The “Boom” Through The Eyes Of Cooley

“The Land of Milk and Honey”

Fargo is a city in southeastern North Dakota, along the Red River which creates a natural border between North Dakota and neighboring Minnesota. It is currently the largest city in North Dakota, both in population and in area. Its twin city is Moorhead, Minnesota, which is just on the other side of the Red River. It is located in a major post glacial terrain feature called the Red River Valley. The river itself runs from Mud Lake on the South Dakota-Minnesota line and drains into Lake Winnipeg in Canada.

The Rise of Fargo

A train approaching Fargo, North Dakota in the early 1880s. (North Dakota Institute of Regional Studies)

A train approaching Fargo, North Dakota in the early 1880s. (North Dakota Institute of Regional Studies)

Fargo was founded as a railroad and commercial hub in 1870. It became a very commercially successful city during the time of what was called “The Boom.” Several large capital investors, particularly railroad companies and financial institutions, were drawn to Fargo as it held opportunity for business further westward. It was considered by some (arguably) the “Gateway to the Northern Plains”, and for some years grew to dominate its area along the railroad. Investors mainly from the Midwest, greatly influenced the rise and facilitated this “Boom”. Men such as James J. Hill and Jasper Chapin were drawn into investing in Fargo for its opportunities at enhancing business. This culture did not go without its share of resistance. Like many people during this portion of the Industrial Revolution (also known colloquially as the ‘Gilded Age’), people often found aspects of business culture to be less than virtuous or helpful. They saw a stark contrast to the larger economic “boom,” and saw that ordinary people labored for it, but often did not share in it. Nationally, Mark Twain, Upton Sinclair, and Jacob Riis were very prominent names in the voices of dissent. Mark Twain in collaboration with Charles Dudley Warner wrote the Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873), a novel that focuses on a family from rural Tennessee, (as well as various other characters), and the profit and corruption of their time. In 1890, Jacob Riis revealed the deplorable living conditions in Manhattan’s Lower East Side (also known as “Hell’s Kitchen”) neighborhood. Later than the scope of this project, Upton Sinclair published his famous 1906 novel, The Jungle about the dangers of unfettered capitalism, and less than complementary treatment of immigrants. This ended up changing public policy, and prompted the passing of Safe Food and Drug Act. Others wrote less famous, but equally culturally significant literature. One such author was from Fargo, and she wrote the story of Fargo’s “boom.

Ellen Cooley’s “Boom”Cover of The Boom of a Western City by Ellen Cooley

Ellen Cooley was the wife of a local Episcopal minister, and author of the book, Boom of a Western City. It takes place in Fargo in late 1878, and follows a family from Vermont, to Fargo and back on the railroad.

Synopsis Part One: A Step in the Scale of Gradation

The story starts out in Blankridge, Vermont, with the Bullard family. The father of the family, Jonathan Bullard, is anxious to go out west to “a land which ‘floweth with milk and honey.’”  His daughter Almira is equally enthusiastic, but his wife is a little more ambivalent about it, as is Almira’s love interest Alonzo Peters. Almira attempts to reassure the family of their need to move with a Biblical reference. Although not particularly sold on the idea, they eventually agree to go. By the advice of Mr. Mateson a declared “ne’er-do-well”, local newspapers publish letters sent from Mrs. Mateson from Fargo which portrayed Fargo as an “Eldorado” of sorts. This draws Jonathan ever closer to Fargo and its perceived opportunities. Almira was drawn in as well by the style, and “push” that made her all the more excited. When Jonathan’s mother and wife relented, it was announced they would sell the estate and move. Alonzo is struck sick, as he is deeply in love with Almira. He intends to buy the estate, and tell Almira of his love, but is interrupted by a family gathering, with the “fashionable dressmaker” Patience Armstrong. She seems to take interest in him, but he is oblivious to it. He can’t get Almira off his mind.

He finally gets around to telling Almira his feelings, but is rejected by her intense enthusiasm for going “out west.” He later speaks with Jonathan about buying his estate, which Jonathan is more than happy to sell, even offering him a discount. As the Bullards board the train for Fargo, Dakota, Almira tells of her love for Alonzo and insists they will see each other again.

Synopsis Part Two: The Fullness of Life

Cooley then shifts to a more sarcastic, satirical style. She begins to use language of the day to describe the railroad workers as her description of their ability to “endure the rigors of the climate” and the “demands of a new country.” She describes their “push”, or tirelessness of their desire to strike it rich, and their “elastic consciences,” willing to do anything to get what they want. The constant competitiveness was even reflected in the train’s crew, in a race against another train out of Manitoba. She shows how “reckless” the railroads are with a story about how two trains were barely saved from a head-on collision by a quick switchman who switched the east-bound train to another track in the knick of time

A train with a large scoop used to push snow off of the track during its winter operation. Photo circa, the early 1880s. (North Dakota Institute of Regional Studies)

Train outfitted for the cold and snowy winters of the northern plains. Ca. the early 1880s. (North Dakota Institute of Regional Studies)

At this point, unaware of the dangers that preceded them, and excited to reach the city of Fargo, Almira and Jonathan discuss the speed at which they are moving. When they get off the train, they are hurried, their hotel (the Headquarters) is full, so they get on another stagecoach which is also hurried. The theme of their entire experience is constant haste and competition. Even the coach driver is racing other coaches to their destination, the Continental hotel. The Continental is crammed with guests who are once again competing for the best rooms. Competitiveness is the basic attitude expressed, and even at this early state, it is beginning to overwhelm their quieter, slower sensibilities. The Bullards go for a walk down Broadway on an extremely cold day. Along the way they run into, once again, the intense competition of the local shop owners who run out to try to sell them stuff. Almira experiences frostbite which frightens her parents, but is reassured by a passerby that frostbite is quite normal. The man happened to be Mr. Smith, a local businessman who claimed to have legal rights to the title “Esq.” and dealt in real estate. He offers Almira a date to the theater, which embellished its advertisement as being very high quality and exotic, but turned out to be a bit below its advertised quality, which didn’t seem to bother her.As time goes on the cramped living space, life without a permanent place begins to break the lovely image that Almira had of Fargo, and proves Mrs. Bullard’s suspicions. Almira wanted to “experience pioneer life” and Mrs. Bullard was tired of “living out of a trunk”, and complained about how expensive everything was. Mr. Bullard continues to be optimistic, looking forward to doing business in Fargo. Mrs. Bullard’s fears are relieved when Jonathan begins business as a real estate agent and turns out very good profits. However the nature of business was “rushing” and “allowed Mr. Bullard hardly enough time to eat or sleep”. They were all busy and trying to save money to move into better living conditions (as the Time Block residence they were living in was less than desirable). This begins to wear further on the family, who are all so tired of constant motion, the smell of their residence, and the like that even Almira begins to lose heart. They take the next opportunity to move.  Meanwhile, Mr. Bullard is becoming increasingly successful in business. They find themselves deep into Fargo life, throwing parties and joining local organizations. Even Mr. Bullard, who was too busy to do anything but work, paid to be part of various groups. Expensive dinners and parties were becoming a daily occurrence, and it also became common for Mrs. Bullard to state that she was,“all worn out,” in reference to constant competition. The life of Fargo in 1878 was apparently very busy. For the Bullard family, it was largely tiring. This part of the book describes not only Fargo culture, but a brief description of the public transportation system. Privately owned horse-drawn carriages were a rarity, but Fargo had an extensive livery system, with publically run carriages which were used extensively. They were also very competitive, always striving to be faster, more punctual, and first to the best parking spots.

A livery stable. A place where the carriages would store thier wagons and their horses. Photo taken sometime in the early 1880s. (North Dakota Institute of Regional Studies)

Livery stables were used extensively in early Fargo’s extensive public transportation system. (North Dakota Institute of Regional Studies)

At this point, Almira’s and her mother’s enthusiasm is all but totally worn out. Mrs. Bullard is in a constant state of attending and entertaining at tea parties, and Almira is repeatedly turning down marriage proposals. Almira finally admits at this point that; “I love Vermont.” One offered to do everything she asked, another threatened to kill himself, and yet another threatened to kill her. Mr. Bullard meanwhile, exhausted and overwhelmed, is slowly slipping into increasingly risky investments. His business partner named Mr. Hicks is one of the “restless characters.” He proposes over-the-top (and expensive) advertising campaign that worry Jonathan, who has seen business ideas go under due to reckless over-investment. These events are a foreshadowing. Mr. Bullard takes up the offer for the “great sale” and ordering exotic animals (a bear and a monkey) and hires a team of mules with a sleigh and a band. On the night of the sale, there is a huge rush of eager customers ferried in by railroad from Minneapolis and St. Paul as well as Bismarck, Valley City, Jamestown, and Casselton. This shows the extent of the railroad in 1878, but also points out that Mr. Hicks and Mr. Bullard actually used their own finances to bring people in for the sale. After the large (and highly competitive rush) Mr. Bullard finds he has actually lost over $300 since he moved to Fargo, and in anger, disappointment and defeat, decides to move. This sentiment is promptly shared by his wife and daughter, despite his apprehension that they would not agree very easily. He thought that they actually enjoyed living in Fargo. The next day they excitedly board a train and leave. Almira notices that the crowd getting off was very large, and concludes that they’ll be forgotten about. Mr. Bullard points out that the constant bustling and competition will help them forget even faster. They leave not one penny richer than they arrived.

Synopsis Part Three: Regression

It begins with a conversation between Jonnie and Grannie Bullard. They discuss how they miss the others, and Jonnie is left believing the reason they haven’t heard from them is because, “They’re awful busy. My! What a pile of money father must have made by this time!” Their rapid meeting was as jubilant as it was unexpected, with the normal greetings and embraces. Then various plot points are settled. Alonzo and Almira finally make plans for marriage (which angers and draws envy from the maid Pattie, who has a secret crush on Alonzo).

The story shifts to Mrs. Bullard talking with some church friends about their misadventures and seemingly sudden relationship between Alonzo and Almira. The somewhat self-righteous Mrs. Justin converses about the boundless excesses of western life. She states that it is a “field for a missionary” and is disgusted at the gaudy and overly lavish dress and conduct of common folk. When it is explained that in order to have enough moral influence to reach the people of Fargo she has to join into the lavish living and dress, Mrs. Justin rhetorically asks, “So the ministers’ wives didn’t stand for their own principles?” This puts strain on Mrs. Bullard as well, as she feels judged and almost ashamed at the somewhat less than friendly acceptance of their life in Fargo.

Almira’s friends are just as eager to hear her tell her stories about Fargo, bombarding her with questions and rumors about the “West”. The main discussion was on the shortage of women in Fargo, which seems to excite the young ladies. She makes mention of the “Episcopal minister’s wife” who tried to make a group of young people and found that there were about twice as many men as women. At this point the writer is also a character in the story, in an indirect way speaking of her own issues. Mr. Bullard is now working on settling the matter of his estate. Alonzo Peters in more than willing to relinquish the property and restore it in Jonathan’s name. However, he agreed to move in with his mother, to take care of her. She offers to have another house built, but he simply adds on to the original estate. Alonzo and Almira finally get married, and Mrs. Bullard is starting to miss Fargo a bit. She looks back on the splendor and lavish parties, the nice clothing and starts longing for it. She finally comes to terms with her feelings and lets them go, simply happy to live her dignified Vermont life. The story closes by discussing Almira’s happiness at marrying Alonzo and her having forgotten about the experience in Fargo as being little more than “an amusing dream.”

The Overall Significance

This novel expresses Cooley’s perception of Fargo, especially its culture, business practices, and life. It is a cautionary story, a coming-of-age story, and story of the dangers of excess and obsession. It openly satirizes Horacy Greeley’s “Go West, young man, go West!” She writes various people she knew into the story, changing their names and roles so as to not be accused as she put it “of personal allusion”. She describes in detail how business competition and lack of safety regulation of the railroad led to frequent near-misses as they would race back and forth, east to west. She describes the people of Fargo as being a bit shallow, and overly concerned with outward appearance. She even seems to indict herself as being like the rest, especially near the end with the discussion of ministers’ wives joining into the lavishness. She seems to be confessing her own perceived lack of modesty and moral courage. There is much symbolism as to the mood of Fargo at the time.  Words like “push” and “rush” are used repeatedly, often at turning points in the story. “Reckless” and “restless” are the main adjectives used to describe the people, particularly the men of Fargo. This adds a bit of a poetic tone as it uses the rhythm of these words to change directions and bring it full circle. Lastly at the top of every other page, she has the word “Disillusion” which is never fully explained. It does, however, set the tone. The entire book is an expression of her disillusionment with Fargo and a longing for moderation and quietness, that temporarily seems to be glossed over by the high-life. This seems to be of a similar attitude to the aforementioned Gilded Age, as the book somewhat humorously describes the ridiculousness of 19th century life, while also expressing a disillusionment about it. Her most direct appearance in the novel is only in reference to her being the wife a local Episcopal minister, and noting the discrepancy in the number of men and women, which leads to another point.

There is a bit of a feminist overtone as well, depicting the male characters as busy, “rushing” businessmen and the women as trophies just dragged along to be shown off and left to their own devices. The constant and persistent marriage proposals to Almira are depicted as representing a different kind of overpowering (and today, abusive) kind of man. One offers to give her everything and make her what can only be described as a trophy-wife. Another threatens to kill himself, in what is easily the most pathetic (and manipulative) way possible. Yet another threatens to kill her, flashing his bowie knife and revolver in a display that would warrant a restraining order in today’s world. It shows Mr. Bullard to be detached, disinterested, and unaware of his wife’s and daughter’s needs and desires. This does match up with other descriptions of men of the same time. For instance, Jasper Chapin has many of his exploits described and his wife is often left in peripheral roles. He was, much like many of the characters, “reckless.” His overindulgence and risky business practices led him to financial ruin, and his wife, who was in frail health, died. He later committed suicide, but not before cementing his legacy as the “Father of Fargo.” It’s people like him that Cooley answers, with their lack of moderation and self-respect, showing the antithesis to what was called “determination” at the time, as simple foolishness. The Boom of a Western City is the story of Fargo in its early days, and a window for us to see into them

– Lamar Murchison, Digital History, 2012


Engelhard C.L., Gateway to the Northern Plains: Railroads and the Birth of Fargo and Moorhead, University of Minnesota Press (2007).

Cooley E.H., The Boom of a Western City (1897), Lee and Shepard Publishers, Retreieved October 20, 2012, from, http://books.google.com/books/reader, (2012).

Twain M. and Warner C.D., The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873), American Publishing Company, (2012).

Riis J.A., How The Other Half Lives, Charles Scribner’s Sons, (1890).

Leave a Reply


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.