Ghost towns come in all varieties, and their abandonment happens for a multitude of reasons. Common on the upper plains are railroad ghost towns, places that vanished when the automobile became the norm. There are natural disaster ghost towns, like Mose, ND, and industrial disaster ghost towns like Picher, OK.
Silver City, North Dakota is another variety of ghost town — a settlement abandoned at the completion of an infrastructure project which employed most of the residents. In this case, the project was the Garrison dam.
We’ve written before about the Four Bears Bridge construction, made necessary by the Garrison dam, and ghost towns like Sanish, inundated in the ensuing flood, but Mrs. Mary (Weyers) Anthony, born in Page, North Dakota, and now a resident of Orlando, wrote to remind us that we have been remiss in not mentioning the Garrison dam boom towns, which sprung up virtually overnight to house dam workers. Mrs. Anthony also included some newspaper clippings and personal photos which we are thrilled to share.
Sometimes in our haste to visit places where there are “things left to photograph,” we don’t give the proper attention to a place now-gone, except in the memories of the people who lived there.
Let’s start with the newspaper article. We’ve transcribed the text below. Click the image to see it full-size.
Minneapolis Sunday Tribune
Sunday April 7th, 1957
Memories of Boom Days Haunt N.D. Ghost Towns
by Frank Wright
Minneapolis Tribune Staff Writer
Riverdale, N.D. — The boom is over for the once-flush, free-wheeling boom towns that helped build giant Garrison dam.
Stores, taverns, hotels, labor union offices have been boarded up, houses vacated.
In some places, weeds grow in the streets where hard-working, hard-spending construction men used to dance through the night.
Some of the towns are on the verge of becoming ghost towns, abandoned to the dust and the wind that sweeps constantly across the rugged North Dakota hills overlooking the virtually completed dam.
A few score residents remain, most of them in Pick City on the western end of the dam, keeping their homes and yards in trim, hoping for better days. Many are preparing to pull out.
Dakota City, American City, Sitka, Silver City, Big Bend and Pick City sprouted overnight in 1945 and 1946 when the federal government started pushing the rolled-earth dam, one of the biggest in the world, across the river here.
Founded mainly by promoters and businessmen hoping to turn a quick dollar, the boom towns clustered on the bluffs around Riverdale, government-owned headquarters for the dam project.
At first, the towns lived well off well-paid construction workers.
Graineries converted into cabins rented for as much as $80 a month.
A fat, middle-aged woman known as Silver City Dorothy is said to have grossed 1 1/2 million dollars in her around-the-clock restaurant before she left town.
Some old timers say it wasn’t that much, but they agree she didn’t leave poor.
Isadore Kramer, owner of Sitka’s Quality Supermarket, claims he took in $900,000 over a three-year period during the lush days.
He is going out of business, however. He says he barely has broken even over the long run. His is the last boom town grocery store.
Mrs. Steve DeTienne, whose husband owns all of the 120 acres that comprise Big Bend, glanced around Steve’s bar the other day. A half dozen customers sat at the long bar.
“I can remember when this place was so packed people had to wait to get in,” she recalled.
Mrs. Lillian Tusto, who runs the bar, said it employed seven bartenders and four waitresses in 1953, the best year.
The dam workforce then numbered 2,700. Total population was more than 5,000, including Riverdale.
After that, the number dwindled steadily as the dam neared completion.
Riverdale’s population leveled off at 1,500, most of them permanent government employees and their families.
Two weeks ago Riverdale’s weekly newspaper, the Missouri Basin Times, suspended publication. The reason: declining advertising and subscription revenue.
Mabel Stemwedel auctioned off her belongings Tuesday in the dusty unused dance hall and left.
DeTienne, 62, former Big Bend Mayor who now is Justice of the Peace, says he hasn’t tried a court case in three years.
The Post Office and Steve’s bar, which now employs three persons, are the only businesses left in Big Bend.
DeTienne, former carpenter at the dam, is counting on tourist trade and the possible coming of industry to improve things. He intends to stay.
But across the road, silver-haired 76-year-old O.A. Burgeson, credited with founding Silver City, is selling out.
He is trying to get rid of 17 two-room cabins, a four-room house and two empty stores. His price for the partly furnished cabins has dropped from $800 to $500 apiece with few takers.
Burgeson, a fast-talking, cigar-smoking former homesteader and one-time traveling salesman, arrived here in 1945 with a stake accumulated while working in the wartime shipyards.
He paid off $1000 of “Hoover depression” debts, plunged the rest into Silver City.
“I laid out the town with my own steel tape measure,” he said as he sat in his cluttered office. “It was the best town of the bunch. I knew how to do those things.”
Burgeson once rented out 29 cabins at $12 a week or $50 a month, take your pick. He expects to show a $9500 net profit for 12 years’ work, if he can sell all his buildings.
His last renter moved out in December. He lives alone in one of his cabins.
When Burgeson closes up shop in Silver City, he plans to head to another federal dam site in Arizona and build himself another town.
Mrs. Anthony sent along these photos from her personal collection. First, some early photos of Garrison dam construction.
Garrison Dam, 1947.
This is the Silver City Cafe, a Kodacolor print made in 1950. Mary Anthony says, “My folks and sister ran the Silver City Cafe.”
The photo above has “Rental Cabins, Silver City, N.D.” written on the back.
Snow over the top of Gulbranson’s cabin at Silver City, ND
Silver City Cafe Circus. June 25th, 1950. That’s an elephant in the foreground. Note the cabins in the background, originally occupied by dam workers.
This one says “Big Bend” on the front, but “Dakota City Bar. Dakota City, N.D.” on the back.
The photo above was printed in 1962 and reads “All that’s left of Silver City.” On the back is written “I believe this is gone.”
This photo is a color panorama taken in 1946. On the back it says, “Silver City, N.D. It started out as a wheat field and ended almost the same as it started.”
Today, nothing remains of Silver City. We have plans to visit a few places and photograph some remnants of the Garrison dam project, and we’d be happy to post your photos if you have anything you’d like to share from North Dakota’s Garrison Dam boom towns. Contact us.
16 thoughts on “Memories of Silver City Ghost Town”
My mom worked at the Drug Store and also taught school in Sitka. Does anyone have pictures of the Big Bend Drug, Sitka Store or the school in Sitka? She also said THE place to go was the Dakota Club! Anyone have a picture of it? I’d love to surprise her with them. Thanks!
Hah! I moved from ND to Alaska in 1971. Sitka Alaska is a town in southeastern Alaska and the capital of Alaska when it was owned by Russia. The name is said to be derived from a Tlingit (language of Southeastern Alaska indigenous people) phrase. I’m curious about the origin of the name for Sitka North Dakota. I note also that there is a Nome Alaska and Nome North Dakota (as referenced by this website).
Your mom must of been the one that gave me my a spanking if she was teaching their in 1951 or 2. Was a great one room school with grades 1, 2 and 3, then it was a bus ride to Riverdale.
Jerry, I asked mom about this and she said “it wasn’t me!” She didn’t teach there until a few years later and didn’t know who was teaching there in 51 or 52. Her sister did teach there but later, also.
The building of the Garrison Dam and the subsequent implementation of Garrison Diversion and other spinoffs of the Pick-Sloan act was a big deal in McLean County. Many of my family and neighbors (in the Turtle Lake area) were impacted by Garrison Dam and Garrison Diversion in many ways, not all of them positive.
I think one of my brothers has farmland near that area.
Silver City reminds me of some of the lost boom towns in Alaska where I now live…
Thanks for the memories.
– tj –
the lone cabin in the field in the last photo still stands. it’s visible from highway 200, on the north side of the road about 3 miles east of Riverdale. I was always told where it stands was Big Bend & not Silver City. where the towns used to be are pretty much only accessible by driving section lines so they may not be driveable some parts of the year
Thanks for sharing that info, Ryan. I’ve been driving by this building my whole life. I always thought it was a granary, but now that I think of it, it’s pretty strange for a granary to have windows. I’ll have to snap a photo of it next time I’m up there.
Thanks, guys, and especially Mrs. Anthony for sharing more info and pics of some of ND’s forgotten “boom times”. I guess that you are so right when you say that it is so easy to get caught up in the ‘now’ of what is left, and not remember some of these activities of the past that has made ND what it is today. Great job, guys, and again, a big THANK YOU to Mrs. Anthony!
my Uncle Ralph Nelson worked on the dam as a draftsman for the Corps from 1946 thru 1959 when they moved him to Yellowstone after that big earthquake…..We were kids then ,but visited in Riverdale in 1959…later in life,he told me many tales of the goings on in these dance halls and bars as he was a single man….He also showed me in Minot where the” red light “district had been during that boom…told me of the many cities that sprung up around the work….Pick City still has a bar,was there on a poker run 2 yrs. ago..
Was Pick City the only camp on the west side of the dam? Douglas Wick’s ND Place Names book suggests there were two.
When I was growing up in ND in the ’80s, I remember going down this section of ND 200 on the way to Lake Sakakawea, and I remember the REA line (McLean Electric Cooperative) diverge north from the highway for a couple miles before returning to the highway, then taking off to the south to serve some farms. It turns out that was McLean Electric’s very first line (energized March 1947), and the section where it was well north of the highway just about had to be where these towns were, as both Big Bend and Dakota City were known to have been served from that line. Unfortunately, when I returned in recent years hoping for a picture of that line, the coop had JUST replaced that segment with a new one along the highway.
Never in a million years thought that one shed with windows was a remnant of these towns – hope it’ll still be standing in the spring!
There were a few small towns near what is now Pick City but were all long gone before the dam was built. Mannhaven was one of them but disappeared almost 100 years ago now
That last picture of the shed/cabin is still standing. Just drove to it and took pictures of it today.
I just realized I did get a picture of the same building on one of my recent trips to ND without realizing what it was.
It seems there was a small power company near Silver City – in Sitka, one of the other construction camps. H. C. McNulty and then Elmer Salter ran this plant at different times before McLean Electric took over what remained of the lines in 1956.
My Dad, Bill Mutz and his partner, Bill Engelter owned the “MUEN Market” about 1947-1952 in Sitka, ND. Izzy was the butcher and much have bought it when my family moved back to Mandan. I remember a huge fire across the hiway one winter nite and wonder if it was a saloon. The winters were SO cold and snow was packed up to roofs on south side of the “motel like cabins”. My sisters bday was May 18. We couldn’t have her party because of a blizzard!!
If anyone remembers going to school in the one room school, let us know! The teachers name is on tip of my tongue. Maybe Jacobs?
May Jacobs is who you are thinking of. She continued to teach in Riverdale. She taught my dad in the 1 room school house and then me in Riverdale. She was a well-loved part of our community and a great teacher.