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Holy alliance: how a bishop and a railroad teamed up to found Clontarf, MN

Railroads needed settlers along their lines to make the roads commercially viable. Bishop John Ireleand wanted to bring Irish Catholics from eastern cities to rural Minnesota.

A hotel in Clontarf in 1915.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Clontarf, a railroad town in Swift County, was established by Bishop John Ireland of St. Paul in 1877 as a Catholic colony on the prairie. Early arrivals named Clontarf for the site of the eleventh-century victory of the Irish king Brian Boru over Viking invaders.

The St. Paul and Pacific Railroad extended its track west from St. Paul to the Dakota Territory border at Breckinridge in 1871. About 140 miles west from St. Paul, a siding and a section house called Randall Station were built near present-day Clontarf. The sandy soil surrounding Randall Station was not attractive to farmers, leaving much of the land unsold and uncultivated. Railroads needed farms and communities along their tracks to make the lines sustainable.

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In January 1876, Bishop Ireland announced the creation of the Catholic Colonization Bureau. The Bureau would act as agent for the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad to sell the 117,000 acres of unsold railroad land grants in Swift County. Much of the available railroad land was sold within two years. In 1878, James J. Hill and partners acquired the bankrupt St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, renamed it the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba, and began to extend the line to Puget Sound. In Clontarf, families arrived on Hill’s trains nearly every day to begin their new lives.

On the East Coast, Irish immigrant families, working in mines, mills, stone quarries, and factories, heard Bishop Ireland’s promise of affordable land, a Catholic church with a resident priest, and a community of Irish Americans. There, they hoped, they would be free from the immigrant bias that existed in their towns and cities. They came from Concord, New Hampshire; Salem, Massachusetts; and Southington, Connecticut. Irish families from Wisconsin, Minnesota, and other states joined them in the farmlands surrounding Clontarf.

The Catholic Church was fundamental to the Clontarf colony. Father Anatole Oster was assigned as the first priest in 1878 and he named the parish St. Malachy for an Irish saint. Father Oster was a native of France, which pleased the French-Canadian members of the parish who had farms north of Clontarf. In accordance with Ireland’s vision, Father Oster attended to both the spiritual and practical needs of the Clontarf residents. He played a hands-on role, helping the farmers plant their crops and build their homes on the prairie.

Very quickly, Clontarf grew into a vibrant village. Adding to the lumberyard and general store that opened in 1876, several businesses sprung up in response to the influx of Irish immigrants. A second general store, a sewing machine shop, a yard goods store, a carpentry shop, and a blacksmith were soon joined by other businesses and professional services. In 1878, Clontarf Public School District #25 was organized, a grain elevator opened, and construction of St. Malachy Church and rectory was completed. The colony grew so dramatically that Clontarf Township split, forming Tara Township to the west of town.

The colonists adapted to the conditions of life on the prairie. Grasshopper invasions, grass fires, and failed crops presented frequent challenges. Farmers learned that the area’s lighter soil lent itself to the cultivation of hay and grasses, which could be used as feed for their livestock. These crops could also be sold. Feed and bedding for animals in a “horse-powered” society was always in demand.

Railroad transportation made commercial hay production possible; Clontarf hay was used by the Chicago Fire Department. Bluegrass seeds were shipped to Kentucky, the home of Kentucky bluegrass. Clontarf earned the name “Hay Capital of the World.” In the early 1910s, for many farmers in Tara and Clontarf townships, hay was their cash crop.

By this time, Bishop Ireland’s goal for Clontarf was satisfied; he had brought Irish from eastern cities to rural Minnesota. Many thrived, gaining spiritual, economic, and personal freedoms. For some, Clontarf was a destination—a place to stay for many generations. For others, it was only a stage in the migratory process of the Irish across America. They moved on, along the railway lines, as the northwestern United States developed agricultural, mining, and industrial communities.

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