New Salem Townsite
School Hill marked the end of John Christiansen’s journey west.He was a 21-year-old German immigrant riding a freight train withthree horses, lumber, machinery and goods belonging to him and other men, who would be arriving later from Wisconsin.
Christiansen volunteered to ride with the goods to what would become New Salem, North Dakota.
In 1882, a group of Evangelical pastors had formed a group in Chicago, interested in settling people on the plains. The Northern Pacific Railroad had gone through Dakota Territory and had offered to lay out a new city along the tracks for prospective settlers. The chosen townsite was named Salem.
Around noon on this date in 1883, John Christiansen arrived at the site and was left on his own, in the middle of nowhere, with only the rail line and the unloaded possessions. He climbed School Hill, where he discovered a large town of prairie dogs, a sight that entertained him for hours.
That night he camped under an overturned wagon box by the rail line, but didn’t sleep much due to the howling of coyotes and the moaning wind. In the night a train climbed the long grade from the east, continuing a few miles past to a siding. There, it left the cars carrying the other settlers who would form the colony. Hours later, they joined Christiansen, and the town began to take shape—and was quickly renamed New Salem, avoiding confusion with another Salem in southern Dakota.
In those early days, the settlers depended on water from a railroad tank car, and they lived in boxcars until the railroad built a settlers house, after which the settlers built shacks on homestead claims.Food became scarce early on, and a bread sack from Bismarck was thrown from the daily train as it roared by at full speed. One man soon established a flour business, easing the need for bread deliveries.
Members of the Sioux tribe historically lived in the area, and watched as settlers plowed the prairie, “wrong side up.” New Salem grew the summer of 1883. A church went up. A land office was built, and a few stores opened.
Today, the town is home to a little under a thousand people. School Hill continues to tower above the town—graced with the world’s largest Holstein cow, Salem Sue.
Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura
75th Anniversary, New Salem, North Dakota, 1883-1958. New Salem, ND: N.p., 1958.
Wick, D.A. (1989). North Dakota place names. Bismarck, ND: Prairie House