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Name the Dam Town


Many North Dakota towns are named after a prominent person, like Bismarck; or a connection to the railroad, such as Grenora; or for natural features, like Valley City. Riverdale might be the only town in North Dakota named using a contest.

Riverdale is east of the Garrison Dam, which holds back Lake Sakakawea on the Missouri River. The massive, rolled-earth dam was a federal project for flood control and hydroelectric power. The dam took seven years to build, and President Eisenhower visited the dam in 1953 for its closure ceremony.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which built a town to house construction workers and their families, asked Gov. Fred Aandahl for a town name. The governor opted for a statewide naming contest conducted through dozens of North Dakota newspapers.

On this date in 1946, The Bismarck Tribune opened its naming contest for submissions. The paper received more than 1,300 entries. The Tribune’s judges picked a winning name for each letter of the alphabet from the entries, and picked “Atomic” as the first-place winner. “MoDam” took second place. Other names submitted to the Tribune included “Damnation,” “Gates of Pearl,” “Nameless,” “Killowatt City,” “Splash,” “Wetter,” “Diaper,” “Difficult” and several variations of Ash, the last name of the townsite’s landowner.

The winning name from Mandan’s contest was “Dakota City,” followed by “Big Bend.” “Big Bend” came in first, with “Hidam” coming in second.

North Dakota newspapers received about 20,000 entries in the contest. Forty-five finalists from 24 North Dakota newspapers were submitted to a group of state officials appointed by the governor to judge the contest and pick a name. The winning name was “Riverdale,” which Esther Lervick submitted to the Granville Herald. Her prize was $24, derived from $1 submitted by each newspaper.

Riverdale boomed with the dam’s construction. The town’s layout was different than other North Dakota towns, with its streets built in sweeping curves with spokes rather than straight lines. Plans for Riverdale’s construction included school buildings, a hospital, 175 frame homes, water, sewer and electrical systems and eight miles of gravel streets. 

By the end of 1948, 1,300 people lived in Riverdale’s new, white painted homes. The town peaked at about 5,000 residents during dam construction, but the population declined to a few hundred people after 1955. In 1985, Riverdale incorporated as a city, and its residents elected a mayor and a city council. The next year, the Army Corps formally transferred the town deed for $1. 

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura


The Bismarck Tribune. 1946, January 31. Page 2

The Bismarck Tribune. 1946, February 19. Page 1

The Bismarck Tribune. 1946, February 21. Page 1

The Bismarck Tribune. 1946, February 27. Page 1

The Hope Pioneer. 1946, February 28. Page 1

The Hope Pioneer. 1947, August 14. Page 1

The Bismarck Tribune. 1947, September 8. Page 1

The Bismarck Tribune. 1948, December 31. Page 13

The Bismarck Tribune. 1954, August 5. Page 4

The Bismarck Tribune. 1986, July 25. Page 21

The Bismarck Tribune. 1986, July 30. Page 9

The Bismarck Tribune. 1996, March 1. Page 1

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