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Devils Lake City

Devil's Lake City Hall is located at 423 6th Street Northeast, Devils Lake, ND 58301; phone: 701-662-7600.

Beginnings [1]

The earliest white settlement in the region had been concentrated around Fort Totten, one of many forts situated to defend the land route between the gold interests in north Idaho and Montana and the financial center in St. Paul. Indians and military personnel were the sole occupants of the land during this phase, and aside from the military structures at Fort Totten, no other building activity was generated in the Devils Lake area during this period.

Until the railroad expanded westward into the Dakota Territory, transport of crops and other goods west of Fargo and Grand Forks was assisted only by the Red River waterway linking Winnipeg with the lower Dakota cities, and by the Missouri River connection to St. Louis. Around 1870, the Northern Pacific Railroad began survey investigations of a western route that included the Devils Lake area and regions north. In this first effort, Devils Lake was slighted as the Great Northern chose a more southerly route through Fargo and on to Bismarck.

In 1878, James J. Hill and four business partners bought the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, an original Minnesota land grant railroad, and renamed it the "St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba." Hill also sought a westerly route for his new private line and intended to skirt new rails above the Canadian border and on to the Pacific Northwest, but the lure of mining fortunes in Montana prompted Hill to consider a route through the Dakota Territory, a plan which fortunately embraced the Devils Lake area. In 1883, the goal of building a main rail artery linking this region to the milling capital of Minneapolis was realized. At Hill's insistence, the present site of Devils Lake, previously called Creel City, assumed the name from the original namesake which had been located further south toward the lake.

By this time, agricultural lands in the eastern part of the country were comparatively stressed and devalued from over use and products from the pristine farm lands to the west had become more attractive. This condition generated agricultural settlement in the Dakotas. As in other parts of the state, the growth of Devils Lake was further accelerated by technological advancements in the milling industry, an event that coincided with promising new strains of spring wheat being grown in the Red River Valley. Early crop experiments had produced a hard red wheat which milled into a flour product of a highly desirable consistency, and with the introduction of the middlings purifier and steel rollers, this durable strain could be processed in one stage and without the mingling of chaff and kernel that had occurred in earlier milling processes. The transport needs of the farmer fueled the momentum of railroad enterprise and fostered a codependency between both parties, however because of the distant water networks accessed only from Minneapolis and Duluth, the farmer was continually disadvantaged in having to pay unreasonably high tariffs to get his product to market.

With the arrival of rail service to the fledgling city, an influx of immigrants and improved milling techniques, Devils Lake was launched into its first boom cycle. These events are marked by a frenzied period of building, evidenced by the construction of 65 frame structures in only four weeks. These wood clad buildings proved feeble defense against fire danger, and as with many North Dakota towns during this period, Devils lake experienced a devastating fire in 1884. None of these earliest structures remain in the central business district of Devils Lake. As a fire prevention measure during these years city officials and merchants often invoked strict ordinances against wood clad buildings, mandating brick and stone for exterior finishing materials. The I.O.O.F. Hall is an important and only remnant from this First Boom, and its brick and stone composition no doubt reflects an effort to curb the practice of using wood siding on facades after this period.

Although several events assisted its onset, railroad enterprise was again the biggest sponsor of the Second Dakota Boom. One of the conditions which favored renewed settlement during this period was the waves of immigrants that passed through the east coast, many with eyes cast to the relatively cheap or free farm lands of the western frontier. In addition, federal lands on the Fort Totten Indian Reservation were opened to private purchase, causing new homesteading activity in the region south of Devils Lake. The impact of the 1904 federal bill allowing purchase of these lands was felt as quickly as twenty one days later, by which time 5696 settlers had filed claims on these lands.

In 1912-13 Hill's Great Northern Line received the first challenge to its monopoly in Devils Lake with the building of a spur of the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault Sainte Marie Railroad. Because of its profitable links to the Canadian rail system and the grain belt of central Canada, the "Soo Line" had always posed a rival to Great Northern interests in these areas. However, the new link through Devils Lake offered little challenge to the economic grip of Hill's line, and the Soo Line Depot, sited at the northern edge of town, bears little evidence of the building activity that clustered around the Great Northern Depot. Though a weak rival, the Soo Line expansion broke the monopoly of the Great Northern and undoubtedly generated new building in Devils Lake, the extent and distribution of which are difficult to plot.

Perhaps the greatest catalyst for growth during this boom was the construction of a private line northwest of Devils Lake. Area farmers had long sought an escape from the high freight tariffs dictated by the railroad centers in Minneapolis. This was finally accomplished in 1900 when members of the Farmers' Grain and Shipping Company penetrated the northern limits of Ramsey County with a spur to Starkweather, thus enabling local merchants to tap the rich wheat resources of this formerly inaccessible region. Although the "Kelly Road," as it was called, was eventually absorbed by Hill's Great Northern, the competition with the Soo Line resulted in more favorable rates than those previously set by the Minneapolis headquarters. Ironically, the "Kelly Road" just missed a lucrative hook-up with the Canadian Pacific railroad, a prospect which would have freed Devils Lake from dependence upon the Great Northern and would have allowed Devils Lake to operate as a rail base with the power to control freight rates to the north. Still, the determination of the Farmers Grain and Shipping Company liberated Devils Lake from the enslaving tariff rates of previous years.

The final notable event of the Second Dakota Boom was the decision of the Great Northern "Manitoba Road" to locate repair facilities in Devils Lake. Hill's offer was contingent upon the town's willingness to provide housing for the new employees of the railroad shops. A distinctly modest group of small workers cottages on 8th and 9th streets may testify to the quick response of city fathers and merchants to secure the facility during these years. With the advent of diesel engines, the repair shops and coal operation became unnecessary and these structures were either demolished or burned. Today, none of these facilities remain, but the collection of modest cottages with restrained Victorian detail, and the presence of many commercial buildings constructed at this time in the downtown core together record the dynamic role of railroad expansion in the growth of the Devils Lake.

  1. Adapted from: Lauren McCroskey, Architectural Historian, State Historical Society of North Carolina, Devils Lake Commercial District, Ramsey County, North Dakota, nomination document, 1989, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.
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