There was great rejoicing in Washburn on this date in 1908. After many unfulfilled promises, the Soo Line was making a concrete effort to build a new depot. The new depot was to be a grand structure with two waiting rooms and office space. This was no empty promise. The lumber had arrived. It was a sure thing. Washburn would no longer have to witness the look of disappointment on the faces of people arriving at the old shabby depot.
It is not possible to overestimate the importance of the railroad to North Dakota. Frank E. Vyzralek, retired archivist for the State Historical Society of North Dakota, puts it this way: “Where the towns are, the railroads went. Up until the 1960s, if you were in a town, you were on the railroad.”
When a town lost its railroad, or when they managed to spring up without one, they were called an “in-land town.” Until cars became dependable, and before reliable roads, the railroad was the prime form of transportation. Vyzralek credits the railroad for settling the Great Plains and developing North Dakota. The importance is reflected in many of North Dakota’s place names. Fargo was named for William Fargo, a director and shareholder of the Northern Pacific Railway. Hillsboro was named in honor of James J. Hill.
President Lincoln signed the Northern Pacific Railroad Land Grant in 1864. It provided the land for the railroad. An additional 40 million acres could be sold off to fund the line’s construction and maintenance. The railroad finally crossed the Red River in 1872, bringing North Dakota Farmers ability to ship necessities in and ship their commodities out. In 1883 the westward line met the eastward push in Gold Creek, Montana. At last there was a reliable and cost-effective method of transporting people and goods from coast-to-coast.
When cars became affordable and dependable, railroad passenger service began to fall off. Many of the old depots are gone now. But many have been repurposed, serving as museums, offices, and stores. The next time you are out for a drive, keep your eyes open for old depots. Stop at railroad museums like the ones in Mandan and Minot. And remember how excited the people in Washburn were to get a brand-new railroad depot on this date over a hundred years ago.
Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher
Washburn Leader. “Washburn’s New Depot a Go.” Washburn ND. 16 October 1908. Page 1.
New Horizons. “Preserving North Dakota’s Railroad History.” https://www.ndhorizons.com/articles/49/preserving-north-dakota-s-railroad-history-railroads-made-important-impact-across-state.aspx Accessed 9/13/2019.
North Dakota: Be Legendary. “Railroad Museum of Minot.” https://www.ndtourism.com/minot/attractions/railroad-museum-minot Accessed 9/13/2019.
North Dakota: Be Legendary. “State Railroad Museum of North Dakota. https://www.ndtourism.com/mandan/attractions/north-dakota-state-railroad-museum Accessed 9/13/2019.