At the end of January 1872, two distinct and quite incompatible encampments existed on the west side of the Red River where the Northern Pacific Railroad would soon cross from Minnesota to what would become Fargo, Dakota Territory. The little communities had sprung up in the fall of 1871, a few hundred yards from each other. The residents of both were settled in for Fargo’s first winter, but only one would remain when spring arrived.
The first postmaster, Gordon J. Keeney, provides an eyewitness account of those first months.
“Fargo in the Timber” was in the trees and brush on the riverbank on both sides of the road coming up from the ferry, near the present Main Avenue Bridge. According to the postmaster, who actually lived in the timber, “the people were mostly of the railroad terminus type, always found just in advance of the locomotive.” They lived in hastily constructed huts and dugouts in the riverbank. It was a wild place, especially after dark.
“Fargo on the Prairie” was up on the level prairie, beyond the trees, roughly at the present intersection of Main and Broadway. It was the headquarters of the railroad engineer corps, under the leadership of General Thomas Rosser. The General and some of the other engineers had their wives and children living with them in a well-planned little village of spacious white canvas tents with stovepipes sticking out. It was an orderly place, where children could sleep without fear of stray bullets whizzing through the canvas.
According to the postmaster, “the residents of one could by no possibility be mistaken for those of the other. In the tents of Fargo on the prairie could be found all that money could procure to make the day pass pleasantly, while the only thing Fargo in the timber had in any great quantity was a fair quality of whiskey.”
Keeney continues, “General Rosser and the members of his camp had the utmost contempt for the squatters in the timber, and the latter were always looking for a chance to annoy the general…On one occasion it was known that a load of potatoes was to pass through Fargo in the timber destined for General Rosser’s mess, and it was resolved to capture them. As the wagon was drawn up the steep bank off the ice of the river, the end board was loosened and revolvers were fired to frighten the team drawing the wagon, and as they darted away up the trail the potatoes rolled out and were picked up...”
Later, “a sleigh load of frozen turkeys and chickens intended for ‘Headquarters’ was also left at Fargo in the timber. The birds were piled loose in the sleigh box, and as it passed along the trail it was gradually lightened of its load, the driver, who sat in front muffled in a buffalo coat, not knowing of his loss until he reached the mess tent.”
The residents had an opportunity to confess their sins when Rev. O. H. Elmer organized a service in the big tent near the river that was normally used for dances. The tent owner helped gather a congregation when he “took the call bell and went out, and up and down the trail, swinging the bell and calling upon all good Christians, Catholic or Protestant, to turn out…” promising “…whiskey in a tin cup to be served free immediately after service.”
In mid-February, a detachment of U.S. troops arrived from Fort Abercrombie. In short order, Fargo’s first party patrol arrested the entrepreneurs, confiscated the whiskey, and scattered the riverbank residents. After six raucous months, Fargo in the timber was deserted. Keeney suggests the occupants just kept moving westward with the tracks, to Valley City, then Jamestown, then Bismarck, “where they remained during the winter of 1872-73, and where not a few died with their boots on.”
Keeney, Gordon J. “Fargo in the Timber.” The Record June 1895, p. 26.