North Dakota boom towns…

Marvin Baker

It’s obvious that in the last decade, Williston, Watford City, New Town and Stanley have been boom towns because of all the oil activities that was going on there.

Williston grew so fast that the population ballooned to 38,000 and the economy almost caught Fargo’s, with its population of 120,000.

Likewise with Watford City. The population there went from 1,300 in 2000, to about 8,000 by 2015. There were people all over, Dollar General stores were popping up and local law enforcement had to hire lots of cops because there were some bad hombres in Watford City during the boom.

Regardless, so much money was floating around that Watford City’s economy grew to and surpassed that of Jamestown, with it’s population of 15,000, strong ag economy and a university in town.

It’s tapered off now, but Watford City isn’t the same place it was just 20 years ago. Some people who have been away for a few years, came back to find a community they didn’t recognize.

20. Zap, North Dakota     • Municipal status:  City     • Population:  157 One version of the history of the city's name is accepted as true. The city had a coal mine at the edge of town, and the official in charge of naming new areas at the time knew of a town with coal mines in Scotland that was named Zapp. So it only made sense to him to name the city with the same name, dropping one "p" as a way of Americanizing it.     ALSO READ: The Most Common Town Names in the US

Stanley and New Town grew the same way. Because Mountrail County was in the middle of the boom, oil companies set up shop in both communities and they grew rapidly as well. But not as fast or as much as the previous mentioned.

Stanley was big enough to absorb most of the influx. New Town was not and had serious growing pains.

New Town was a quiet reservation fishing village in 2008, but became an almost out-of-control growth by 2011. But the number of people, the crime and the money started to fade away.

These haven’t been the only examples in North Dakota. In fact, during the last oil boom that started roundabout 1980, Dickinson was where the action was.

People from all over the country converged on Dickinson and Stark County to work the southwest oilfields.

34. North Dakota     • Oldest town:  Pembina     • Year of first settlement:  1797 Pembina was established as a fur-trading post by the French. The Hudson Bay Company built a new post in 1803 and operated out of Pembina under the assumption that it was located in Canada. However, when the first international boundary marker west of the Great Lakes was placed near Pembina by the U.S. in 1823, putting Pembina in the United States, Hudson Bay Company decamped to what is now Winnipeg.     ALSO READ: Hottest Businesses to Franchise in America

By 1983, there was some speculation that if things kept going, Dickinson’s population was going to reach 100,000. It never did, but what was once a sleepy little cattle town, suddenly had the hustle and bustle of west Texas.

The good news about the oil activity is that all of the communities named here have seen long-term growth in some capacity.

The bad news is that increased crime and cost of living came along with that. It’s hard to understand how a teacher or waitress could make it in such a hyper-inflated economy.

North Dakota     • City with the longest name:  Spiritwood Lake     • Population:  109 A large chunk of the city of Spiritwood Lake, North Dakota is taken up by Spiritwood Lake itself. The town is home to just 109 people, but it still offers reasons to visit. The lake allows for outdoor activities like fishing and boating, and there is a local resort and casino.     ALSO READ: The Most Common Town Names in the US

One thing the New Town School Board did was purchase several houses and apartments in the community and teachers could live there free as an incentive, otherwise the cost of living could have eaten them alive.

There are other communities in the state that have seen the same thing, although not on the magnitude as Williston or Watford City.

As an example, in 1970, Beulah was a community of about 1,300, but by 1980, it had grown to 3,000 and would peak in 1983 at 7,000 plus.

That same year, 1983, a report in the Beulah Beacon showed that crime statistics rivaled that of the city of Fargo.

A power plant was being built north of town and one was going up south of town and thousands of workers were needed to get those plants up and running.

They all came to Beulah, with some spilling over into Hazen, Zap, Center and Stanton. And, it’s common knowledge that many of the workers commuted the 80 miles daily from Bismarck and Mandan.

34. North Dakota: Dunn County     • Monthly cost of living:  $3,970     • Monthly housing costs:  $1,003 (25.3% of total)     • Median household income:  $70,500 ($5,875 per month)     • May 2020 unemployment rate:  6.6%     • Largest city or town in county:  Killdeer              ALSO READ: America's 25 Least Affordable Housing Markets

We don’t often think of West Fargo as a boom town, but consider this. In 1960, West Fargo had all of about 500 residents. Now, it’s the fifth largest city in North Dakota with almost 40,000 people.

Strong retail, manufacturing and the Minnesota state line nearby all helped this community grow like it has.

And what’s most interesting about West Fargo that unlike the communities of the west, it is growing and sustaining that growth whereas the oil boom communities peaked and have since leveled off.

Gwinner was just a small farming village of 200 people in Sargent County until the Bobcat skid-steer loader came along in 1960 and popularity pushed manufacturing.

The community grew steadily and is now approaching 1,000. Unfortunately, Melroe needed far more people because it was working multiple shifts. As a result, workers were coming from Lisbon, Wyndmere, Oakes, LaMoure and even Edgeley and Ellendale in an effort to keep things rolling.

Another mini boom happened in Langdon between 1970 and 1990 during and after missile fields were built around Grand Forks Air Force Base

K. William Boyer is the Managing Editor of the Devils Lake News Journal. He can be reached at kboyer@gannett.com, or by phone at (701) 662-2127.  

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