Dakota Datebook

Fargo’s Christmas Tree

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

The Northern Pacific Railroad founded Fargo in 1871. On the other side of the river, another town was growing at the same time – Moorhead. Minnesota was already organized, and there were concerns of how the Dakota Territory was going develop. But land in Moorhead was extremely expensive, so many people had moved to the Fargo side of the river.

J. L. Sharp wrote about those first years, saying, “In the summer of 1872, it may be said there was a lively time here at Moorhead, as a notorious lot of characters had arrived with the railroad. Among these were Shang, Jack O’Neil, Dave Mullen and also the noted Edward Smith and Sallie O’Neil.

“These people were industrious in their various pursuits, and many queer things were done. Gambling and shooting were prominent pastimes for the people. A shooting match before and after breakfast was not an unusual occurrence. The public was one day brought as eye and ear witness of a shooting ‘duet’ by Dave Mullen and Ed Smith. Neither party was greatly injured, however.

“Jack O’Neil had been several times shot in the head but had escaped with his life. Sallie, his better half, one day after a drunken row threatened to kill him with a butcher knife, chasing him round and round the tent; but from this attack he also escaped and went to Bismarck, where Fatty Hall ended his thrilling career by shooting him ‘amidships.’”

It’s not surprising, therefore, that we look at what happened the following year in Fargo. It was 1873, and the town’s citizens decided to celebrate their second year with a community Christmas celebration. There weren’t a lot of pine trees in the area – in fact probably none – so they ordered a Christmas tree from Brainerd, Minnesota.

The tree arrived by train, and the boxcar was sidetracked in front of the Headquarters Hotel. But the following morning, it was discovered that the tree had been stolen during the night. A snowfall the night before had covered all footprints, so there wasn’t clear evidence of who would do such a thing, but it didn’t take long for the Fargo to suspect Moorhead.

Fargoans held a protest meeting, and the Moorhead suspects were hanged in effigy from the NP Bridge that linked the two cities. Then, the following night, the tree was mysteriously and anonymously returned.

Perhaps it was the Christmas spirit, but Fargo folks felt bad. So in appreciation for the tree being returned, they held a mock funeral. They draped a locomotive and boxcar in black and proceeded with great stateliness to the bridge. The effigies from the previous night were then cut down and given a ceremonious burial in a snowdrift.

It sort of brings new meaning to the phrase; “Can’t we all just get along?” doesn’t it.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

(Source: A Century Together: A History of Fargo, ND and Moorhead, MN; http://www.fargo-history.com/index.htm)

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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