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The short history of Nininger, Minnesota

Founded by a real-estate developer in 1856, Nininger boomed to 1,000 residents and went bust in just 13 years.

A cyanotype photograph taken from the site of the town of Nininger c.1890.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Nininger, a small town built quickly in 1856 and abandoned only a few years later, was located twenty-five miles south of St. Paul near present-day Hastings. The story of its rise and fall is typical of many of the boom towns that sprang up in places like Minnesota Territory during the mid-nineteenth century. It shows both the high hopes of the area’s newcomers and the despair they felt when their communities failed.

The town of Nininger was named for its founder, John Nininger. A St. Paul and Philadelphia businessman with real estate interests in Minnesota, Nininger was brother-in-law to territorial governor Alexander Ramsey. Business partner Ignatius Donnelly joined him in a new venture in the fall of 1856. On October 1 they began selling land on a site they felt would become a commercial hub in Minnesota due to its location on the Mississippi River. Donnelly himself moved to Nininger in late 1856.

Donnelly was tasked with advertising the town’s potential to possible residents; Nininger agreed to sell the properties. Donnelly vigorously promoted the area as the best place to live in the Northwest. He led a national advertising campaign and personally praised the town to anyone willing to listen. Although not a resident, Nininger had a large financial interest in the success of the town as well.

The selling of Nininger began for Donnelly even before he moved to the area. In the December 1, 1856 issue of Philadelphia’s Emigrant Aid Journal, Donnelly, also listed as the paper’s Chief Editor, wrote of moving to Nininger as a chance to leave the busyness of the East for the calm of the West. It was an opportunity, he claimed, to become a citizen of a town that was destined for greatness.

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The backing of high-profile people, especially Ramsey and Donnelly, awoke the interest of immigrants and helped Nininger quickly grow from an ideal into a town. Even before it was incorporated in February of 1858, Nininger saw impressive growth. By the summer of 1857 one hundred houses had been built and the town was covered in new construction.

Due to his never-ending promotion of the town, Donnelly earned the moniker “the Sage of Nininger.” He worked day and night to grow the town into what he believed it could be, looking to add roads, a public school, hotel, library, town government, and more. Unfortunately for Donnelly and the citizens of Nininger, the promise of these early days would not last.

Just as quickly as the town boomed, it busted. For a number of reasons, the dreams of its founders did not come true. Early residents were sold on the idea of the town as a travel center complete with a ferry dock and railroad link. These utilities, however, were never built. Without these important hubs, Nininger was not able to grow.

The financial Panic of 1857 was the main cause of Nininger’s failure. Due to economic woes nationwide, investors were no longer willing to make loans. Local banks that had financed the growth of the town were pressured to pay back the eastern speculators who had loaned them money. When the bank notes were called in from the citizens of Nininger, they weren’t able to pay them, leaving foreclosure as their only option.

The town’s residency rules required citizens to make yearly improvements to their land to keep the deeds to their properties. The financial crisis made it hard for people to fulfill this requirement and they were eventually forced into forfeiture. Those who could pay saw their land values drop significantly and they left as well. Nininger’s peak population of nearly one thousand in 1858 had fallen to 469 by 1860. Donnelly went to Philadelphia to try to sell personal assets to fund the town, but the financial panic made investors impossible to find.

With a large part of its population now gone, the town could not recover. By 1869 Nininger was no more. Only a handful of buildings were left standing, including the post office and Donnelly’s home. The town that had sold its residents the hope of a bright future only a short time ago had disappeared.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.