Minot, North Dakota is a railroad town in the truest sense of the term. Now the fourth largest city in North Dakota with a population of more than 40,000, “The Magic City” began as a tent city of less than 600 railroad workers. Officially established in 1887, the city’s origin goes back further to a brutally cold winter, a defunct railroad and a man who saw potential where others saw only ruin.
In the 1880s James J. Hill’s St. Paul & Pacific Railroad (SP&P) was pushing through Minnesota and into Dakota Territory. Hill saw colonization as the key to rapid westward expansion. The railroad would lay tracks first and then work doggedly to promote settlement in the surrounding area.
By October 1886 the main line reached the Gassman Coulee. Crossing the valley would require the construction of an extensive trestle. Winter was setting in and progress was slow and difficult on the frozen plain. The decision was made to halt construction until the dead of winter had passed. A tent city sprang up overnight. The makeshift town came to be known as “The Magic City” because it appeared so suddenly, as if by magic. Within five months the population had increased from less than 600 to more than 5,000, adding validity to its moniker.
The railroad approached homesteader Erik Ramstad, who had claimed 160 acres on both sides of the Souris River in 1883, about officially establishing a town on his land. Ramstad, who would later become one of the city’s first leaders, agreed to relinquish 40 acres south of the Souris to the now renamed St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba Railway Company (SPM&M). After reaching an agreement with Ramstad, Hill obtained a government scrip laying claim to an additional 40 acres immediately south of Ramstad’s claim. On June 28, 1887, those 80 acres officially became the city of Minot.
Hill named the city Minot after Henry D. Minot an investor, director and executive of the railroad whose analytical and organizational skills were a great aid to Hill’s rapid expansion of the railroad. Minot was also vice president of the Eastern Minnesota Railway Company, a company formed by Hill. Unfortunately, Minot would be connected with the city by name only. He was killed in a train crash in Pennsylvania on November 14, 1890, at the age of 31. Minot had attended Harvard College, where he became friends with classmate Theodore Roosevelt due to a mutual interest in ornithology. Hill could have used the help of a mutual friend at the turn of the century when “The Trust Buster” was thwarting Hill’s attempts to consolidate the Great Northern, Northern Pacific and Chicago, Burlington & Quincy railroads.
SPM&M completed the Gassman Coulee Trestle on May 1, 1887, setting the stage for the railroad to expand west at a record pace. Hill spent the winter months stockpiling supplies for the western surge. With The Magic City serving as its base of operations, SPM&M laid 545 miles of track from Minot to Great Falls, Montana Territory, between April and mid-October 1887. By November, Hill’s 8,000 men and 3,300 teams had laid 641.5 miles of track between Minot and Helena, Mont. No other railroad had ever laid that much rail in one season.
Upgrades to the railroad in the Minot area continued after Hill’s Great Northern (GN) Railway leased the SPM&M in 1890. A new steel bridge across Gassman Coulee, still in use by BNSF today, was completed in 1898. The cutoff between Fargo and Surrey, just east of Minot, was completed in 1912, shortening GN’s transcontinental line by 60 miles. In the 1920s, new signals were installed through Minot, making rail transportation even safer.
James Hill began his great adventure more than a century ago. He knew that the key to a successful railway was to develop the land along the tracks, to be mindful of the people who provided cargo for his trains, and to collaborate with his customers to ensure mutually beneficial relationships. Minot, The Magic City, is a prime example of just how right he was. BNSF is proud to follow in Hill’s footsteps.