The second town to be organized west of the Missouri River in what is now North Dakota soared to well over 1,000 people in its first year of existence. However, it is now a ghost town, and the only inhabitant is said to be a ghost.
The town of Sims was organized two years after Mandan, N.D., was incorporated in 1881, and by 1884, Sims was the most vibrant community in the area. By that time, it had "three general stores, two real estate offices, seven saloons, two churches, two boarding houses, the Northern Pacific (NP) depot, a school, drug store, jewelry store, hotel, post office, lumberyard, banking services, brickyard, and the brick company hospital.”
Sims also served as the headquarters for the Northern Pacific Coal Co. (NPCC), which operated several coal mines in the area. This area first attracted attention in 1873 when Dennis Hannifin went looking for a choice piece of land to entice settlers to move to that location. While on his search, he discovered a large outcropping of coal 35 miles west of Mandan, and he became the first white man to discover coal in what is now North Dakota.
He gathered some people together to help him mine the coal, and soon after they began their work, his crew was encircled by a band of hostile Dakota Sioux. The men dug trenches and fortified their position with sod, and were able to keep the Native Americans at bay for two weeks until they left.
Hannifin could have become very wealthy by working the coal field he had discovered because, at that time, the NP Railroad had reached Bismarck, only 40 miles away. Not only could NP haul coal to places along its route, but it also needed vast amounts of coal to fuel its locomotives.
Hannifin may have been spooked by the Dakota Sioux, but he was also a very social person who needed to be around many other people. He abandoned his coal field and went to Bismarck where, with a couple of his close friends, he opened a saloon and dance hall.
In 1873, NP was stalled at Bismarck, first because of needing to build a bridge across the Missouri River, and then because of the Panic of 1873. In September, NP went bankrupt, and even though the trains continued to run, all new construction ceased.
In 1878, NP was reorganized under new management, and construction was started west of Mandan. NP contracted with Eber Bly to find a good location along its proposed route that would serve as a railroad stop to replenish the water supply for the train. Bly had been an invaluable contractor for NP since 1870 by providing the railroad with most of the lumber they needed as they proceeded west to, and then through, Dakota Territory.
In 1872, NP also consulted with him in selecting the site where the railroad would cross the river when the tracks reached the Missouri River. That site became the town of Edwinton, which was later renamed Bismarck.
Before returning to his sawmill operation in Brainerd, Minn., Bly built a sawmill near the Missouri, established a brickyard in Edwinton and contracted to have a hotel built there. In the summer of 1877, Bly returned to Edwinton, which was now named Bismarck, where the construction of his hotel was nearing completion. Bly was unsuccessful in his search to locate the ideal spot for NP’s railroad stop along the predetermined route.
However, he found a site a few miles south of that route that not only had adequate water for the trains, but also had an abundance of coal. This site was where Hannifin had abandoned his coal mining operation in 1873, and it was now called Baby Mine. Bly purchased the mine in 1879, reopened it on July 5 and renamed it Bly’s Mine.
The NP rail line bent south of its straight westward track out of Mandan, and the tracks reached Bly’s Mine later in 1879. A depot and post office were constructed, and the name of the site was changed to Sims in honor of George Sims, NP's chief clerk.
"The spring where the water emerged from the ground was dammed, and a pump was installed to move the water into a water tower for the trains."
Charles W. Thompson was put in charge of managing the mining operation. He opened up seven different veins, one of which was 7 feet thick. NP purchased the mining operation in December 1882, and by 1884, the average output was 100 tons daily.
Thompson then made the discovery that the clay in the area would be good for making bricks, so the Carbon Pressed Brick and Lime Co. was established. The formation of the company came at an opportune time. In 1883, the capital of Dakota Territory was changed from Yankton (S.D.) to Bismarck, and a new Capitol building needed to be built in Bismarck. Construction began on Sept. 5, with most of the bricks coming from Sims, and it was completed in 1885.
The bricks made in Sims were also used in constructing many other nearby structures. “More than 500 people were soon employed by just the brickyards and coal mines, and the massive influx of people led to the creation of additional businesses.”
In the early 1880s, Sims became one of the vibrant communities in Dakota Territory. However, things began to unravel in Sims when a tornado touched down during the summer of 1885, causing considerable damage.
Then, higher-quality coal was discovered further west, and the NPCC closed down its mines in Sims in 1887. Lastly, “the brick company, which had employed about 125 men, went out of business in the late 1880s.”
By 1890, the population had declined to about 400 people. Even though there had been a large exodus of people from Sims, for some reason, property taxes remained high. In 1906, a number of the owners of the remaining businesses became frustrated and relocated a few miles south, establishing the town of Almont.
In 1928, U.S. Highway 10 was opened from New Salem to Glen Ullin, but it bypassed Sims. In 1947, the post office closed, and a year later, NP discontinued service to Sims. The last family moved out in 1948, and the only person remaining was the caretaker of Sims Lutheran Church, where services were still held every other Sunday. He remained there by himself for over 30 years before he retired and moved away.
Sims may be gone, except for the church, but it has not been forgotten, largely because of the legend of “The Gray Lady of Sims.” On May 8, 1917, Bertha Dordal died. She was the wife of the Rev. Lars Dordal, the pastor of the Lutheran church. Lars then married Bertha’s sister and they moved to Larimore, N.D.
Ever since that time, a number of people have claimed to have heard Bertha playing the organ or walking around the parsonage (the living quarters for the pastor and his family). One person even said he had talked to her. People have also claimed that they saw the bedroom windows open and close in the parsonage when nobody was living there.
Pastors and their wives who lived in the parsonage after Bertha’s death said that they could feel her presence. By all accounts, there is nothing threatening about her presence.
A number of visitors frequently travel to Sims either to see the preserved Lutheran church or with the hope of experiencing a chance visit by the Gray Lady. In 2008, First Lady Laura Bush stopped by for a visit.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.