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Building Michigan

Michigan City is the oldest town in Nelson County.  Like many towns in Dakota Territory, it began with the coming of the railroad. In this case, it was the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway. But after a load of iron ore meant for Michigan City, Indiana arrived, the railroad dropped “city” from the billings and timetables to avoid further confusion, and while the town officially remained Michigan City, it became simply Michigan in popular use, and that’s how it appears on state highway maps.

After the rail line was laid in 1882, Michigan City of Dakota Territory began with the establishment of a post office in early January of 1883. The first train arrived that March.

One developer platted lots east of town, with speculation that “East Michigan” would emerge, but nothing happened. However, the original townsite became somewhat of a boom town and a trade center. In 1889, the Great Northern Railroad took over the tracks. Settlers continued to arrive, giving rise to businesses, churches and schools. Three churches sprang up in one year. Five elevators once stood in Michigan, and the town had a flour mill, but that burned down in 1904. Many early businesses had small barns for customers’ horses. By the turn of the century, about five hundred people called Michigan home. The town had about the same population during its centennial in 1983.

Throughout the early years, Michigan had its highs and lows. A freight train crashed in 1898, making a mess for the Michigan Fire Department. One engine smoldered for a week on Main Street. In 1906, three months after a fire leveled most of the downtown, residents voted to incorporate, and most of the town was rebuilt that summer. Flu epidemics in 1918 and 1928 hit Michigan and shut down much of the business activity and social events. Another train crashed in 1919 east of town in a winter storm. And the worst rail disaster in North Dakota history happened in 1945 at Michigan when one train plowed into another, claiming 34 lives. 

Michigan City soldiers on, though its population has dipped below 300. If you find yourself traveling along Highway 2 on July 21st or 22nd, you might want to stop by to take in some of the many events during “Michigan Days.”

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura


N.a. (1983). Michigan city centennial 1883-1983. Wold Printing Company: Larimore, ND
Wick, D.A. (1989). North Dakota place names. Bismarck, ND: Prairie House

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