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May 22: Railroad President Charged with Bootlegging

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On this date in 1917, the North Dakota attorney general’s office made a shocking announcement. An arrest warrant had been issued for the president of the Soo Line Railroad, Edmund Pennington, for bringing liquor into the state. The assistant attorney general said immense quantities of liquor had been shipped to illegal clubs, blind pigs, and bawdy houses.

North Dakota had been a dry state since statehood. In 1917, House Bill 39, also known as the “bone-dry” law, had made importing alcohol illegal, even to pharmacies for medical purposes. A raid on a Soo Line train in Minot had found a shipment of alcohol. The assistant attorney general announced that he would request that Governor Frazier seek to extradite Pennington from Minnesota if he did not appear in Minot to answer the charges. Every sheriff in North Dakota was notified to arrest Pennington if he entered the state.

Pennington traveled to Minot that July. He paid a $1,000 bond in advance of his bootlegging trial. According to the Ward County Independent, he “has the distinction of being the wealthiest man in the world facing such a charge.” Pennington did not seem to let the impending case interfere with his professional or personal life. He continued to appear in newspaper articles in North Dakota and Minnesota discussing railroad business, attending charity events, and giving guest lectures.

On May 20th the following year, the charges against Pennington were dropped. Instead, charges were leveled against the Soo Line as a corporation. That same day, Pennington was re-elected president of the Soo Line by the board of directors.

The bootlegging charge was no more than a tiny bump in the road of Edmund Pennington’s life. His railroad career spanned 53 years. He was president of the Soo Line from 1909 to 1922, then became chairman of the Soo Line board. He also served as president of the Western Express and First National Bank.

Dakota Datebook by Trista Raezer-Stursa


  • Author Unknown. “Warrant for the Arrest of Pennington,” The Fargo Forum and Daily Republican,” May 22, 1917, pg. 1.
  • Author Unknown. “Asks Arrest of Pennington for Shipping Booze,” The Bismarck Tribune, May 22, 1917, pg. 1.
  • Author Unknown. “To ask Extradition for Head of Soo Line,” The Pioneer Express, June 8, 1917, pg. 7.
  • Author Unknown. “Around the State,” The Ward County Independent, August 2, 1917, pg. 10.
  • Author Unknown. “Pennington’s Guilt Personal Says Brennan,” The Bismarck Tribune, July 19, 1917, pg. 1.
  • Author Unknown. “Pennington Case Dismissed at Minot Road to be Tried,” May 20, 1918, pg. 12.
  • Author Unknown. “Edmund Pennington, Soo Chairman, Dies,” The Star Tribune, May 2, 1926, pgs.1, 2.
  • Davis, Jim. “Bone Dry Law,” Dakota Datebook, October 23, 2018 https://news.prairiepublic.org/main-street/2018-10-23/bone-dry-law retrieved April 22, 2024.
  • Author Unknown. “Officers Re-Elected,” Grand Forks Herald, May 20, 1918, pg. 16.

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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