Tower City in 1879 and 1884

Hundreds of American cities and towns in the American Midwest and West developed with the expansion of American railroads. Many of these new towns were platted either by railroads to serve as market or service centers in the territories they opened for settlement, or by speculators seeking to capitalize on the anticipated or recent completion of a rail route. Most of these towns had grand ambitions, but many stagnated, declined, or even disappeared altogether after an initial boom period. Tower City, 41 miles due west of Fargo, North Dakota, is one such town.

From the 1850s through the early 1880s, the federal government granted enormous tracts of land to newly conceived railroads along their proposed rights of way. Sales of these lands were expected to support the construction of the railroads while promoting settlement and economic development of the states and territories the railroads served. Though most of this land became farms and pastureland, railroads took a particular interest in developing town sites. Many of these towns were initially service centers that supported construction of the railroad itself. Most, however, were founded to provide the civic and commercial backbone of the region, functioning as district markets, as places where farmers and ranchers could bring their products to the railroad for shipment, and as local cultural and political centers. Development of town sites directly or indirectly benefitted the railroads economically, but the creation of towns also signaled to the outside world that trains brought prosperity, stability, and civilization to lands newly opened for settlement. In turn, the early settlers and businesses in these localities became heavily invested in the success of their adopted communities. Consequently, they, too, played a major role in the promotion of these towns to others who they hoped would also settle there.

Railroad town planning relied on speed, simplicity, and expediency. Most towns followed variants of a simple grid with streets running either parallel or at right angles to the route of the railroad. As in its many other applications, a regular grid of streets simplified the subdivision of land into lots of equivalent size and their identification for sale to buyers who may not yet have visited the site. The generally flat landscape of the Middle West and Great Plains, interrupted only by the occasional rivers and streams, offered little resistance to the grid. Indeed, virtually all land in the middle part of the country, whether urban or rural, was by law originally surveyed and subdivided into a vast grid pattern of square townships (usually 36 square miles in extent) and sections (each one square mile in extent, 36 per township). This system of land division, known as the Township and Range System, was established by the Federal Land Ordinance in 1785. It is more fully described in “The National Grid.” Note, however, that the Township and Range survey grid and the local grid of streets, oriented to the path of the railroad, did not always align to each other. The accompanying plat of Tower City from 1893 shows that the roughly six blocks of the original town site paralleling the railroad were laid out at a slight angle relative to the grid of the Township and Range survey. The blocks later added by George Ellsbury and Thomas Miller, however, were oriented neatly to the Township and Range grid. In the case of Tower City, the railroad runs roughly through the center of the original town site, straddled by a broad street. This symmetrical plan for railroad towns was the earliest of three basic types common among Great Plains towns. According to geographer John Hudson, this configuration enabled socially and economically distinct districts to develop on either side of the tracks, while concentrating commercial activity flanked the railroad itself. A second type, the orthogonal plan, focused economic activity along a main street running perpendicular to the railroad, thus reducing the need for residents to make frequent and often dangerous crossings of the tracks. A third type, which Hudson calls “t-towns” located most of the town on one side of the railroad, and placed the locus of commercial and civic life, often in the form of a central square, a few blocks away from the tracks. We gain the impression from both the view and the plat that Tower City was morphing into a t-town on its own. Looking westward in the view, note that the largest number of residences and churches are situated to the south of the tracks (to the left), while a smaller warehouse district has formed to the north.

Tower City’s history begins with the establishment of the Northern Pacific Railway commissioned by Congress in 1864 to provide a transcontinental link between the Great Lakes and Puget Sound. The annexation of the Oregon Territory and the northern parts of Mexico in the late 1840s prompted calls for the construction of a transcontinental railroad connecting the Mississippi valley to the Pacific Ocean. Congress responded in 1853 by authorizing the Pacific Railroad Surveys, a massive investigation of the feasibility of five possible routes at various latitudes. The northernmost of these surveyed a route roughly approximating the eventual main line of the Northern Pacific Railway. Construction began in 1870, by which time a rival transcontinental route had been completed through the central plains to San Francisco Bay. By 1872, under the leadership of railroad financier Jay Cooke, the eastern portion of the mainline had reached into Dakota Territory, including the part of western Cass County that would become the site of Tower City. The company’s bankruptcy and reorganization during the recession that followed the Panic of 1873 briefly halted construction of the railroad, and forced the company to sell off portions of its original land grant of to private investors, most of them stockholders in the original company. One of these investors was Charlemagne Tower, whose holdings in Minnesota, Dakota, and Washington state included the future site of Tower City.

Tower City, just east of Cass County’s border with neighboring Barnes County was founded in 1879 by George Ellsbury, who may also have been the author of the view. It was not the first town established along this portion of the line. The first wave of towns founded in this portion of what was still the Dakota Territory emerged before the bankruptcy of the first Northern Pacific Company in 1875. This first wave included Fargo (established 1871) on the eastern edge of Cass County, at the point at where the Northern Pacific crossed the Red River and Valley City, seat of Barnes County to the west, in 1874. Casselton, in the center of Cass County was established in 1876. Most of the lands between these towns remained unsold and unsettled. An official of the Northern Pacific encouraged Charlemagne Tower to hire a land agent to stimulate sales and, through a mutual acquaintance, Tower found and hired George Ellsbury to fill that role in 1878.

George Ellsbury (1840-1900) was born in Skaneateles, New York and moved with his family to Minnesota in 1857. He joined the Union Army in 1862, and as member of the 7th Minnesota Infantry regiment he participated in the Dakota War in Minnesota in 1862-63, leading to Dakota’s expulsion from Minnesota and the eastern Dakota Territory. He drew views of scenes from that conflict for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. He then served with the Union Army in the South, and submitted sketches of war events for Harper’s Weekly. After the war he returned to Minnesota, settling in Winona, where he was elected Register of Deeds. He drew and published several views of cities in the region between 1866-74 (including Winona, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and St. Paul, Minnesota, and Lacrosse, Wisconsin).

Ellsbury’s choice for a new railroad town in the eastern part of Cass County was a place where Northern Pacific trains stopped to take on water called Spring Tank. The town grew rapidly at first, as the 1884 view suggests. By 1883 Tower City reportedly had 800 inhabitants, and harbored grander ambitions. Ellsbury obtained a charter for the construction of a North-South railroad through town, the Dakota and Great Southern Railway. (This never-built line may be seen in the background of the 1884 view.) There was also talk of establishing a Baptist college just north of town. The town even aspired to become the capital of the planned state of North Dakota. However, these plans never came to fruition, and the town never grew substantially beyond what was depicted in Dyer’s book and the 1893 atlas.

The view of Tower City appeared in a 129-page booklet, J. E. Dyer’s Dakota: The Observations of a Tenderfoot, a typical example of the promotional tracts published to promote settlement and development of territories and communities of the Midwest and Great Plains during the last half of the nineteenth century. Dyer was an employee of the Dakota and Great Southern Railway.  Because a map of the proposed railroad may be found elsewhere in the book and most of the text of the book describes lands along the proposed route, we may surmise the railroad had and hand in the booklet’s publication. The text describes Tower City in terms common to the genre, lauding the town’s many businesses, its fine parks, library, and schools; its three churches (prominently shown in the view), hotels, modern mill, and grain elevator. Though the view shows a still young and relatively small town, the two trains, wagons, and carriages are suggestive of its economic activity and potential for growth. The print is unsigned, but is almost certainly by Ellsbury, whose home is pictured on an advertisement for Tower City real estate printed on the back of the view. Though neither the view nor the promotional circumstances of its production are unusual, the combination of talented viewmaker and real estate promoter in the same person is indeed remarkable. It was certainly convenient; usually real estate promoters had to hire independent artists to do this work for them.

Ultimately unsuccessful in developing Tower City into another Chicago, Minneapolis, or Fargo, Ellsworth left the town in 1888 to become a land agent for the Northern Pacific, based in Centralia, Washington. He died in 1900.

See also:

The National Grid



Hudson, John C. Plains Country Towns. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.

Reps, John W. The Forgotten Frontier: Urban Planning in the American West before 1890. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1981.

Reps, John W. Views and Viewmakers of Urban America: Lithographs of Towns and Cities in the United States and Canada, Notes on the Artists and Publishers, and a Union Catalog of Their Work, 1825-1925. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1984. Peterson, Allen J. Tower City History. Tower City, ND: Centennial Book Committee, 1979.

Rural Cass Country: The Land and Its People. West Fargo, ND: The Cass County Historical Society, 1976.

“Tower City in 1879 and 1884” (New York: Moss Engraving Co.), in J. E. Dyer, Dakota: The Observations of a Tenderfoot ([Fargo, N.D.: Fargo Republican Steam Printing House], 1884), between pp. 74-[75]. The Newberry Library, Graff 1192