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Phantom Cities In A Promised Land

March 2023
1min read

An artist turned land agent used his paintings to promote paper townsites in Minnesota. Though most of these settlements failed to materialize, his charming record of an opening frontier remains

“Come to Minnesota. We have a rich soil, a delightful climate, a charming country, plenty of timber, and, in short, woods, lakes, rivers, prairies and meadows, all intermingled in the most desirable manner possible.” Here was a land “almost equalling in richness the beauties of Eden,” with “space enough for hundreds of thousands, if not millions…” One acre, the writer claimed, “is worth for productiveness at least three of New England, while for the labour of working it, there is no comparison whatever, because there are no granite rocks to be blasted or dug up.” Lime and sandstone, he pointed out, “is below the surface, just where it ought to be.”

Edwin Whitefield, the author of this effusive tribute, was by trade an artist rather than a promoter—and an Englishbred easterner at that. He had come to Minnesota in 1856, two years before it became the thirty-second state. What, exactly, had lured him there is not known; but he carried his palette, paints, and pencils with him. It was not long before he found a use for them: he would exhibit pictures of prospective cities to sell town lots on undeveloped sites.

Certainly Whitefield had arrived in Minnesota at an opportune time, for the whole upper Mississippi Valley was then in the grip of an epidemic of townsite fever. Paper cities were being platted over the vast unsettled territory that stretched westward to the Missouri River and northward to the Canadian border. Often before settlers arrived to take up claims in newly opened areas, promoters explored them and located favorable townsites. Many launched great enterprises with little or no capital, exaggerating opportunities for investment, speculating in unbuilt railroads, and gambling without restraint in town lots. They organized mass meetings and advertised in eastern newspapers. No amount of ballyhoo seemed too great.

Not long after his arrival, Whitefield joined the Kandiyohi Town Site Company, which had been organized to promote a lovely, lake-studded district some ninety miles northwest of Minneapolis. He threw himself into the venture with great energy, taking exploring trips and helping to stake out paper towns. In the winter of 1856–57, he returned to the East on a lecture tour, carrying with him sketchbooks and portfolios crammed with drawings and water colors.

But for some reason—possibly the panic of 1857—the Kandiyohi project failed; most of the other townsite ventures in which Whitefield was later involved were similarly unsuccessful. A century after, there is little to show for his high hopes: towns that might have been are today solitary cow pastures or clearings by the still waters of a prairie stream. And yet, in his water colors Whitefield did leave something of lasting value, an authentic record of the rich frontier that he had so vainly strived to exploit. On the following pages many of these sketches are reproduced, along with—for purposes of comparison—photographs of the same places as they appear today.

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