Flooding, Sewage Management, and Early Plumbing

Chesley & Lovejoy Lumberyard at high water from Red River flood, Fargo, N.D., Downtown, 1881

Looking northwest at Chesley & Lovejoy Lumberyard, east end of 2nd Ave. N. during Red River flood. Residential area in background above water. Lumber floating between buildings [North Dakota State University Archives, Digital ID: rs000968]

In the first decade of Fargo’s settlement,  concerns for sanitation and waste management quickly rose to the forefront of city operations. As an infrastructure  developed, the need for  a sewage system for Fargo was clear and the city council investigated the system and its cost.  On  January 13, 1881, council members solicited city engineers for a sewage system that best met the needs of the flat city. On September 14, 1882, voters approved, 136 to 25, a $50,000 issue of 7-percent bonds for a system based on the existing structure in Chicago. Fargo’s city engineers adapted that to a more modern system with 36-inch brick trunks fed laterally by 12-inch pipes throughout the main center of the city as opposed to Moorhead’s flush tanks that initially sent waste directly to the river.[1]Nevertheless, Fargo’s sewers continued to empty into the river and taint water supplies until 1892, when improvements began.

Proximity to the river greatly facilitated day-to-day business activities and steamboat landings and served nearby warehouses and granaries. Due to the overall unsanitary nature of the river water during the early developmental periods, that proximity could also cause problems. Therefore, the ongoing need for revising the existing systems of irrigation and sanitation remained at the at the forefront of concerns of the city council and local citizens alike.

Chesley & Lovejoy Lumberyard at highwater, Fargo, N.D., Downtown, 1881

Chesley & Lovejoy Lumberyard, at the east end of 2nd Ave. N., is shown during the Red River flood. The Union Elevator cam be seen in the background and lumber floats between  between buildings. The man standing in foreground is looking east at the view. [North Dakota State University Archives, Digital ID: rs000967]

Although the Red River provided ease of access and transfer of goods and lumber coming and going from Fargo, it also created instances of immense loss and devastation during high water times. Flooding affected any and all structures and businesses along the banks including lumber yards and granaries originally founded close by for quick and efficient transactions.

-Stacy M. Reikowsky, Digital History 2012



[1] Englehardt, Gateway, 267.

Nineteenth-Century Telephone Services and Water Supplies

Northwest from Headquarters Hotel, Fargo, N.D., Downtown, 1880

An elevated view looking northwest from the Headquarters Hotel shows the Stephens and Sears livery stable located on the 600 block of N.P. Avenue and in the distance is the First Presbyterian Church and several homes. Beyond the city, farmland and haystacks are visible on the horizon [North Dakota State University Archives, Digital ID: rs000987]

In an effort to expand the prospects of Fargo’s increasing community, Fargo City Council Members gave H.C. Shoen, E.C. Eddy, and others the city’s first telephone franchise on January 7, 1880.  A year later, Fargo and Moorhead Telephone Exchange began erecting poles for doing general phone business.  Twenty years later, Northwestern Telephone Exchange Company fitted the city with metallic circuit long distance transmitters and strengthened Fargo’s connection and communication with the rest of the country.[1]

Concurrently with the first telephone franchise, council members began their efforts to check water supply problems on August 2, 1880 and therefore began installing water mains throughout the center of the city in conjunction with Fargo Water and Steam Company.[2]  However, Fargo’s sewer systems continued to drain into the river and compromise the integrity of the water. Some citizens, like A. McHench, thought a city well would be the answer at the time, but not until after the fire of 1893 did the council revisit the wisdom of digging an artesian city well.  Two years later, an 1895 public gathering passed the $48,000 construction of a municipal water plant with two pumps and a daily capacity of one million gallons of water at greatly improved quality.[3] Within the same year, the city issued $15,000 of water works bonds to further extend the system.  By 1897, about 12 miles of 4- to 12-inch water mains and over 100 fire hydrants proliferated throughout the main city streets; 957 taps provided for service connections.[4]  Yet, Fargo and Moorhead, after the turn of the century, would face later issues with lower river levels.

-Stacy M. Reikowsky, Digital History 2012



[1] “Telephones,” Finding Aid, Fargo N.D. City Council Meeting Minutes, 1875-1910, IRS-NDSU.

[2] “Water Supplies,” Finding Aid, Fargo N.D. City Council Meeting Minutes, 1875-1910, IRS-NDSU.

[3] Carroll Engelhardt. Gateway to the Northern Plains: Railroads and the Birth of Fargo and Moorhead. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 269.

[4] “Water Supplies,” Finding Aid, Fargo N.D. City Council Meeting Minutes, 1875-1910, IRS-NDSU.