North Dakota | Prairie Public Broadcasting

North Dakota

1987 Legislature

May 12, 2021


The 1987 North Dakota Legislative session was historic. Democrats, who already controlled most state offices and the congressional delegation, won control of the North Dakota Senate for the first time. In the Minot-area District 5 Senate race, Democrat Larry Schoenwald beat Republican Mike Timm by a mere 5 votes. That led to a legal fight that went to the state Supreme Court, with plaintiffs arguing that  over 29 voters cast ballots in the wrong district, but the court ruled that only the Legislature can decide contested elections. The ruling handed victory, and control of the Senate to the Democrats, giving them  27 seats to 26. Republicans still controlled the House, 61 to 45.


May 7, 2021


In 1832, the Yellow Stone set a record voyage up the Missouri River by reaching Fort Union, on the border of present-day Montana and North Dakota.

In 1837, the St. Peters spread a deadly wave of smallpox as it traveled the Missouri River. The epidemic all but destroyed the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara people.


May is National Historic Preservation Month. Today, we highlight a North Dakota property on the National Register of Historic Places.


Twenty-four people were injured and one man died in a train derailment on this date in 1887 near Sterling, in Dakota Territory. The passenger train was westbound on the Northern Pacific line. Its passengers included two companies of soldiers. The train was four miles east of Sterling, going down a grade at 25 to 30 miles per hour when the baggage car and three coaches derailed and rolled down an embankment. Officials blamed the wreck on a “sun-kink” in the tracks, due to intense heat warping the rails.


For decades, measles was a pervasive disease that swamped towns and schools with epidemics, until vaccines were developed in the 1960s and ‘70s.

The last measles outbreak in North Dakota disrupted school events and threatened the state track meet.


Diphtheria was a wicked disease that killed many children in North Dakota’s early years. It is caused by bacteria that produce a deadly toxin in the nose, mouth and throat, forming a membrane from dead tissue that can suffocate a person. Diphtheria often sickened whole families, and children were especially vulnerable. In 1898, a Zeeland-area couple lost six of their eight children, in just 26 days. 


The history of smallpox in North Dakota spans centuries. The terrible disease devastated the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara people in 1781. Years later, in 1804 along the Missouri River near the mouth of the Heart River, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark saw earth lodge villages abandoned due to the duel threats of smallpox and Yanktonai raids.


The 1918 flu pandemic devastated the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.  When the flu struck that fall, Sioux County’s Board of Health closed all public meetings and gatherings. The outbreak was expected to last two weeks, but Fort Yates schools remained closed for several weeks and the Fort Yates Agency closed. The agency superintendent discontinued enrollments at the Indian boarding schools and farm school, and ordered all tribal members who were camped to disperse.


North Dakota has a long history of vaccinations, from smallpox to polio. Smallpox was a terrible, contagious disease that could leave people scarred and even blind. Isolation and vaccination were the tools used to fight it. When smallpox epidemics struck, local authorities often ordered vaccinations for everyone. For example, more than 2,000 people were vaccinated in three weeks in Grand Forks in 1899 to curb a smallpox scare.


Wahpeton and Breckenridge had their hands full in 1906 with a typhoid fever epidemic, a rabies scare, and smallpox. Dozens of people fell ill with typhoid fever that winter. Sewage from Breckenridge was blamed for contaminating the drinking water drawn from the Red River. At least four people died.