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Immigrant Trains


The first Great Dakota Boom took place primarily during the 1880s, during which the population of what is now North Dakota increased roughly 1,000 percent. Around the state, towns sprang up almost overnight. If the railroad changed course, and a speculative town was bypassed, the building were mounted on sled-like skids and dragged to a town that was better placed.

One pioneer wrote, “Language cannot exaggerate the rapidity with which these communities are built up. You may stand ankle deep in the short grass of the uninhabited wilderness; next month a mixed trains will glide over the waste and stop at some point where the railroad has decided to locate a town. Men, women, and children will jump out of the cars and their chattels will be tumbled out after them. Form that moment the building begins.”

The trains to which the pioneer referred included what became known as immigrant cars. Some homesteaders traveled light, intending to buy their materials once they staked claims. Others brought along furniture, implements, utensils and animals, which they packed into rented railroad cars. One person was allowed to travel in these rented cars free of charge.

When Mary Ann Murray filed a claim near her son’s homestead near Rhame, North Dakota, her 15 year-old son, Frank, rode in the immigrant car with the family belongings, including china dishes, tools, and lumber and nails for starting a tar-paper shack. The trip took 10 days, and a written account states, “The car was crowded and stuffy.”

That was probably an understatement; the car contained a wagon, a walking plow, and Frank shared his living quarters with a team of horses named Doll and Barney, a flock of ducks, seven cows, some 25 chickens, and two cats, who were the original ancestors of many present-day cats in Rhame.

At the railway yards in St. Paul, hundreds of immigrant cars waited to transport homesteaders into Dakota. In the rush, passenger cars quickly filled to capacity, and many had to stand.

German-Russians had a very difficult time during the journey, because their language had become unique during their years in Russia – even Germans couldn’t understand this new form of “low German.” Often, the settlers would get to their destinations by simply handing the conductor a slip of paper stating the location of the people waiting for them at the other end of the line.

Gottlieb Isaak, his wife, two children, his parents and brother came to Scotland, a town in southern Dakota Territory, by train on about this date in 1886. “The American trains were larger,” he wrote, “twice-again as long as the Russian and European trains.”

At night, Gottlied, his father and his brother slept in the aisles of the train to make it easier for the women and children, who slept in the seats. Gottlieb wrote, “Many times the conductors had to step over our bodies in order to walk through the train. The train men did not like this very much, but they did not object because, as they told us, it could not be helped because of our poverty.”

Indeed, Gottlieb had only 35 cents left in his pocket when they reached their destination. On a more positive note, he wrote about how polite and helpful the family felt Americans were toward them – far more kind than the Russians. And – he wrote, “The food in America was better and just as cheap in price.”

Written by Merry Helm