Ghosts of North Dakota Photos to Enter Public Domain

In 2003 we started photographing North Dakota ghost towns and abandoned places, first as a hobby and then, as a fascinating learning exercise. We learned about the Homestead Act that had settlers moving to the upper Midwest en masse, the railroads that built towns every eight miles along the tracks so the locomotives could refill their steam engines, and the population and development boom that sometimes followed.

We also learned that as fortunes rose with the coming of the railroad, they also fell when the railroad failed to arrive. Several of the first true ghost towns we ever visited — Sherbrooke, North Dakota, where a President once spent the night, and Lincoln Valley, North Dakota, once an entire town of homes, stores and streets — were vivid examples of towns that initially boomed, and then vanished.

We took photos of everything we saw, pretty much. Homes, churches, and stores. Bridges, lost highways, asylums and abandoned military installations. If it was within the borders of North Dakota, we likely visited it, with very few exceptions. From 2003 to 2015, we drove a little under 100,000 miles and had an absolute blast doing it. It brought us so much joy and we will always be grateful for it.

When we started doing this, there weren’t a lot of people doing it (the late Andrew Filer was one of them, may he rest in peace) but it seems in the last 20 years the beauty of the austere and abandoned has enjoyed a renaissance. Photos of ghost towns and abandoned places are everywhere; in every app and on every social media site, and we take a little pride in knowing we were there in the beginning.

As Terry and I have transitioned to different stages of life (and now live across the state from each other) we’ve been proud to say we were the “Ghosts of North Dakota guys” and talk to people we meet about the places we’ve been and the things we’ve seen, and we always will be. However, the active part of our explorations and research has unfortunately come to an end as we indulge different careers and pursuits.

So, you guys are done?

I am sure there will still be an occasion when we find ourselves in the car, on the road, in the middle of nowhere, and there will be some new photos showing up on Ghosts of North Dakota when we get home. That will surely happen, but we have largely retired from the chase.

The problem is… what about these photos?

When we started Ghosts of North Dakota, our mission was to photographically document these places before they’re gone forever. Inherent in the mission was a sense of virtual preservation. If there aren’t any residents left to fix a place up, all you can do is remember the place when it’s gone.

Eventually we did a couple books and you were kind enough to buy a few of them (there are still some copies of two of them left) and it felt good to get some of these photos out in a medium that wasn’t electronic.

To me, however, preservation means forever, and these photos, the tangible memories of these lost places, aren’t going to live forever on our hard drives. As a result, we have decided to release the entire Ghosts of North Dakota photo library into the public domain.

One-by-one, I will be posting the galleries of individual places on our Facebook page. Whenever possible I will include the exact date the photos were taken. You’ll be able to save them straight from the Facebook page, or follow a link in the comments to download the original, full resolution, unprocessed photos. In some of the later years, our RAW-format originals will also be included.

All the photos will be released under a free-use license, sometimes referred to as a Creative Commons 0 (Zero) license. That means you can use them however you wish, for private or commercial use, and you can choose whether to credit us when you use them. (We always appreciate a credit, of course, but it’ll be up to you.)

It’s our gift to you, and a way of saying thank you for all your support over the years. We get occasional emails from people who want permission to use one of our photos for a special event, or to base a painting on one of them. We almost always said yes, and hopefully, we’ll see more of that in the future. You will be free to print them out, use them as inspiration for your own works, or however else you see fit.

We’re releasing a new place into the public domain every other day on our Facebook page.

8 thoughts on “Ghosts of North Dakota Photos to Enter Public Domain

  1. I may have written to you before—my father was the chief engineer on the new bridge in Sanish. We moved there when I was 7, which is 70 years ago. I have wonderful memories of that place. My best friend was Anne Goodall whose parents’ ranch was an old homestead—the living room was the original log cabin.

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  2. Thank you for all your interest and hard work on this project! My family still has a farm east of Emrick. I spend many summers there as a child. I understand very well your wanting to move on. I wish you all the very best! jpt

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  3. Thank you so much. I was someone raised in MN who never thought I’d live in ND, but I did. First I lived in the western part of the state (Williston) and then eastern (Fargo). Our four children were born in ND. We eventually returned to MN for employment reasons. However, all of us have fond memories of ND. One of our children has chosen to buy a home in a very small town, and lives there in the off-seasons on his adventure tourism job. We have all truly enjoyed GHOSTS OF NORTH DAKOTA. Again, thank you for your work and enthusiasm in keeping history alive.

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  4. Oh dear, here I am correcting myself. My paternal grandparents, Christian & Reginia Bertsch immigrated from Russia (Ukraine) in the late 1800s. Some historian I am!

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  5. This is such a cool website and the work you did preserving history is really amazing. Thank you for sharing it with all of us. Best wishes to both of you!

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  6. Wow , I’m surprised I have never heard of this project or you before. A friend posted a picture of a church from north Dakota and in researching it’s location and information I stumbled on your site. My name is Bill Butcher, first off let me say thank you . I love your project/ site. I grew up in Illinois and was transferred to Minnesota where I currently live . I worked for Amoco oil and am a hobby photographer that loves old buildings and history. Over the years I’ve photographed many things that are no longer there lost to time. I found it sad and frustrating. Often I don’t know the history of the structure but would love to. To preserve it in print, digital , photographs, books and writing is paramount as much and eventually all will truly be lost. Couldn’t tell you how many times I go to show my kids or grandkids something from my youth and I’m only 57 , and it’s gone. I found many folks just see this stuff as buildings but it’s living history of bygone eras we will never be or see. Our history of pole buildings and metal is a completely different history , one that I’m not sure what we will leave behind to be told.
    But I loved your idea not that I know much about or did about North Dakota . I’m now drawn to it for sure by your photos and stories, thanks. I’ve spent time in Mandan and driving through but never really seeing it. So I wanted to ask is there or how could I begin to do something like this? I love to write , do photography and explore . My wife loves doing travel exploring and research. How do you gather the info? Or find the locations? Just drive or is there a destination in mind? I find many interesting things and love drivi g the back roads that’s also what I call my photography page as that’s where I find my joy from. I would love to learn more and do something similar in Minnesota. Thank you so much for all you put into this . It truly is inspirational and most needed. Keep me in mind as I’d love to learn or pick your brain as to your inspiration , game plan , how to follow In your footsteps. I’m disabled so my wife does most of the driving and I’m not sure how long my body and eyes will hold out but I do have time and nothing beats today to start. Thanks so much for your wonderful site. Bill and Kelly Butcher our two dogs daisy and obi from the backroads fromthebackroads@gmail.com

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  7. My maternal grandfather, Carl Herman Bangs, was born in Niagara in 1896 to Ole H. Bangs and Mathea Thompson, both Norwegian immigrants to Minnesota. Grandpa was baptized in the Elk Valley Lutheran Church near Petersburg at 6 weeks of age. God parents/witnesses? are listed as Eilbert? Assleson, Nils & Mathea Ellertson, and Alette Ellertsen. Ole died in the ND Hospital for the Insane in 1934 after 9 years incarceration. The family never discussed him, but I suspect alcoholism, which is common in our family and was a common reason for admission to the State Hospital in those days. My maternal grandmother, Olive Leite, was born in Petersburg in 1902. Grandpa told me he walked his motorbike across ND from Niagara to Ray for an apprentiship when he was 12 yrs old (1909?). He and grandma eventually married and lived in Ray, where my mom grew up. I have been unable to learn what happened to Mathea Thompson Bangs, so if anyone has any ideas I would appreciate hearing. I suspect she was deceased by the time Grandpa walked to Ray, as he told me he had a 6th-grade education and had to go to work.

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