A former Grand Forks mayor maximized his efforts for the nine days he served as governor

Inforum history columnist Curt Eriksmoen begins the story of Grand Forks politician Michael McCormack.

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Photo by Michael Vosburg, Forum Photo Editor. Artwork by Troy Becker.

FARGO — Even though a Grand Forks politician served as governor for only nine days, he was very busy during that short period of time.  While governor of Dakota Territory, Michael McCormack signed a number of bills, vetoed a bill and even pardoned a man who had been sent to prison.  McCormack was very active during the 23 years he lived in what is now North Dakota.  He was a riverboat captain, a farmer, an owner and operator of a number of businesses, active in several civic organizations, office holder of city, county, and state positions, and a candidate for U.S. Congress.  He was so admired in Grand Forks he was unopposed the three times he ran for mayor.

Michael McCormack
Contributed / Digital Horizons

Michael Louis McCormack was born on Nov. 26, 1847, on a farm near Friendsville, in Northeastern Pennsylvania. His parents, Patrick and Jane McCormack, were immigrants from Ireland. In 1852, the family relocated to a farm in the Minnesota Valley, southwest of St. Paul. In 1853, Sibley County was organized and Patrick was elected justice of the peace. He later opened a store in nearby Washington Lake Township. Michael earned a rudimentary education and, when he grew older, he assisted his father in the store.

As a teenager, Michael became friends with Alexander Griggs who also lived in Sibley County and was a steamboat captain on the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. Griggs taught Michael how to operate a steamboat on several of his trips on the rivers. In 1869, James J. Hill formed the Red River Transportation Company to transport goods to the Hudson Bay Company in Fort Garry/Winnipeg and hired Griggs to build a steamboat on the Red River so that supplies could be shipped to Fort Garry. In looking for a place that would serve as his permanent base for his steamboat operation, Griggs chose the site where the Red Lake River flowed into the Red River. That place was a tiny hamlet recently given the name Grand Forks.

Alexander Griggs
Contributed / Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

During the winter of 1870-71, Griggs returned to Henderson, his hometown in Sibley County and, in the spring of 1871, he convinced several of his friends, including Michael McCormack, to move to Grand Forks. With the arrival of the people to Grand Forks, recruited by Griggs, the population of the village was about 50. McCormack started out by clerking at a store owned by the Hudson Bay Company and when Griggs received the steamboat Alpha, he selected McCormack to be the chief officer of the vessel. As captain of the Alpha, McCormack transported freight and passengers to and from Fort Garry.

Soon after arriving in Grand Forks, McCormack met Jennie Strong, a sister of Mrs. Griggs, they were married in the fall of 1871. At first, the newlyweds lived with Jennie’s mother, Sophia Strong, and younger sister, Edith, until McCormack built his own house nearby. Sophia was separated from her husband Lucius who died in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1889. She was living in St. Paul when her oldest daughter, Ettie, married Griggs in 1865. Sophia obtained a homestead on the north side of Grand Forks in 1870 soon after Griggs and Ettie moved there.


Sophia deeded much of her land to McCormack after he married Jennie, and her son-in-law farmed part of the land and platted the rest into lots as a part of the town of Grand Forks. Besides farming, McCormack continued to pilot the Alpha up and down the Red River. In 1873, the Dakota Territorial Legislature created Grand Forks County, and McCormack, along with Griggs, and O. S. Freeman, were appointed to choose a town to be the county seat and they chose Grand Forks. Also, that year, he worked part time for the mercantile business Griggs, Walsh & Company.

By the mid-1870s, railroad tracks to Winnipeg were being laid and Griggs and McCormack realized that soon their days of hauling freight and people by steamboat would be ending. In 1876, officers for Grand Forks County were elected and McCormack became county treasurer. He also organized the first school district for the county. In Grand Forks, he was elected alderman and was a member of the school board. Soon after McCormack became active in local politics he was also considered a high-profile politician in the Democratic Party.

In 1880, the Democratic convention for Dakota Territory was held in Sioux Falls and McCormack was endorsed by the party to be their candidate for U.S. Congress. His Republican opponent was Richard F. Pettigrew, a popular lawyer and land developer in Sioux Falls. Since Pettigrew had been elected three times to the Dakota Legislature he was well known throughout the territory.

Richard Pettigrew
Contributed / Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Another factor in Pettigrew’s favor was the fact that the voters in Dakota Territory were predominantly Republican. Nevertheless, McCormack enthusiastically threw himself into the race, crisscrossing the vast territory in horse and buggy. Just as his campaign was picking up steam in September, his wife Jennie gave birth to a baby she named Mary Virginia McCormack. Suffering from complications of the birth, Jennie died three weeks later, on Oct. 4. McCormack, in his grief of losing his young wife and with a three-week-old baby and two other young children to care for, he stopped campaigning and Pettigrew coasted to a 17,664 to 9,343 victory. Pettigrew, in 1889, became the first U.S. senator elected in South Dakota history.

In 1880, Griggs and McCormack oversaw the construction of a large mansard-roofed building on DeMers Street that was used as a hotel. On February 22, 1882, McCormack and a group of partners completed construction agreements to build the Grand Forks Roller Mill Company, a large 150-barrel roller process flouring mill that was capable of producing 200 barrels of flour daily, the largest flour mill in the Red River Valley. Since McCormack owned a controlling interest in the stock, he was named president and general manager.

Later that year, McCormack was elected mayor of Grand Forks. He was reelected two more times, serving until 1885, and during his time in office, the rapidly growing town experienced many major developments. In 1882, a new love entered McCormack’s life, and he became engaged to Adele “Della” Lyons, daughter of the wealthy St. Paul lumberman Maurice Lyons. Maurice’s brother, Samuel Lyons, was a good friend of McCormack.

Shortly after the engagement, Sophia Strong, McCormack’s former mother-in-law, sued McCormack for alleged fraudulent withholding of real estate which she deeded to him in trust, the value of which she said to be nearly $100,000, which is worth about $3 million today. Unfortunately, I have been unable to locate information regarding the results of Sophia’s suit. On Oct. 3, 1882, Adele and McCormack got married.

In 1884, McCormack helped organize the Grand Forks National Bank and the shareholders appointed him as president. With Dakota Territorial elections coming up and having accomplished many achievements at the local level, McCormack decided it was once again time to get involved in politics on a larger scale.


(We will conclude the story of Michael McCormack next week.)

Curt Eriksmoen has been writing a weekly history column for The Forum since 2004. He has taught at both the high school and college level and served as social studies coordinator for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction for 13 years. He is the author of nine books and is know for inventing barroom team trivia in 1974. Reach him at or calling 701-793-8508.
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