The city of Fargo received a Valentine on Feb. 14, 1872: the name Fargo, which won out in a bit of a lovers’ quarrel to supercede the town’s former name, Centralia.
Back in its early history, the small railroad-driven settlement had an identity crisis. In a June 4, 1950, article (reprinted June 22, 1975) detailing the origins of the town’s name, The Forum said officials with the Northern Pacific railroad, citizens and government agencies, among others, had taken to calling the town “Fargo” prior to its official designation.
A group of young attorneys had a different idea. Gordon J. Keeney, Henry S. Back and Jacob Lowell Jr. circulated a petition in 1871 to send to the U.S. Post Office asking that their new settlement be named Centralia. Keeney was acting postmaster of Centralia. The Post Office approved the petition on Oct. 6, 1871.
Keeney and his group at the time lived in an area dubbed “Fargo in the Timber,” a ramshackle and somewhat lawless settlement that was a rival to “Fargo on the Prairie,” which was directly affiliated with the Northern Pacific Railroad.
Centralia was to remain in official use for only a few months. At roughly the same time Keeney’s petition would have been circulating and pending approval, the Northern Pacific Railroad and its land-acquisition auxiliary, the Lake Superior & Puget Sound Land company, had been devising their own title.
On Sept. 22, 1871, an NP station agent in Moorhead received a telegram reading “Town on east side named Moorhead, on west side Fargo” from Thomas H. Canfield, an NP director and the president of Lake Superior & Puget Sound Land.
A town by any other name, it seems, wouldn’t be so sweet. A new petition was drawn up for renaming the city Fargo and was ultimately approved by the Post Office on Feb. 14, 1872.
Three days after that, “Fargo in the Timber” was raided by men from the 18th U.S. Infantry who were called in to clear the camp. It was suspected at the time that the railroad was behind the raid, a suspicion that discouraged settlement of Fargo for years to come.
The name Fargo came from William G. Fargo, who was part of a group of East Coast financiers of Northern Pacific Railroad. Born poor in Pompey, N.Y., in 1818, he worked his way up as a mail carrier in rural New York.
He turned his successes there into a banking empire that covered a large portion of the globe, the 1950 Forum article says, and the company he co-founded, Wells, Fargo and Company Express, is a precursor to both Wells Fargo and American Express.
It’s likely Fargo never set foot in Fargo, but he did put forth $500 for the formation of the city’s first newspaper, the Fargo Express. In addition to giving his name, Fargo gave extensively to charity and served as mayor of Buffalo, N.Y., where Fargo Avenue is also named for him.