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Founder of Steele, N.D., tried to make it capital

Steele, N.D., was once in contention to be North Dakota's capital city. The man who led this movement founded the city of Steele and was later involved in the country's most sensational murder trial in the first decade of the 20th century.


Steele, N.D., was once in contention to be North Dakota's capital city. The man who led this movement founded the city of Steele and was later involved in the country's most sensational murder trial in the first decade of the 20th century.

Wilbur Fisk Steele was born July 1, 1844, to Elijah and Emily Steele in Fowler, N.Y. Elijah was a farmer who moved his family in the 1850s to near Lake Winnebago in eastern Wisconsin. It was here that Wilbur Steele received his education.

When the Civil War broke out, the Union hired Wilbur Steele to run trains in Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky. After returning to Wisconsin in March 1865, Steele was hired as master of transportation for the LaCrosse & Southern Minnesota Railroad in 1866-67.

He then moved to Racine, Wis., and for the next several years worked for the Western Union Railroad. Later, he became passenger agent for the Michigan, Southern & Lake Shore Railroad based in Milwaukee.

One of Steele's influential friends was Pittsburgh coal tycoon William Thaw. Thaw was the largest stockholder of the Pennsylvania Railroad and also owned considerable stock in the Northern Pacific Railroad. He was looking to buy land in the west and hired Steele to be his agent.


Steele traveled west into Dakota Territory in 1877, taking soil samples along the Northern Pacific route from Fargo to present-day Steele. He sent the samples to a Philadelphia soil analyst. Steele wanted to know which of the soils was best for growing wheat.

A soil sample taken from the farthest west was the best, so Steele purchased land there from the railroad. On April 28, 1878, he broke up and planted 550 acres. On June 30, the Northern Pacific deeded to him a section of land adjacent to his farm for a town site.

Steele established a post office in 1880 and platted the town site the following year. When the legislature named Steele the county seat of Kidder County in 1881, he built a courthouse and a hotel.

Steele's population grew from 96 in 1880 to 156 in 1881, and to 400 in 1882. It reached about 2,000 the following year. The town of Steele was granted a city charter in 1883; Steele was elected mayor. He had also built a railway station, a grain elevator and a brick factory.

Early in 1883, the territorial legislature decided to move the capital from Yankton to a place more central in the territory. Steele believed his new town was the ideal location. Steele submitted his town for consideration to a nine-man commission that was established to determine the site. He provided the commission with a deed for the necessary 320 acres and a certified check for $100,000.

He was also busy building an elaborate three-story hotel, so legislators would have a place to stay. The commission visited the town of Steele and was impressed. On the second ballot, Alexander McKenzie cast his vote to have Steele named the capital city, but later convinced a majority of the commission to vote for Bismarck.

Because of his bid to get the capital located to the town of Steele, Steele found himself in financial difficulty. He sold his hotel to Kidder County to serve as the new courthouse. One of his biggest detractors in his bid to get the capital located in Steele was Alanson Edwards, editor of the Fargo Argus. Steele went to Fargo to confront the editor.

It was reported that both men drew their revolvers. Cooler heads prevailed. When Steele left Edwards' office, they had become friends.


In 1884, Steele was elected to the territorial legislature, which convened on Jan. 13, 1885, for the first time in Bismarck.

One of the big issues was women's suffrage. When it came time for Steele to vote, he said, "Mr. Speaker, I am sorry, I cannot support this bill." That's when his wife rose from the gallery and shouted "WILBUR!" Steele voted "aye," and the bill passed. It was later vetoed by Gov. Gilbert Pierce.

In 1885, Steele sold a lot of his holdings and moved to Minneapolis. He marketed a railroad car heating device, which he invented. Later in the 1880s and throughout much of the 1890s, he raised horses in Chicago, many of which were prize-winning trotting and harness horses. He later moved to New York City, where his occupation was listed as "manufacturer."

In February 1907, he was part of the jury pool in the Harry Thaw murder case. Harry Thaw was the son of William Thaw, the coal and railroad baron who had hired Wilbur Steele to be his agent in Dakota Territory. Why the prosecution allowed Steele to be a juror in this case remains a mystery.

Harry Thaw was a playboy, infatuated with New York chorus girls. One of the girls with whom he became obsessed was Evelyn Nesbit. Thaw continued after her in pursuit of marriage until she finally relented. She reveled to her husband that she lost her virginity to Stanford White, a famous architect who designed Madison Square Garden.

Thaw was consumed with rage over this knowledge and plotted for the opportunity to exact his revenge. On June 25, 1906, at a crowded rooftop theater at Madison Square Garden, Thaw went up to White and shot him three times in the face, killing him.

When the case came to trial early in 1907, there was no question who murdered Stanford White. Thaw pleaded insanity and, after much deliberation, the jury, which included Steele, found him "not guilty by reason of insanity."

At the conclusion of the trial, Steele said, "I believed Thaw to be insane, as the evidence tended to show." Steele also implied that a number of the jurors received threats and bribes. Thaw was sent to a Manhattan mental hospital.


Steele died in New York City on Feb. 1, 1917.

"Did You Know That" is a Sunday column that focuses on interesting people, places and events that had an impact on North Dakota, or even the country.

Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to cjeriksmoen@cableone.net Founder of Steele, N.D., tried to make it capital Curtis Eriksmoen 20071202

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