River Towns Host Pioneer Elevators

Winistorfer, Jo Ann. "River Towns Host Pioneer Elevators." North Dakota Living, October 2005, 22-23.

They stood tall and proud on the horizon, the pioneer elevators that sprang up along the waterways of North Dakota. Nearly every hamlet had one or two, bulging at harvest with golden wheat gleaned from early settlers’ fields.

The rivers were the lifeblood of the elevators and the towns that housed them. They served as highways upon which barges and steamboats carried the grain to rail points up or downstream. On their return trip, they brought lumber and other commodities to keep the community alive.

In the first decades of settlement, the Missouri River was a major artery for the towns that sprang up along its banks. Far from the railroads, these towns relied on the river for transportation of grain, people, livestock, and materials.

Washburn was one such town. Its role as a Missouri River shipping point is recounted in the July 21, 1892, edition of The Settler, an early Bismarck newspaper: “The steamboat Abner O’Neal while en route from Washburn to Bismarck with a cargo of wheat last Sabbath struck a snag near Painted Woods and sank in about twenty feet of water. Part of the wheat was saved, but 1,500 sacks went down with the boat.”

Washburn sprang up on land eventually purchased and developed by the town’s namesake, Gen. W.D. Washburn, ex-U.S. senator and flour mill king from Minneapolis. Gen. Washburn purchased barges and steamboats to carry lumber and other merchandise to villages and farms upriver and to bring down grain to the Washburn elevator. There, it was loaded onto railcars via the town’s railroad terminal for shipment to market.

In 1893, one of the first riverboat navigators hired by Gen. Washburn was the famous Capt. Grant Marsh. In 1876, Capt. Marsh, piloting the steamer Far West, brought survivors of the Battle of the Little Big Horn in eastern Montana back to Bismarck and Fort Abraham Lincoln in record time.

In 1904, Gen. Washburn sold out his interests around Washburn. The company was soon picked up by Capt. Isaac P. Baker’s Benton Packet Co. of Bismarck and stretched from south of Bismarck to the mouth of the Yellowstone River near Williston. Most business, however, took place between Fort Yates and Fort Berthold and included towns such as Cannonball, Washburn, Sanger, Mannhaven, Expansion and Ree. Steamers operated by Benton at the time included the Washburn, Bismarck, Weston, Imelda and Expansion.

The area around Williston was served by a steamboat called the “O.K.,” built by George Stevens in 1906. A Sept. 13, 1906, Williston Herald article gave this account following a promotional visit to area farmers by the steamboat’s investors: “This is a great thing for the people living and raising crops on the flats as they can handle their crops more easily and at the same time get a price that will net them more than what they will be able to get by hauling to railroad markets.”


The river elevator that sprang up at Mannhaven had a picturesque setting, surrounded on the sunset side by high clay bluffs and gently sloping hills and on the sunrise side by the Missouri River. Today, its ghostly remains lie two miles south of Garrison Dam Power Plant between Riverdale and Pick City.

Established in 1896, Mannhaven was named for one of its founders, (William) Henry Mann of New Salem, co-owner of the Mannhaven Mercantile & Transportation Co. In 1897, the booming town built the steamboat Bismarck, as well as storage facilities along the river. A lumberyard rose alongside the Lyons Elevator Co.’s grain warehouse (which later became the Occident Elevator Co.). In 1900, Mercer County’s first doctor—Dr. L.G. Eastman—established a practice there. Other businesses included a newspaper, bank, store and post office.

Mannhaven’s decline began with a sandbar, which formed at the landing of the elevator. Another elevator built to the south couldn’t save the town when the Northern Pacific Railroad branch tracks reached Mercer County in 1914. The town’s last gasp came on March 15, 1928, when the post office closed.


West of Mannhaven, around what was known in pre-Garrison Dam days as the Big Bend of the Missouri River, the town of Expansion had a similar experience. It was platted in 1889, the year North Dakota became a state.

At its peak in 1905, the town boasted a population of 450. Businesses included a grain elevator (later bought up by I.P. Baker of Bismarck), a bank, a clothing and grocery store, lumberyard, real estate and insurance office, drug store, combination pool hall-beer parlor, post office and even a two story motel.

In 1937, area farmer Jacob Kruckenberg was interviewed as a part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) pioneer biographies project of the Great Depression years. He recalled Expansion’s heyday, noting that the grain elevator “brought as high as 300,000 bushels of grain in one season. Farmers came as far as 60 miles from the west and 40 miles from the south…

“Expansion had one of the largest farming territories in western North Dakota. Grain bought in Expansion was loaded on boats and hauled to Bismarck on the Missouri River. Everything ordered by the businessmen of that point was hauled by boat from Bismarck to Expansion.”

The Northern Pacific branch lines, which arrived in Mercer County in 1914, sounded Expansion’s death knell. As Kruckenberg put it so long ago, “The people all moved out into railroad towns … Hazen, Stanton, Beulah and Zap.”

Ironically, the river which served as the town’s lifeline would eventually claim it: Lake Sakakawea, formed by the damming of the Missouri River, now covers the old ghost town.

The boom town of Expansion now lies under the waters of Lake Sakakawea.

Jo Ann Winistorfer, retired associate editor of North Dakota LIVING, does freelance writing from her farm near Pick City. She and her husband, Nick, are members of Oliver-Mercer Electric and West River Telecommunications cooperatives.

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