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Did You Know That: Lured by mining deals, Towner died prematurely, broke

One of the most successful real estate dealers in northern Dakota Territory was a man deemed to be honest, fair, and hard-working. Because of people's respect and admiration, Oscar Towner was elected to the legislature and also had a county and t...

One of the most successful real estate dealers in northern Dakota Territory was a man deemed to be honest, fair, and hard-working. Because of people's respect and admiration, Oscar Towner was elected to the legislature and also had a county and town named in his honor.

Towner made a small fortune from his Dakota real estate sales, but when he learned that many people were making large fortunes from mining across the border in Montana, he could not resist the challenge. He lost almost everything through his mining dealings, and he appeared to change. Actions he now took were totally out of character. When he died prematurely in 1897, his death was attributed "to drinking," and he was buried in an unmarked grave.

In October 1886, Towner sold his McHenry County ranch and moved to Minneapolis, where he had a number of friends and acquaintances. While living there, Towner learned that John H. Shober, a prominent Helena, Mont., lawyer was heading up some profitable mining ventures. Towner moved to Helena, and because he shared a lot in common with Shober, the two men became good friends. Both men were active Democrats, both shared pro-Confederate sympathies, and both had served in the Dakota territorial legislature.

In the latter 1880s, "about 50 millionaires lived in Helena, more per capita than in any city in the world," and many of these people were friends of Shober. On April 30, 1887, Towner, Shober, and four of Shober's friends chartered the Montana Apex Consolidated Mining Company. The "capital stock" of the company was set at $12 million. One of the charter members of Apex was Nathan S. Vestal, a former Southerner who had made a fortune at prospecting in Montana.

In June, the six Apex investors, along with Towner's good friend, George W. Warder, chartered a second company, the Monument Mining Company of Montana. The capital stock of this company was set at $10 million. Warder and Towner first met in Chillicothe, Mo., when Warder set up his law practice in Towner's hometown. By 1887, Warder was a successful lawyer, real estate investor and theater owner.


Besides his mining dealings, Towner also became involved with Parnell C. Cowling, of Kansas City, in real estate purchases. Towner would often sell a portion of the land he had purchased from Cowling to Shober.

Deciding to plunge even deeper into Montana mining interests, Towner, Vestal and Cowling made a big splash in August when they and three other investors purchased the Winscott mine for $40,000. Newspapers reported that it was "one of the largest mining sales ever made in the vicinity of Helena." After only three months, work on the mine was suspended, "owing to financial difficulties."

By 1888, expenses for running Towner's mining ventures exceeded what he was receiving from valuable mineral extractions. Nearly broke and leaving bills unpaid, Towner moved to Kansas City and returned to selling real estate. In 1889, he became involved in several legal litigations. In February, two different summons were issued by Vestal, claiming that Towner owed him money for expenses and labor involving dealings with their joint mining operations. In October, Towner, along with Cowling and Shober, were sued by a Missouri landowner over land that the owner sold, but only received partial payment.

When North Dakota became a state in 1889, Towner returned his focus to the place he had called home for seven years. Knowing there was still good, available land in the north-central region of the state, he hoped to recoup the losses he had sustained from his mining ventures.

Through a Chicago-based syndicate called the Northwestern Farm Land Company, Towner traveled the country promoting the sale of farmland in six counties, five in North Dakota and one in Minnesota. Towner's pitch was to entice German emigrants to purchase this land and grow barley for malting purposes on their farms. The syndicate would then buy the barley.

On behalf of the company, Towner reportedly purchased 250,000 acres in Nelson, Towner, Ramsey, Steele and Bottineau counties in North Dakota, and Norman County in Minnesota. For legal advice, he relied on Arthur Noyes, a former Grand Forks lawyer who was now practicing law in Minneapolis. Noyes was later sent to federal prison for illegal practices.

To assist him in his enterprise, Towner hired Bert Haney, a Grand Forks real estate agent, and sent him to the Pacific Northwest to urge potential investors to buy stock in the company. In December 1891, Towner returned to North Dakota and convinced many, including the press, about his wonderful new company. On Jan. 27, 1892, the St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote a glowing article about Towner and the farm company he was fronting.

Two days later, Towner was reported missing, and "foul play" was suspected because he had large amounts of cash with him. The last known person to see him was Noyes, who said Towner boarded a train in Minneapolis and was traveling to Grand Forks. For weeks, the whereabouts of Towner were unknown. On Feb. 27, a bombshell was dropped by newspapers with the headline "Off for Cuba." Towner did not go to Grand Forks. Instead, the train he boarded was headed to New Orleans. Haney had warned Towner that authorities from Tacoma were out to arrest him "for alleged criminal financial transactions."


Of the four arrest warrants, the most serious "involved the loss of some thousands of dollars given him by a woman whom he induced to leave her family in Washington and with whom he unceremoniously parted company some time ago on a steamer off Los Angeles." I could not find any mention of Towner until 1895, when he showed up on the registry of a Fort Worth, Texas hotel.

In the winter of 1896, Towner returned to North Dakota, a broken man with no money. His family had left him and he died on June 9, 1897. He was buried in a Larimore cemetery in an unmarked grave.

"Did You Know That" is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of  Fargo.  Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at: cjeriksmoen@cableone.net .

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