Dakota Datebook


Friday, November 6, 2009


The University of North Dakota was founded one hundred and twenty-six years ago, on this date in 1883. A full six years before North Dakota became a state, the Territorial Legislature approved a bill establishing the institution. Grand Forks native George Walsh submitted the bill, which anticipated the coming of statehood. The university’s location became a matter of great debate, since it was viewed as the most prominent of the future institutions. Even debate over the location of the state capitol at Bismarck had been modest in comparison.
Once the Legislature approved the bill, and Grand Forks secured the university, the first campus building was erected. Old Main, as it became known, housed classrooms, offices, dorm rooms, and a library. The approved bill had secured a few acres two miles west of Grand Forks, and Old Main stood alone in an empty field for several years. The University’s earliest students were forced to travel by train to the campus, or take the “Black Maria,” a horse and carriage bus from the city. Eventually, a trolley system connected the campus to the city, making transportation much more efficient. More buildings were erected, and the city of Grand Forks slowly expanded towards the campus.
In 1918, during the great flu epidemic, the University was the “hardest-hit single institution in the country,” losing a record number of students to the illness. In that same year, the University became an army base for World War I soldiers, and classes had to be suspended. During the Great Depression, the University became known as “Camp Depression” by offering free housing to students in exchange for manual labor. To house them, the institution set up a number of railroad cabooses, although many Grand Forks residents also opened their homes to students.
Today, the University has over 12,000 students, and specializes in research involving health, energy, environmental, and engineering sciences. UND is North Dakota’s second largest employer, and provides over a billion dollars to the state’s economy, although the institution’s educational contribution to the state could never be expressed in dollars.

-Jayme L. Job


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Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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