North Dakota has a handful of counties that share a name with one of the state’s towns: Cavalier, Golden Valley, Adams, McKenzie, Bowman, Bottineau, Rolette, Hettinger, Pembina—and Mercer. The town of Mercer is a younger community in North Dakota, having sprung up along the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1905.
It was named for William Henry Harrison Mercer. He was from Pennsylvania, and came to the Painted Woods area along the Missouri River near present-day Washburn, North Dakota, in 1869. He was also an early Burleigh County official, serving as county commissioner and deputy sheriff. But that’s enough about him.
Mercer, North Dakota, is not in Mercer County. It’s on the other side of the Missouri River in McLean County. About two hundred and fifty people lived there at its peak in the 1930s and forties. Today, maybe a hundred. Mercer had its start in the summer of 1905 as a twenty-five acre townsite platted along a rail extension from Denhoff to Turtle Lake. Mercer’s plat was a “T-town” in a grid pattern, with the tracks as the crossbar, and Main Street running north from there.
Buildings went up almost immediately. On this date in 1905, Mercer’s post office was established. The town’s grain elevators made quite the little trade center for farmers, though construction of Mercer’s rail depot was delayed until 1907 since rail traffic hadn’t met the required thresholds for freight and passengers. But Mercer still boomed as a little prairie town. A lumberyard was likely the first business.
Families flocked to Mercer throughout those early years and houses sprang. The Mercer Telegram began recording the town’s doings, in both English and German. The two men who filed the town plat promoted lot sales in Mercer as the “McLean County Townsite Company.” In 1909, their names came to grace two streets in Mercer: Regan and Wing. And today, there are also the cities of Regan and Wing, though they’re in Burleigh, the next county over. Lay out a town, get one named after you.
Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura
Mercer County Historical Society. (2004). Mercer memories Mercer, North Dakota 1905-2005. Washburn, ND: BHG, Inc.
Wick, D.A. (1989). North Dakota place names. Bismarck, ND: Prairie House