More than 150 years ago, a man by the name of Day arrived at a spot on the Mississippi River northwest of Monticello. He found a site at the mouth of Silver Creek and decided it’d be a good place to set up a town.
He drew up plans in 1856, which included gridded streets, a steamboat landing, a public grove and hundreds of residential lots, and named the town Fremont, after John C. Fremont, who ran for president on the Republican ticket that year.
Soon, the town had a steam sawmill, a hotel, a store and several dwellings, making up “a beautiful little village on the Mississippi,” according to a handwritten note in a Wright County Historical Society file.
Within a few years, there was almost nothing left of the town. Just the old hotel, where the town’s last resident was living, according to historical society records.
Try to drive to Fremont today, in present-day Silver Creek Township, and your GPS will direct you down a road that no longer exists. The heavily wooded area where the town was once advertised is fenced off — private property.
Judith Schefers was surprised to get a call from a reporter Wednesday about the town, which she’d never heard of. She and her husband developed the land into lots and own part of the property where the town was planned. She said she’d never seen any foundations or other traces of a town on the property.
“There’s not much there except beehives,” she said.
Fremont was one of a large number of “paper towns” — places that existed more on paper than in reality — that sprung up across Minnesota in the mid-19th century. Treaties took much of what’s now Minnesota away from indigenous people and put it into U.S. hands by the early 1850s, and now that the frontier was open, white settlers were eager to get their hands on the land and turn a profit.
Rampant speculation came as developers bought up property and divvied it into townsites for sale.
“People gambled in futures, bought town lots, sold and bought again. Everywhere towns and villages were boomed with confidence. There was a mania for laying out towns,” wrote Theodore Blegen in “The Land Lies Open,” noting that there were eight times more planned lots than people in Minnesota in the middle of the century.
By converting agricultural land into urban sites, the value of land significantly increased, and entrepreneurial land buyers hoped to cash in on the mark-up, said David Lanegran, professor emeritus of geography at Macalester College.
Hence the promotion of the paper towns. To get rich, the landowners needed buyers. So they made fanciful maps of lovely little settlements and sent them out east, to be tacked up in real estate offices in an effort to recruit buyers.
There’s no particular definition of a paper town, Lanegran said. Some truly existed only on paper. Others got a start but quickly failed, becoming slightly less than a ghost town, but little more than an idea. Speculation played a big role: “I’m sure some of these were never expected to be towns. They were just schemes to sell land to unsuspecting people back east,” Lanegran said. “In general, they’re a monument to greed. People were trying to seize an opportunity that would make them rich.”
The Minnesota Historical Society has many such maps, with plans for pre-statehood towns like Alhambra, Glen-Carrie, Saint Nicholas, Oneka, Fortuna and Nininger, Minnesota, none of which ever lived up to the elaborate plans their founders drew up for them.
Nininger, promoted by Minnesota’s second lieutenant governor, eccentric populist Ignatius Donnelly, is the most famous of Minnesota’s paper towns.
Donnelly and his partner, John Nininger, even published their own newspaper to persuade people to move to the town, just north of Hastings, which was to be a haven of intellectualism. In the old map below, north and south are flipped from the usual orientation, so while the map appears above the Mississippi River, the town sat south of the river.
The town’s peak population of about 1,000 people was mostly gone — people, buildings and all — within a decade of the town’s founding in 1856. As was the case in many paper towns, the decline was caused, in part, by the panic of 1857.
Financial panics were a regular occurrence in the 19th century as the U.S. economy expanded quickly.
“The one in 1857 caused a tightening in the money markets, so banks were calling in loans before these speculators could sell the lots — they didn’t have enough money to pay the banks back,” said Patrick Coleman, acquisitions librarian at the Minnesota Historical Society. “Before a lot of these towns could get off the ground, they were foreclosed on.”
Nininger was also hamstrung by its proximity to Hastings, a bigger town that turned out to be more prosperous.
Today, there’s a Nininger Township, but it bears little resemblance to the plans for the town more than a century ago. (Andy Sturdevant visited Nininger for his MinnPost column, The Stroll, in 2014.)
Alhambra, Minnesota was plotted at the mouth of the Snake River, east of Pine City, where it flows out of Cross Lake.
According to “Fifty Years in the Northwest,” by early Minnesota legislator William H.C. Folsom, Alhambra was at the site of “an Indian village which from time immemorial had been located on the mouth of Cross Lake,” and a rendezvous point for Native Americans and traders. By 1852, there were several log houses and a hotel, according to Folsom, and several indigenous women with white husbands lived there.
It’s not clear why the town’s founders chose the name Alhambra, but the name didn’t stick.
“The name was not generally accepted, and the old Indian name of Chengwatana superseded it,” Folsom wrote. Chengwatana loosely translates to “pine city,” now the name of the county seat, to the west.
Nor did the town stick. When the railroad never showed up to bring business, it faded away. Modern maps show what appear to be lake homes near the former site of Chengwatana.
No, not that South Bend — no Notre Dame, and no Mayor Pete. This South Bend, in Minnesota, was promised to be a prosperous little town near the confluence of the Minnesota and Blue Earth rivers, west of Mankato.
Its location was “healthful lying as it does on a plateau some 40 feet above high water … in the heart of the finest Timbered, watered and Agricultural part of Minnesota,” according to text on the map promoting the town.
The map promised a wharf for steamboats passing through on their way to St. Paul, and an enormous public square with a pond in the middle of it.
“Mills and other improvements are going up. More of all kinds are needed,” the map advertised.
The first elections were held in 1854, and the town’s population was so small that everyone who voted got a seat, according to “History of Blue Earth County and Biographies of its Leading Citizens.”
At its peak, South Bend had about a 100 houses and as many as 300 residents. One of them was D.A. Allen, who was reportedly the shortest man in the U.S. When Allen was 22, he was 2 feet, 7 inches tall — “half an inch shorter than Barnum’s famous Tom Thumb” — and 35 pounds, the Blue Earth book says.
South Bend started going downhill in the late 1860s, after the St. Paul and Sioux City Railway Co. passed it over in favor of its once-rival, Mankato.
Today, there’s a South Bend Township at the original town’s site, just a collection of a few businesses and some homes. The streets are far fewer than the ones envisioned by the town’s founders, but a few of them, like Division and Reno Street, bear the names on the original plat.
June Lonnquist, the chair of the township board, said she’d heard something about a town square in South Bend once upon a time, but she’d always heard it was underwater.
You won’t find a trace of Glen-Carrie, the city planned just west of modern-day Ham Lake, on any modern map.
But there is a hint of the town’s history there. Just off Central Avenue north of Minneapolis is a Glen Cary Lutheran Church (spelled slightly differently than the town on the map at the Minnesota History Center).
Glen-Carrie, plotted around 1856 and situated along Coon Creek, was to include more than a thousand lots laid and an oval-shaped park, a rarity among territorial towns, according to “Territorial Plat Maps of Minnesota,” by Brad Oftelie.
The town’s name — Glen-Carrie, or “beautiful valley” in Scottish — was perhaps wishful thinking, situated, as it was, on a flat plain. A bill in the territorial legislature to move the county seat of Anoka County to Glen-Carrie failed because of opposition from residents of Anoka, still the county seat, according to records at the Glen Cary church.
In 1857, the town burned in a prairie fire and the residents left the area. When the area formally organized in 1871, the town of Ham Lake was named after the nearby body of water, perhaps in part because the Scandinavian settlers had difficulty pronouncing the Scottish name.
A great teacher
The hundred-or-so plat maps from this period at the Minnesota History Center are a great teacher of the state’s territorial history, Coleman said.
The sheer number of lots — enough for 10 million people, or nearly double the state’s current population — show the optimism the state’s early white residents had for its future in a way other artifacts don’t, he said. Likewise, the failure of some of these towns shows how the frontier failed to live up to those expectations.
“They’re the kind of physical manifestation of this great migration and the panic and the early economic life of this area,” he said. “It’s neat that we have these. I think it would be a lot harder to explain this history without them.”