Birthdays have a way of sneaking up on all of us. Maybe it's all of the oil news of late, concern over the national debt or perhaps the turmoil in Congress. Whatever the reason it seems Minot's 125th birthday is fast approaching and largely unnoticed.
The city wasn't actually incorporated until July 16, 1887, but the birth of Minot is clearly traced to the summer and fall of 1886 when the town's first settler, Erik Ramstad, gave up all claims to 40 acres of land he had been squatting on since coming to the Mouse River Valley in June 1883.
Countless books and newspaper articles have told and retold the same stories of how Ramstad was approached by James J. Hill the Empire Builder whose St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba railroad was making its way west through Dakota Territory.
Author Steven Keillor, who incidentally is a brother of public radio personality Garrison Keillor, perhaps best told the story of Minot, Ramstad and Hill in his 2002 book "Erik Ramstad and the Empire Builder,'' published in Minot by North American Heritage Press. Publisher Allen O. Larson provided the photographs of a young and older Erik Ramstad that appear on this page.
Keillor's book was no rehash and points out clearly the significance of the events that took place 125 years ago this summer and fall.
In short the red letter dates are:
Aug. 26, 1886: By this time, Hill's railroad, advancing west out of Devils Lake but with its precise route still unknown, had decided to cross the Mouse River here and plat a town.
Early September 1886: Ramstad is in confidential talks about giving up his land, and surveying of a townsite begins.
Sept. 8, 1886: The secret is out that the new town will be called Minot, named after Henry D. Minot.
Oct. 4, 1886: The first train arrives in Minot, a wintering point for the construction crews before advancing toward Great Falls, Mont., the following spring.
Oct. 26, 1886: Ramstad signs over whatever right he had to the 40 acres on which Minot would be built, to Solomon G. Comstock and Almond A. White's Northwest Land Company, for the sum of $1,000. The Magic City is off to a good start with lots selling quickly, and farmer/settler Ramstad becomes one of the town's leading citizens.
By 1912, when a lesser-known story involving Ramstad takes place, he had already been successful in farming and the lumber and real estate businesses and still had considerable land holdings north of the 40-acre townsite, which also had become part of the sprawling city. He had given away more land than most people who came to Minot after him had possessed, and now he was a player in an economic development project which, had it been approved, could have impacted downtown Minot for decades to come, or at least added additional character to the city's first business district.
According to the Jan. 9, 1912, edition of the Minot Daily Reporter, Ramstad and several other prominent, early residents, namely former mayor Joseph Roach, James Johnson, A. J. Brunner and L.J. Palda, had been before the city commission the previous day seeking a 20-year franchise for an "electric street railway" a trolley.
The following is verbatim from the Reporter but note that the street names and numbers don't match today's city map.
"The road would operate from the Soo Line depot on North Main street south to Fifth street, then extending east on Fifth to Valley street, crossing the Soo Line tracks and the Eastwood park bridge. It would continue through the park to East 1st street and from there extending west to Reishus street, then south to the federal building site on the corner of Reishus and Second street, then west on Second street to Ward street and to the Great Northern viaduct."
Translated, the trolley would start at the Soo Line depot and go up Main Street to East Burdick Expressway, turn east and cross the Soo Line tracks, enter Eastwood Park at the bridge and exit Eastwood Park at the humpback bridge on Central Avenue. It would then run west to First Street Southwest and head south again to First Avenue Southwest, turn west to Broadway, and then north to Central Avenue.
Of the cost to ride the trolley, the Reporter said:
"The fares shall not exceed five cents for a continuous trip in one direction and four cents will be charged school children and Normal school students."
One might think the city commission would jump at the chance to put an electric trolley on Minot's major streets, but that was not the case. The proposed ordinance to allow the franchise was turned over to city attorney George A. McGee for his review, and his response to the city commission at its next meeting was reported in the Jan. 23, 1912, edition of the Reporter.
"I herewith return the application to you with the recommendation that the same be rejected for the reason the application does not pretend to extend to or cover the outlying districts of the city of Minot, this to my mind being so apparent that it is unnecessary to go into any of the other provisions of the application."
The city commission backed McGee and denied the application.
The merits of the trolley project were the topic of discussion a short time later at a meeting of the town's Commercial Club, and while people spoke for and against the plan, there seemed to be consensus that the investors should have dreamed bigger. Specifically, there was a perceived need for trolley service both east and west of the proposed route but also on the north side of the Mouse River where residences were springing up in great numbers following the city's "second boom."
One could speculate that politics came into play in the commission's decision. Just four months earlier the famous battle between north Minot and south Minot interests over the location of the new Normal School had been waged, and there were still legal issues dangling. Also, there was a move afoot to clean up Minot's bawdy image, and the proposed trolley route would take it but a block away from what became known as "High Third." Finally, automobiles were becoming more common to own and very popular in Minot, so perhaps the trolley plan was a bit late on the scene.
That speculation aside, the issue seemed to be dead in January 1912. Whether the idea ever came up again in Minot's history will be left to actual historians like Keillor to discover. Needless to say, Minot never did get a trolley when it could easily have had one.
A final thought: Imagine what Ramstad must have felt like in 1912, gazing south from the site of his original log cabin and up Main Street to where the townsite platted in 1886 continued to grow and grow. Maybe he wasn't awe-struck at all. He did once express a lack of surprise at the railroad's choice of land for a townsite at Minot, afterall, it was his own choice earlier. "Well, I had three good crops off that land," he said.
Sounds a bit like the successful businessman was still a farmer at heart.
(Kent Olson is managing editor of The Minot Daily News. He can be reached at (firstname.lastname@example.org).