Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

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State Historic Site Spotlight: Cannonball Stage Station

The State Historical Society of North Dakota owns and preserves 57 state historic sites. Some are well-known staffed sites with buildings and interpreters, while others are lesser known remote sites. For many people, the Cannonball Stage Station probably falls into the latter category. Located about 15 miles southeast of Carson or 18 miles southwest of Raleigh in Grant County, the site is situated off 53rd Avenue SW and is bound by the Cannonball River and plowed farmland. During summer 2019, two new historic interpretive panels were added to the site.

green field with state historical site markers

This site overview displays the wooden sign erected by the State Historical Society in 1974 and the two new interpretive signs added in August 2019.

Historic features at the site consist of three depressions marking buildings from the Cannonball Stage Station while it was in operation from 1877 to 1880.

aerial photo with red arrows pointing to areas of interest

Still photo from drone footage taken in October 2018 by Research Archaeologist Timothy Reed. Historic features are identified with arrows.

The arrows at the top mark two dugouts believed to be from a log building and another unknown structure. The arrow at the bottom identifies the rectangular outline of the barn. Modern features include a sheltered picnic area. After gold was confirmed in the Black Hills by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s Army Expedition of 1874 and a treaty opened the area to Euro-Americans, a road was desired to move people and supplies to the area. Bismarck was a favored rail end, and the Bismarck to Deadwood Stage Trail was established to move people, mail, and freight to the Black Hills.

The Northwestern Express, Stage, and Transportation Company and several other independent freighters began operating out of Bismarck in 1877. On average, the journey to Deadwood lasted around 40 hours and encompassed 200 miles. Stages ran from weekly, to biweekly, to triweekly, and eventually daily. The fare was around $23.

The Cannonball Stage Station was the fifth stop along the Bismarck to Deadwood Trail. Several stations on the trail were equipped to be overnight stops and provided meals, but most stations were just places for stage drivers to get a fresh team of horses and for passengers to stretch their legs. The Cannonball Stage Station was presumably one of the latter. While stage stations were typically crude structures, they offered respite for weary travelers and a break from the weather, close quarters, and other elements faced on the journey.

black and white photo of a building and a group of people in front

The Weller stage stop, located in McLean County, Dakota Territory, ca. 1883–89, is an example of a standard stage station at the time. As it was bad etiquette to rest your head on another passenger, travelers had to sleep upright in the passenger coaches. While most stage stations offered only a dirt floor to rest on, breaks were presumably a welcome interruption in travel, regardless of amenities. SHSND SA A4193-00001

Passenger coaches on the Bismarck-Deadwood Stage Trail were most often Concord coaches, usually drawn by four horses, or sometimes six for rough terrain. The coaches were constructed for rough travel and built to endure strain. Travel on the Bismarck-Deadwood Stage Trail was generally safe. Dangers included weather, prairie fire, and stage robbery. Outriders and shotgun messengers were employed to ward off “road agents” (bandits) from attacking the stage line after a string of holdups during the summer of 1877. Outriders rode in front and behind the wagon. Shotgun messengers rode beside the driver and were well armed. The term “riding shotgun” was derived from shotgun messengers.

black and white photo of a horse drawn wagon with mail and people on top

A driver sat at the front of the wagon with his legs braced on the “dashboard.” Mail and light baggage were usually carried on top and held in place by an iron roof rail and ropes. Heavier baggage was usually carried on the rear. Some passengers, at their own risk, rode on top of the coach. Historian Harold E. Briggs records passengers describing a trip on a stagecoach as “not unlike the swell of the ocean.” SHSND SA 0097-46

The Bismarck-Deadwood operated commercially until 1880. The trail and the Cannonball Stage Station were abandoned when railroad expansion reached Pierre. Ruts from the wagon trains can still be seen in some places, including at the Bismarck-Deadwood Stage Trail Historic Marker site east of Flasher. For another view of the Cannonball Stage Station site, check out Timothy Reed’s past blog that includes drone footage filmed in October 2018.


Guest Blogger: Erica Scherr

Erica Scherr headshotErica Scherr is the cultural resources assistant in the State Historical Society’s Archaeology & Historic Preservation Division. She works with the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) site files and researches for various projects, including nominations for the National Register of Historic Places.

Securing Echoes of the Past: Safety at the State Museum

In the late 1840s a recent Scottish emigrant changed careers quite by accident. Unfulfilled working as an employee of a Chicago barrel-making company, he moved 50 miles north to Dundee Township, Illinois, where he engaged in cooperage as an entrepreneur. While collecting wood for use in his barrel production, he happened upon a clandestine group of men actively involved in a counterfeiting operation. Careful surveillance of the group and the appropriately timed notification of the local sheriff began the transformation of Allan Pinkerton from barrel maker into the most well-known security expert in the 19th century.

large ornate gravestone with "Pinkerton" and a quote

Allan Pinkerton is buried in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago. Part of his epitaph reads, “Devoting himself for a generation to the prevention and detection of crime."

Having a general knowledge of the backgrounds of my fellow security team members, I would suspect our collective stories are more like Allan Pinkerton’s than not. The backgrounds of the security officers include, but are not limited to, security, construction, emergency medicine, military, high tech, consulting, juvenile corrections, and law enforcement. Many divergent paths have brought us to a common place in time with the primary goals of assuring the safety and security of both visitors and staff at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum and the protection of its holdings and property. The myriad of experience and training that resides in the collective ethos of the security team produces a synergistic environment of protection for the ND Heritage Center. All my coworkers seem to have a genuine interest in one or more of the different aspects of historical inquiry that is on display or stored at State Museum.

A primary responsibility of the security team is to maintain a presence on the floor of the State Museum during hours open to the public. The time spent on the floor is a critical part of our daily duties. Time spent with “boots on the ground” helps provide customer service and safety in many different ways. Engaging visitors in order to find out a little about their story is an incredibly empowering experience. Pared down to the foundational building blocks, isn’t “story” the bedrock of what we do at the ND Heritage Center? In addition to customer interaction, careful observance of the physical environment of the museum is of prime importance. Promoting conduct appropriate to a cultural institution ensures visitor safety and collection protection. In addition to providing a physical presence in the publicly accessible areas of the ND Heritage Center, security personnel make scheduled inspections of mechanical, telecom, office, artifact, and archival storage areas.

Security has a ubiquitous electronic presence not only here at the ND Heritage Center but also at many state historic sites. The State Historical Society’s security control room is the epicenter of monitoring and responding to alarm and trouble notifications, video systems, and telephone calls. Using a football analogy, when assigned to the control room, it is advantageous to take on a linebacker’s attitude of playing with your “head on a swivel.” As one of the primary points of ingress and egress to the facility, the security control center is a hub of activity during the day. As opposed to encountering the public at the main entrances, we have the privilege of greeting employees and their guests, contractors, and deliveries in addition to issuing badges and the aforementioned system monitoring responsibilities.

male security guard in maroon sweater and glasses in control room with monitors

Keith monitoring the State Historical Society’s security system.

Understanding the importance of preserving and presenting North Dakota’s place in history is at the heart of why we are here. In his novel Requiem for a Nun, author William Faulkner famously stated, “All of us labor in webs spun long before we were born, webs of heredity and environment, of desire and consequence, of history and eternity. Haunted by wrong turns and roads not taken, we pursue images perceived as new but whose providence dates to the dim dramas of childhood, which are themselves but ripples of consequence echoing down the generations.” For me, it is salient to create a safe and friendly environment for those who choose to listen for those faint echoes.


Guest Blogger: Keith Smith

Keith Smith with bearOriginally from southern California, Keith Smith moved to Bismarck in 2017 to be closer to his grandkids, following significant stops in Phoenix, Arizona, and Logan, Utah. He became a security officer at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum in spring 2019. He has been married for 38 years and graduated from the University of Wyoming—Go Pokes!