Dakota Datebook


Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Every few years it seems another story appears in national headlines announcing the bleak prospects for rural North Dakota. For example, a 2001 Newsweek article waxed poetically about the inevitable death of Bisbee. “Even a strong man can stand for only so long,” author Dirk Johnson wrote. In a more recent National Geographic article, Charles Bowden described a “numbing sense that comes from living in a vanishing world.”

Such stories are old news for North Dakotans. Every corner of the state exhibits remnants of an abandoned town, including Emmons County. Today, all that remains of its first county seat is a pile of stones on the quiet prairie.

In 1883, a group from Ashland, Ohio moved to Dakota Territory, settling in northern Emmons County. The new community was laid out in eighty-four blocks with a stone monument marking the center of town. It was named Williamsport in honor of the town’s first Postmaster, Daniel Williams. That same year, Governor Ordway appointed the first commission to organize Emmons County. They met, and continued meeting, in Williamsport.

During its heyday it was quite a town. By 1884, Williamsport boasted two stores, a hotel, law office and blacksmith. A printing office published the county’s first newspaper. But the greatest boon for the county seat would be the imminent arrival of the railroad. Sensing a potential for big profit, a group of men including Alexander McKenzie organized the Williamsport Townsite Syndicate. Construction boomed. Lots sold as high as $150. The county jail was built at a cost of $3,000! The future of Williamsport seemed bright. But just like the fireworks that followed every Williamsport Fourth of July celebration, its blaze was bright, but short-lived.

The first blow came in 1897 when the Northern Pacific Railroad proposed the construction of a branch line by-passing Williamsport. The death blow came one year later. When the Soo Line Railroad reached Braddock, a few miles from Williamsport, it was clear the county seat would not be a railhead. It would be served by nothing but a stage line.

Within months, the buildings were moved away and the $3,000 jail house went to the highest bidder at a mere $70. By 1903, Emmons’ first county seat was completely abandoned.

But out of the death of one rural town, another was given life. When it became evident Williamsport would not be a railhead, a landowner in central Emmons County saw an opportunity. W. E. Petrie filed a plat with the register of deeds for the new town of Linton, ND on this date in 1898. Less than three weeks later, the county seat was officially moved to Linton; where it remains to this day.

Written by Christina Sunwall

Bowden, Charles. “The Emptied Prairie.” National Geographic (January 2008).
Geil, Dewey M. “Dakota Pioneer History: The Geil and Other Pioneer Families Who Settled Northern Emmons County, Dakota Territory and Sponsored Williamsport Its First County Seat.” (1970).
Johnson, Dirk. “Death of a Small Town.” Newsweek 138, no. 11: 30-31.
Woods, Ellen, and Euvagh Wenzel, eds. Emmons County History, 1976.

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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