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. 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. 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.
Click points to see related historic photos from the collection of the State Historical Society of North Dakota and Institute for Regional Studies, NDSU, Fargo.
Railroad: The First Industry in Fargo
When the N.P.R.R. crossed the Red River in 1871the city of Fargo was formed. The railroad fueled the city, bringing in large numbers of people and along with the people came the need for industry. Fargo grew around the railroad tracks as is visible in the above 1880 photograph. The main N.P. tracks travel East and West along Front Street. The railroad had spur tracks that ran to several businesses including Crockett & Shotwell Lumber. Businesses along the tracks were some of the most profitable in the city as they had direct access to shipping and receiving goods. The businesses that were not located on the spur tracks had to use more common methods of transportation including horses, oxen, carts and human laborers.
The site of the railroad bridge crossing the Red River from Moorhead into Fargo was a very thought out, strategic and secretive plan. Thomas Hawley Canfield and George B. Wright traveled the Red River Valley in search of a crossing point that would not flood with the Red River in the spring. Once N.P.R.R. was in control of both the eastern and western banks of the Red River and the crossing was announced, land speculators rushed to the area to purchase the very valuable land. These earlier settlers opened the first industries in Fargo and paved the way for the growth and prosperity of the town.
The Headquarters Hotel and its later counterparts, The Sherman House built in 1877 and The Columbia, completed in 1888 at a cost of over $100,000, became among the best and the largest in operation in Dakota Territory, rivaled only by those in St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Chicago. The Headquarter Hotel’s cupola, similar to the ornamental tower of the courthouse, served as a beacon on the flat plains. It was among the first commercial structures to significantly elevate Fargo’s physical cityscape and simultaneously vault the city’s reputation as a growing community capable of sustaining a thriving commercial center.
Various views of the hotel before and after its rebuilding show the railroad’s boardwalk platform in front of the hotel, allowing guests and railroad staff ease of access and convenience. Passengers had to travel only a few feet from the train to get inside the hotel.
In the foreground of the lower right image is where Front Street (Main Avenue) would go. The lower portion of the photo is where NP Park would later be located, the NP tracks, and the Headquarters Hotel; located on the northwest corner of Front (Main Ave.) and Broadway, with the Northern Pacific Railroad tracks running between the hotel and the park.
-Stacy M. Reikowsky, Digital History 2012
“Fargo and Cass County Dakota,” folder 1, box 2, Fargo, North Dakota, Historical Collection, IRS-NDSU.