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Frontier State

June 2024
5min read

From the time, about seven years ago, that we decided to devote a column in this magazine to traveling with a sense of history, we’ve received our fair share of state promotional literature. Not all of it—precious little in fact—has directly spoken to the way in which history can enrich travel. One packet that did so arrived on my desk last winter; it was the work of Tracy Potter, a history-minded tourism official from North Dakota who wanted us to know about the American Legacy Tour, creating an itinerary in the state’s western region, where, Potter wrote, “virtually the whole of American history can be traced at a handful of sites visited by some of the most famous people of the nineteenth century.”

I had had a quick view of the wheat fields and enormous skies of North Dakota a few years ago, from the lounge car of Amtrak’s Empire Builder. Now it seemed time to go back for a longer visit. Bismarck, the capital, located in the south-central part of the state, makes a natural starting point, not only for geographical reasons but for its splendid Heritage Center, a museum on the State Capitol grounds that sets out North Dakota’s history through the liveliest use of photographs, paintings, quotations, and artifacts.

Strategically set on the east bank of the Missouri River, Bismarck received its present name in 1873 (in order to lure German investment) as it grew into a thriving steamboat port and a military post; from 1873 to 1879 it served as the terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad. In his 1962 memoir, Travels With Charley , John Steinbeck was struck by the image of Bismarck as jumping-off point: “Here is where the map should fold.… Here is the boundary between east and west. On the Bismarck side it is eastern landscape, eastern grass, with the look and smell of eastern America. Across the Missouri on the Mandan side, it is pure west, with brown grass and water scorings and small outcrops.”

The third-largest city in the state, with 67,000 residents, Bismarck is a clean, wind-scoured place. The air seems perfumed with hay on a late-spring morning, and the few main streets offer the proud two- and three-story brick facades that speak of a surge of late-nineteenth-century prosperity. Between 1870 and 1915 the stream of settlers, drawn by cheap or free land and the promise of the railroad, boosted the population of the northern Dakota Territory from 2,405 to 637,000, just about what the state holds now.

Across the river stands Fort Abraham Lincoln, the last post of Gen. George Custer, who departed from there for the Little Bighorn and destiny. Today only a few re-created blockhouses rise on the high, windy bluffs of the fort, overlooking the sinuous Missouri River. The Custers’ large and amply furnished house, which was sheltered on the plain below, was dismantled by the Army in 1891, but it has been recently and ambitiously rebuilt as part of Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park. As I visited many of the region’s historic sites, it became clear that I was more likely to find a new structure, built according to the best available evidence, than a patched-up surviving one. Wood was scarce out on these treeless high plains, and if an old or abandoned building didn’t burn or succumb to wind and weather, then it was likely to have been dismantled and the materials recycled for a new one.

One sturdy survivor, Theodore Roosevelt’s Badlands cabin, dates from the time Roosevelt first came to Dakota Territory in 1883 to hunt. He bagged his moose and in the process fell in love with the wild expanses of the Badlands, which had, he wrote his sister, “a curious fantastic beauty of its own.” The Badlands received its name from French explorers of the 1840s who called it mauvaises terres . This, tourist literature hastens to explain, is not because these more than one hundred miles that lay between the prairie and the Rockies were seen as evil or haunted but because they were bad as in difficult —hard to cross, hard to farm. What they had, and this in distinction to the bleached arid Badlands of South Dakota, was enough rainfall, especially in those early days of the ranching boom, to allow cattle to graze the rich grasslands and to support all manner of wildlife for sportsmen to hunt. Even last June, when drought was threatening one of its periodic returns, an evening drive through the park’s South Unit revealed a dozen shades of green in the brush and scrub that stood along the deep ruts formed by the Little Missouri River, its flow a barely visible milky mud. There were wildflowers climbing the hills to the road; a profusion of birds, antelope, and mule deer made themselves known, but only one lone buffalo grazed in the distance.

“Hell with the fires out” is how Gen. Alfred Sully saw the Badlands in 1864, its weird, carved layers, spindles, columns, and crevices a product of sixty million years of geology, of erosion and volcanic uplift. “The ruins of an ancient city” is also Sully’s phrase, and it is apt. The rusty layers produced by the continued burning of soft-coal deposits—lignite—and the buff and ocher stone and clay cliffs rising as high as three thousand feet, shaped and reshaped by the occasional pounding rain, do indeed resemble something ancient, purposeful, and built.

As compelling as these moody vistas appear, they remain mostly an attraction for North Dakotans, and it took some doing by local enthusiasts to persuade the powers in Washington that a national-park designation was warranted. The effort, which began in 1919 with Theodore Roosevelt’s death, finally saw success with the 1947 establishment of the park in his name. Today it consists of two units, the North and the South, connected by the scenic Route 16.

Medora, the town that edges the south unit, came into being in 1883, when an opera buffa character, the French Marquis de Mores, was drawn to the area to start a meat-packing operation. He named Medora for his wife, built his “château,” which still stands, on the heights overlooking the town and a great rim of Badlands outcroppings, and he placed his refrigeration plant and other operations in the town. Medora saw the expected boom during the three years that Roosevelt and the marquis busied themselves with their respective ventures. Thirteen saloons opened, as did three hotels, and a weekly newspaper flourished. And then, by 1886, as the ranching and meat-packing businesses collapsed, just about everything else shut down too, and all that remained was memory. “Remember Medora?” asked a rancher of TR as he stopped at a neighboring town on a 1912 campaign tour. “There’s nothing left of it but a hole in the ground and two loss.”

Across the Missouri River stands Fort Abraham Lincoln, the last post of Gen. George Custer, who departed from there for the Little Bighorn.

In the 1950s Medora got another chance at life when Harold Schafer, founder of the Gold Seal cleaning products company and one of North Dakota’s proudest homegrown success stories, took an interest in the crumbling community. He started by purchasing and restoring the old Roughrider Hotel, once and now again the town’s social center, and he went on from there, pouring money into his project with increasing fervor. “I also found out Medora didn’t have any water or sewer,” Schafer told a reporter recently. “I was talking with the mayor … and we watched a lady come out of city hall with a Sears and Roebuck catalogue and head for an outhouse. That got us started, and I made him a deal to put toilets in city hall, and that got things going for getting running water and sewers in Medora.”

The town you see today is hands down the state’s biggest tourist attraction, now supported by a foundation Schafer spun off after selling his company in 1986. It’s worth stopping here overnight to visit the Roosevelt cabin and the marquis’s château, to drop into a couple of small museums, and to spend the evening at the wonderfully hokey variety show that celebrates Medora’s past. This is held in a newly refurbished outdoor amphitheater high in the hills, with the encircling Badlands as backdrop. The present Medora isn’t a perfect replica of the town at the brief height of its 1880s prosperity. It has a modest motel, with a pool and miniature-golf course, and a dozen or so souvenir shops have sprung up where once the rowdy saloons held sway. You have to remember that this is today’s version of a boom town reborn, and you can only wish Medora’s ninety-four hardy residents the best of frontier luck. After all, most of us would tolerate a T-shirt shop for the sake of indoor plumbing.

—Carla Davidson TO PLAN A TRIP

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