Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version



Published in Great Plains Quarterly 6:4 (Fall 1986). Copyright © 1986 Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


John C. Hudson's new book, Plains Country Towns, deals with the dynamics of town building in a 20,000 square-mile area of north central North Dakota. Between 1880 and 1920 railroad colonization agents and independent speculators platted over 500 town sites. Three railroads, the Soo Line, the Northern Pacific, and the Great Northern, planned towns at roughly ten-mile intervals along their main and branch lines. Sometimes, where tracks intersected, they built neighboring promotions. No one expected all the projects to succeed. They were a device used by the railroads to effectively dominate marketing activities. Hudson, a Northwestern University professor of geography, has written extensively about upper Great Plains country towns. He notes that the North Dakota railroad towns that lasted were neither products of a tendency to "agglomerate" nor of the "attractiveness" of their plans. "What caused trade centers to grow, instead, was the obliteration of all nearby business sites that took place when the railroad announced a new town," he concludes. "That, effectively, drove merchants out of their scattered locations and into the railroad towns. Railroads made the hinterlands repel business activity because their town sites were the only places where merchants could operate effectively" (p. 38).