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The Honorable Senator Washburn

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On this date in 1912, the Washburn, North Dakota newspaper announced that Minnesota Senator William D. Washburn died at his home in Minneapolis. There was a strong connection between the town of Washburn and the man for whom it was named. The newspaper noted that Washburn had always taken a personal interest in the North Dakota town.

His death came as a surprise. He had taken his wife Lizzie on a trip to Europe. She had been ill, and he thought the trip would improve her health. She did improve, but the trip was too much for him. He began to feel ill while in Germany and died shortly after his return home. He was eighty-one years old.

Washburn came to Minnesota in 1856 after graduating from Bowdoin College. He had studied law with his brother and opened a practice when he arrived in Minneapolis. According to an early biography of Washburn, “Like all his distinguished brothers, he had a taste for politics, and like them, belonged to the radical wing of the Republican party.”

His family included a secretary of state, two governors, four members of Congress, and a member of the United States Senate, with three family members from three different states serving in Congress at the same time.

It didn’t take long for Washburn to get involved in the Minnesota political scene. He was elected to the state legislature in 1858. Then, in 1861, President Lincoln appointed him surveyor general of Minnesota. After another term in the state legislature, Washburn was elected to the House of Representatives and then to the Senate.

Besides being a politician, Washburn was a successful businessman. In 1866, he built a flour mill near St. Anthony Falls. He engaged in the lumber business and was an avid supporter of the railroad. It was his work with the railroad that brought him to North Dakota. While working on the extension of the Soo Line, he became aware of the possibilities of lignite coal. He started the Washburn Lignite Coal Company.

Upon his death, the Washburn Leader noted that flags in the town were at half mast in his honor. He left behind his wife and four children. He is buried in Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


Washburn Leader. “W.D. Washburn Died at His Home.” Washburn ND. 8/2/1912/Page 1.

United States House of Representatives. “Washburn, William Drew.” Accessed 7/2/2021.

Minnesota Legislature. “Washburn, Sr., William Drew.” Accessed 7/2/2021.

Shutter, Marion Daniel. Progressive Men of Minnesota. “William Drew Washburn.” Minneapolis Journal, 1897, 91-92. Accessed 7/2/2021.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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