Dakota Datebook

Birdman of the Rails

Monday, November 14, 2011


Henry was a bird lover through and through. He died on this date in 1890, and his full name, one you know, will be “hatched” at the end of this Dakota Datebook.

In 1882 the amateur ornithologist traveled the West including Dakota Territory and Minnesota on the relatively new transcontinental railway system, in his search for interesting species of the birds on the great high plains. The railroad executive enjoyed a wonderful mix of travel and bird watching. He busily maintained elaborate notes, dairies and correspondence about birds and rail systems.

His best friend during his Harvard days was young Theodore Roosevelt. The two aristocratic underclassmen had found in each other a perfect companion because of their love of ornithology and nature. Neither young scholar enjoyed true companionship with their other classmates, so they pursued outdoor adventures with one another collecting birds and eggs for study. Henry collaborated with Roosevelt, on TR’s first book, “The Summer Birds of the Adirondacks in Franklin Co. New York.”

Henry, from Massachusetts, left Harvard early to explore the potentials of railroad investment. Involved first with the eastern railroads, he joined James J. Hill’s Great Northern Railroad ventures headed toward the Great West.

Henry and T.R. stayed in correspondence, discussing Harvard, ornithology, Theodore’s happy engagement to Alice Lee, and her heartbreaking death during childbirth, which would famously propel TR to the Dakota badlands on the Northern Pacific railroad to find solace and strength.

Hill appointed Henry as president of the Great Northern Railroad, which was building a passageway into northern Dakota Territory. In 1886, Hill’s railroad stretched across northern Dakota Territory to a spot called Third Crossing over the Souris River where progress was halted due to complicated bridge and construction impediments. However, as if by magic, people quickly settled there and a city was hatched where the bird-loving president’s train had alighted high on its wooden perch. By now you may have guessed they named the city after Henry. Henry Minot. And the amazing population explosion, described as magical, gave Minot its nickname – the Magic City.

But just as the railroad helped Henry Minot explore the young country, its accompanying 19th century hazards hastened his demise. Henry Minot was killed in a train collision in Pennsylvania on November 14, 1890. His papers reveal a complex and interesting friendship with Teddy Roosevelt, the West, and the birds of America.

Dakota Datebook written by Steve Stark


McCullough, David, Mornings on Horseback; The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life, and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt.(2003) Simon and Schuster Books

Morris, Edmond: The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, (2001) Random House

http:// query,nytimes.com

http://mass.hist.org/finding aids

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

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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