How the railroad reshaped South Dakota

How the railroad reshaped South Dakota
At the turn of the century, west river South Dakota was the leading edge of what remained of the American frontier.�Between 1905 and 1907, however, the railroads finally crossed the Missouri River at Chamberlain and Pierre and eventually extended their lines to Rapid City.�One-hundred thousand settlers soon moved into West River, especially the areas between the Cheyenne and White Rivers.

Railroads spearheaded the West River migration.�Communities were born and grew up on railroad lines. Midland moved entire sections of the town to be on the railroad. The railroad's "team-haul" method of line construction created small communities several miles apart from each other that one could travel to and from in a day. Some of these communities will be celebrating their centennial this year, and reflecting on a century of history.

One such community that was established in this period is my hometown of Murdo.�Murdo was named after an early cattleman, Murdo MacKenzie.


MacKenzie was born in Scotland in 1850 and, after immigrating to the United States, led a successful life as a businessman in several areas including the cattle industry. It was during his work as a cattleman that he began bringing Texas steers to South Dakota to graze on the state's grasslands.�When the Milwaukee Road decided on Murdo as a location for one of their team-haul communities, they decided to name the city in his honor. Originally, the town was called "Murdo MacKenzie." Eventually we dropped his last name but the determined spirit of our namesake lives on.

When Murdo was named as a railroad town site, the city seemingly sprang up over night. Within weeks 40 businesses and several homes were built in the young community. The early mood was positive. As one Murdo Coyote reporter noted in 1906, the city had "all the requisites for a flourishing city."�Very soon, Murdo boasted five restaurants, three drug stores, a furniture store, the Murdo State Bank, a lumber yard, two newspapers, and several other local businesses.�The city was officially established on July 12, 1906 with the railroad lot sale.

West River South Dakota as a whole grew up during these years. At the time of Murdo's official establishment, the town was part of Lyman County. The county grew from a population of 2,632 to 10,848 citizens from 1900 until 1910.�Soon, because of agitation among the citizens, there was a call for a division of the county. With a petition of the majority of Lyman County voters, the county was split and Jones County was created.�

The creation of Murdo and the populating of western South Dakota can be traced to the construction of the bridges over the Missouri River. On June 22, 1906, railroad lines from the river first entered the city of Murdo. The Murdo Coyote reporter said it was a day "long to be remembered in the history of Murdo." This transportation link opened the door to the east and encouraged even more westward migration.

Even before the railroad arrived, however, something else lured settlers.�Western South Dakota was a frontier. Few people lived here, and the land had not been worked. Yet the spirit of the settler was drawn to the region by the wilderness, the legends of the west, and the opportunity to create their own success story. Many of us still have the same spirit within our hearts. The open prairie represents our great state. We realize the importance of hard work, dedication, and virtues that our predecessors taught us.

Murdo and the railroad have an important place in my history. My grandfather, Nick, after immigrating from Norway, worked on the West River railroads, which were often the first jobs held by new immigrants to America. His work on the railroad is how he first came to know Murdo.�

Nearly eight decades after my grandfather's work on the railroad, I was proud to serve as the State Railroad Director in South Dakota. I realize, perhaps more than many, that developing a strong transportation infrastructure is important to the rural areas of South Dakota. Just as the first railroad was important to the establishment of Murdo, I am confident that continued development in transportation will lead to new economic opportunities for people throughout South Dakota.�

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