Digging up Fargo-Moorhead's history and rumors
FARGO – There’s a circus elephant buried under Horace Mann Roosevelt Elementary.
Well, actually, they just found some train tracks.
The Fargo-Moorhead area is rife with history, and rumors abound about what’s sealed beneath the surface after years of development.
But the truth, it seems, is not as strange as fiction. While historians and local experts can confirm a few things, it’s likely the train car and the elephant are nothing more than myth.
“Sometimes people are attracted to ideas that give a romantic past to a place,” said David Danbom, a retired North Dakota State University history professor. “It’s not to say they’re false, but people like to believe it.”
The rumor about the elephant, which supposedly died in the early part of the 20th century before being buried under the Horace Mann schoolyard, seems to have little basis in fact.
But the buried train car is likely an exaggeration of the tracks that city workers found while upgrading streets downtown, said City Director of Engineering Mark Bittner.
The Fargo-Moorhead electric rail system ran from 1904 to 1937, said Clay County archivist Mark Peihl.
Though Moorhead residents were originally skeptical about the idea, The Forum reported that 10,000 people rode the rails on its first day of service.
Most of the rail line was ripped up for scrap metal during World War II, but some of it remained.
A few years ago, city crews dug some up on 12th Avenue North near the NDSU Library.
“We managed to score a bunch of pieces of rail there,” Peihl said.
A tangled tale
There also are rumors about “drunk chutes” near the Red River in Moorhead.
The chutes, as the rumor goes, were trapdoors in saloon floors that could be used to drop unruly patrons into the river.
“That’s an often-told story which I cannot find any evidence of,” Peihl said.
The saloons, however, were very real. Peihl explains that about 30 had popped up in Moorhead by the turn of the 20th century. They stuck to that side of the river because North Dakota, which became a state in 1889, originally barred alcohol.
“Except for the two colleges, the saloons were all Moorhead really had going for it,” Peihl said.
Fargo made up for its lack of alcohol with a bevy of brothels.
That symbiotic “liquor and lust” relationship made it relatively easy to drink in Moorhead and head across the river for more salacious activity, said Ron Ramsay, an associate architecture professor at NDSU.
One of the saloons, called the “Rathskeller Over the Rhine,” had a cellar at river level, Ramsay said.
Ramsay said he thinks the “drunk chute” was actually a tunnel going the other way – Canadian bootleggers could have used it to bring liquor up into the saloon during the Prohibition years.
Mason jars at Trefoil Park
At this point, Ramsay said, Fargo has been developed so thoroughly that anything underneath it probably holds little archeological value.
But there might be some sentimental use for the jars supposedly buried in Trefoil Park.
A Boy Scout troop known as the Trefoil Club helped organize the park’s construction in the 1930s.
Peihl said the troop planted at least 100 trees at the park, located on the 1300 block of Elm Street North.
Each troop member made copies of their records –their Boy Scout ranks and awards – and put them in mason jars to bury under the trees.
“So presumably, in the roots of those trees today, those jars might still be buried,” Peihl said.