the possibility that the Indians might attempt to burn it. The worktrain boss, looking over the men as they boarded the train, pointed to one obviously Irish face and said, “Paddy Dolen, get your gear from the bunk car. You and your pal, Mike, are staying here. We need someone to look after the water barrels and keep tab on things. Mr. Morrison has agreed to give you a place to sleep and feed you. Rosser says that there will be a water and coal stop here and a siding in a few months. Paddy, you are in charge!”
With a short toot and a long blast from the engine, the worktrain slowly steamed across the valley, skirting the river where it looped around a heavy stand of timber and then up the long ravine to the west. Paddy and Mike gathered up their gear and wended their way through the trees to John Morrison’s cabin. Paddy found the door wide open and Morrison seated on the stoop cleaning his Colt 44. “The boss says we are to bunk with you for awhile. This ain’t no Sherman House, but I guess it will have to do!” said Dolen. Morrison, squinting down the barrel of his pistol, replied, “Well, I don’t rightly remember ever seeing you at the Sherman House in Chicago so I guess this will be better than a bedbug ridden bunk in a bunk car. Right?”
“Truth is, McFadgen and I have decided to build us a tent hotel since this is going to be a metropolis from now on ...reckon you two could give us a hand?” said Morrison. Looking at Mike, Paddy replied, “A tent hotel will be danged cold when the snow blows, but let’s get at it!”
To make a long story shorter, McFadgen and Morrison, with the aid of Paddy and Mike, built a 22-foot by 40-foot tent hotel and restaurant and it served its purpose for two years. It was located about where the city trailer park now is, probably facing south.
Within a month, a water tower was built, a section house of sorts, made from lumber from old Fort Abercrombie, was constructed and Paddy Dolen and his friend, Mike, moved in. The siding was started, further west from the section house. Paddy, who hailed from New York, had promised his mother to write faithfully. In reply to his first letter from “Second Crossing of the Sheyenne,” a letter arrived one day addressed as follows: “Paddi Dolien, 2X Sheyenne, DT.”
It was the very first letter addressed and received by a citizen of what is now Valley City.
With the completion of the railroad siding, the name was changed to “Fifth Siding,” meaning the fifth siding west of Fargo at the time.
The railroad company had platted a city which straddled the river. However, McFadgen and Morrison put a crimp in their plans because they had filed preemption claims at the land office in Pembina to the two sections of land through which the Sheyenne River flowed at the crossing. Preemption claims took precedence over any claim the railroad might have had for the land and the plat of the proposed city had to be moved to the next quarter section to the west. In 1874 the city was re-platted and at that time, renamed “Wahpeton,” the Indian name for “Place of many leaves.”
Settlement was slow. Dakota Territory had a bad name. To promote the settlement of Barnes County (then Burbank County), the railroad sent two land agents to the city to sell lots in the city and land in the county. Mr. George Worthington and Col. L.D. Marsh appeared on the scene ... Col. Marsh arriving by handcar, which he had pumped all the way from Fargo. He was put up at the tent hotel of Morrison and McFadgen until he could find other quarters. Worthington came in style by train.
These men had a wide acquaintance in the east and due to the advertising of the Northern Pacific that an auction of lots would take place in July of 1878, many people showed up to bid on what they considered to be choice lots. Imagine if you can, bidding upon a lot from a map and hoping that it is a part of the business district of a paper town. Lots sold for as low as $10.00 on what is now Main Street and were resold for $400.00 the same day. A woman by the name of Ida LaDuc attended the auction, coming by train. She purchased three lots where the First National Bank now stands for $30.00 and sold them for $1200.00 that same day and took the evening train back to Minneapolis.
Mr. Worthington had, upon his arrival here, changed the name of the place to “Worthington” instead of Wahpeton, and it remained Worthington for about four years. During these four years, very little improvement was made in the village. In the spring of 1878, the Post Office Department requested that the name of the village be changed because mail intended for Worthington, Minnesota was being sent to Worthington, Dakota territory and vice-versa. This time a meeting of the residents was held, all 30 of them, and Joel Weiser, one of the first merchants, suggested Valley City and the post office accept the change. At this time there were but twelve buildings in the village, including several bars, a general store and the section house. There were less that 400 white people in the entire county.

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