The Second Boom Explained
Prosperity Returns to North Dakota
The terrible 1890s were over for the thousands of homesteaders who weathered the bad times of the decade. Again immigrants began to flood into the unsettled parts of the state. Between 1898 and 1915, over 250,000 land seekers populated the empty acres of northwestern, southwestern, and Canadian-border North Dakota. The Second Boom was in full bloom.
Railroad building resumed at a fierce tempo. The Northern Pacific, the Great Northern, the Soo Line, and the Milwaukee railroads laid track into all parts of the state. Miles of track almost doubled, from 2,662 to 5,226 (see map). Most of the activity involved the building of branch lines that generally ran north and south from the main lines.
The Great Northern began running lines out across the Drift Prairie to towns such as Hannah, Souris, and Mohall. In 1912 it opened a diagonal line from Fargo to Surrey, just east of Minot. The Northern Pacific extended itself to places like Oakes, Esmond, and Linton. It spread north and south out of Mandan on the Missouri Plateau. The Milwaukee entered from South Dakota to places that would become Linton and Marmarth. The Soo went into competition with the Great Northern and built the “Wheat Line” that ran across the northern part of the state from Oslo, Minnesota near the Red River to Kenmare, northwest of Minot.
The railroad building frenzy included new companies within the state. In 1902 the Farmers Grain and Shipping Company built a line from Devils Lake to Starkweather. Three years later William Washburn, a Minneapolis milling mogul, started the Bismarck, Washburn, and Fort Buford Railroad. It laid tracks to Wilton and transported lignite coal to market. The grandest plan of all was the Midland Continental Railroad which hoped to lay a transnational track from Winnipeg to Galveston, Texas. It only completed a line from Edgeley to Wimbledon.
And, the people followed the rails! From 1900 to 1915 population increased 135 percent. By 1915, 637,000 people had found homes in North Dakota. Old established towns mushroomed: Fargo, 9,500 to 14,300; Grand Forks, 7,600 to 12,500; Bismarck, 2,100 to 5,400; Minot, 1,200 to 6,100. New towns grew up overnight along the newly laid railroad tracks. In 1900 only 57 white people lived in Adams County in southwestern North Dakota. By 1910, nearly 6,000 had poured into the area. Towns such as Crosby and Watford City in the northwest and Hettinger and Bowman in the southwest emerged as important trading centers for the new settlers. In the northern half of Williams County (Divide County today) in the extreme northwest, six new communities burst into life. Farmers needed the towns for supplies and a place to sell their products, mostly wheat.
During this second boom, North Dakota experienced its most sensational population growth. Why? What stimulated this new wave of settlement? Why were railroads willing to invest millions of dollars to lay tracks to every corner of the state? Why were the new homesteaders willing to settle and farm in North Dakota’s semi-arid west?
The answer to those questions lies in one word: prosperity! Good times had returned. Adequate rains, bumper crops, and high crop and livestock prices combined to give North Dakota its most prolonged era of well-being. This was “the Golden Age of Agriculture.” Between 1898 and 1915, wheat acreage about doubled, from 4,300,000 to 9,400,000. The number of bushels increased from 60,000,000 to 159,000,000 bushels. That is a whopping increase in acreage and production. And, wheat was of better quality due to improvements in varieties.
Production of the key North Dakota crop was dramatically up. Just as important to the prosperity was the rise in prices. During the depression of the 1890s farmers were lucky to get 30 to 40 cents a bushel for wheat. During the “Golden Age” prices ran over $1.00 per bushel, at times surpassing $1.25.
Why did farm prices rise so quickly? America’s urban population, swelled by immigration, needed more food. Foreign exports increased as other countries also needed greater food supplies. Demand! Supply and demand. Prices rose as demand rose. And, North Dakota farmers benefited.
Another very significant factor in North Dakota’s prosperity was parity. Parity refers to the purchasing power of the farm dollar or farm income. Prices of non-farm items such as coal, machinery, and clothing did not rise as quickly or as high as farm-product prices. The farm dollar bought much more during the “Golden Age” than it had before. For example, in 1892 a farmer would have to sell 30 bushels of wheat to buy a $12.00 suit. In 1910, the farmer would only have to sell 12 bushels to buy the same suit.
The high farm price, especially wheat, and terrific farm purchasing power explain North Dakota’s prosperity and why railroads were willing to open new country. And, this explains why thousands took up land in the more arid west of North Dakota. With good prices and purchasing power, farmers could make a go of it in areas of less rainfall. They didn’t need the level of production that characterized eastern North Dakota in order to make a living.
The Second Boom filled the last remaining farm land — the settlement era was over. Those who hung on during the depression of the 1890s reaped the golden harvest. North Dakota had gone from bust to boom.
By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton
Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.