Thomas Canfield

The story of Fargo’s religious development begins not in Fargo itself, but in the neighboring town of Moorhead, Minnesota. Thomas Hawley Canfield was an ambitious young entrepreneur who initially became involved in railroad development in New England.  Although Canfield’s primary motivations were not religious, his Episcopalian beliefs shaped how he dealt with his promoting efforts for the railroad.[1]  He was a supporter of many of the developing religious and moral issues that came to prominence in both Fargo and Moorhead. Canfield’s moral convictions give him impetus to advise the directors of the NPRC (Northern Pacific Railway Company) to support the development of “churches, schools, and benevolent instructions” by providing land at little or no charge.[2]  In addition to these land grants, Canfield recruited pastors and catered to several different denominations.  In all these activities, the end goal was to promote the development of a thriving moral society in Moorhead, and not the town across the river. Despite Canfield’s efforts to discourage Fargo’s development, churches began to form and the moral framework for the fledgling city began to grow.



[1] Engelhardt, Carroll L, Gateway to the Northern Plains Railroads and the Birth of Fargo and Moorhead (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 17.

[2] Ibid., 17.

Prairie Progress: An Introduction to the Development of Fargo’s Commercial Center, 1871-1898

View on 500 block, Front Street, Fargo, N.D., Downtown, 1878

Front Street (Main Avenue) showing the City Meat Market, Moore Bros. stationer, Fargo News Depot, George Cooper Harness Shop, and a hardware store in Fargo. Men standing along sidewalk in front of businesses [North Dakota State University Archives, Digital ID: rs000959]

At the heart of nearly any fledgling prairie town of the latter decades of the nineteenth century in the United States lays an arterial business and commercial sector regardless of size or scope.  Without reliable establishments that provide basic services to meet the needs of an early population, growth becomes hamstrung and a town’s future uncertain. Business and commercial enterprises not only dictate the ebb and flow of a town’s economy, but also provide local denizens with access to everyday products and services for sustaining day-to-day activities that contribute to both the sustainability and growth of a prairie town capable of transforming into a city.

As a result, the physical buildings themselves underscore the importance of stable, sustainable, and accessible commercial presence to ensure the long-term viability of a burgeoning city. The architecture, buildings, planning, and development of businesses of early Fargo, North Dakota, therefore played an important role in the city’s original foundation and ascension to becoming the “Gateway to the West” on the Northern Plains with marked success well into present-day.

At the same time, Fargo’s prosperous business-driven economy and expanded growth represents seminal building, commercial, and infrastructural firsts that ultimately reflect the rapid, significant, and visible changes over time and embody the vital elements of a lasting community on often harsh and unforgiving landscape of the Northern Plains.

By following an exhibition of Fargo’s early commercial and infrastructural planning, business development, and construction photographs from 1871 to 1898, a sense of rapid change and significant growth soon emerges as a testament to Fargo’s vitality and successful growth on the Plains.  Despite instances of social, political, economic, and environmental adversity, settlers’ early vision for assertive business and commercial construction helped secure the city’s permanent place on the Northern Plains.

Proving Up: Three Decades of Trial and Triumph

Looking southwest from the Fargo, N.D. Post Office tower, 1898-05

An elevated view looking southwest from the top of the Post Office shows the rooftop of Marsh & Loomis Livery building that extends the full length of the image in the foreground. The rear of the Schlanser & Sons and the Armory Hall building is visible on the right, with the two pointed cupolas. Also visible are the intersection of N.P. Avenue and 8th Street, the W.H.White Lumber Company, Dakota Business College, The Arlington Hotel, First Methodist Episcopal Church. The Cass County Courthouse, and the Fargo Central High building tower above the neighborhood in the distance. [North Dakota State University Archives, Digital ID: rs000793]

By the turn of the twentieth century, Fargo’s commercial business structures signaled a meaningful transition from the early structures. While the settlers were concerned with the immediate and practical applications, the growing city began to reflect a higher culture and advancing lifestyle on the Northern Plains. Simple utilitarian structures  gave way to the buildings that served thriving businesses at the heart of a growing city. As Fargo’s businesses continued to grow, evolve, and improve despite several setbacks, so too did the municipal amenities that ultimately cemented the city’s presence on the plains.

The Arrival of Row Housing

Looking southeast from Headquarters Hotel, Fall 1876

Looking southeast from Headquarters Hotel along Front Street (Main Avenue) shows a billiard hall, Rogers & Kimball, Maple Rooms, a meat market and other buildings. A group is playing croquet in the foreground, and a flagpole can bee seen far right [North Dakota State University Archives, Digital ID: rs000951]


Row construction allowed for quick and efficient “business-raising” where new enterprises could be in operation seemingly overnight and able to accommodate nearly any kind of commercial business imaginable. With easy and convenient access, the arrival of business set an elevated standard operating procedure for additional expansion and inclusion of new business and industry.

-Stacy M. Reikowsky, Digital History 2012

Fargo’s Growing Businesses

Southwest view from Headquarters Hotel, Fargo, Downtown, 1876

Fall view looking southwest from atop Headquarters Hotel, showing Cass County courthouse building between 9th and 10th streets, Adams and Jefferson avenues, Gethsemane Episcopal Church, and dwellings [North Dakota State University Archives, Digital ID: rs000956]

When Fargo’s settlers completed the initial phases of construction and growth, the commercial structures created a centripetal force, and continued boosterism, encouraged businesses to rally and grow. Community support for buildings like the Headquarters Hotel and the courthouse provided the nucleus for rapid growth, a diverse assemblage of even businesses arrived to compete. This ultimately created a stronger city center.

-Stacy M. Reikowsky, Digital History 2012