It once was a booming town. It was home to the largest hotel west of Fargo, and nearly became the Morton County seat; however, today, it lies as a ghost town, forgotten by history, and retaken by nature. It is the town of Sims, N.D.
As is common with towns throughout North Dakota, the history of Sims is intimately tied to the railroad. Continuing to expand west from Mandan in the late 1870s, Northern Pacific surveyors sought out a stopping place, where trains could take on water.
The surveyors would find such a location in a place known as Sims Valley. There they found fast running springs, which didn’t freeze over during the winter. It was an ideal area, and in 1879, tracks reached the area that would become Sims.
Finding a name for the site, that actually stuck, proved to be difficult. However, it was just the first in a long line of difficulties for the community. Names would differ, from Carbon, Baby Mine, and Bly’s Mine.
Eventually though, the name of Sims would stick, having been chosen in honor of George Sims, who was the chief clerk in the executive office of the Northern Pacific Railway.
The first post office was built in 1880, but it would take another three years for the city of Sims to officially be laid out by the Northern Pacific Railway. In the meantime, the city was already beginning to boom.
An abundance of coal, clay and water were discovered in the area, and it didn’t take long for developers to descend on the new town.
The first coal mine opened in 1879, by a Charles W. Thompson. It was a major success. So much so that an additional six mines would begin operations in the area. By 1884, the Northern Pacific Coal Company Mine, working fiver different veins, would have a daily output of 100 tons.
Knowing that he could capitalize on his success, Charles quickly began a second venture. Finding water, clay, sand and coal close together, he made the gamble that the area would be well suited for the manufacturing of bricks.
For a moment, that gamble paid off. The brick yard prospered, at least for a short time. It was in a convenient location, which allowed Charles to get the opportunity to supply his brick for a number of important constructions, including the first capitol building of North Dakota in Bismarck, as well as the Court House in Mandan.
However, it was eventually discovered that the brick coming out of Charles brick yard was of a low quality, that couldn’t stand the test of time, at least for the most part.
The Boom Sets In
Sims would quickly experience their golden age, spanning the 1880s. More than 500 people were soon employed by just the brick yards and coal mines, and the massive influx of people led to the creation of additional businesses.
Taking advantage of not only the raw resources, but also the prosperity that was coming to Sims, the Northern Pacific Coal Company made the decision to build a massive brick hotel in town. Called the “Oaks Hotel,” the cost to build it was $15,000, and was the largest hotel west of Fargo. Not only becoming home to much of the workforce that was moving into the area, it also housed the officers of the coal company.
Many other buildings would also sprout up. At the town’s height, Sims would include multiple saloons, a boarding house, a two room brick house, a parsonage, church, bank (which never opened), post office, depot, three store, a lumber yard, two real estate offices, a Presbyterian church, and a common school. Stretching more than a mile long, the town of Sims would also have homes scattered throughout the area.
Sims would grow so fast that two expansions had to be added to the town; Balasta to the North and Ramstown to the south.
In the middle of the boom, one building that was being planned would continue to stick out for more than a century. The year was 1884, and members of the community made the decision to organize the Sims Scandinavian Evangelical Lutheran Congregation.
The parsonage was built first, and provided a place for services to initially be held. Eventually, the official church would be constructed, partially out of salvaged materials from an abandoned building in Sims. Today, the church still stands, and holds a special recognition: the oldest Lutheran church west of the Missouri River. It would receive a visit from the then First Lady of the United States, Laura Bush.
Because of the boom in Sims, the town would become a major shipping point for the Northern Pacific Railroad. A 21 pen stock yard was built west of the depot, where herds of cattle would be driven from as far away as South Dakota.
The promise of Sims was so great that it even garnered the attention of the entire county. When the Morton County seat was being voted on, with Mandan being selected, it was said that Sims lost by just one vote.
And the Fall
After the 1880s, the boom that Sims was experiencing started to turn. Before long, the city would experience a drastic decline.
Hard coal was eventually discovered in Montana, which lead the railroad to decide that it was time to close its mines in Sims.
By the mid 1890s, enough time had also passed to show that the main product of Sims, brick, was of a poor quality, and would quickly begin to crumble.
As the two largest industries in the area left, so did the workers. With a sharp population decline, businesses were forced to shut their doors, and hope that they could make it elsewhere.
After the turn of the century, in 1906, the population of Sims had dropped to 300. Four year later, in 1910, it was only 86. As the years wore on, the decline continued, with additional businesses packing up, and leaving.
The final death blow occurred on Dec. 3, 1947. That was the day that a line change took place. No longer would the railroad run through the area, and as the final train passed by Sims, the final store, post office, depot and pump station would also have to make the decision to finalize their operations. The next year, the tracks were taken up.
With Sims falling into disrepair, much of the material that had been used for the various buildings and structures were repurposed elsewhere. Little by little, nearly all signs that the promising town ever existed disappeared.
A few structures did survive though. Along with the church and parsonage, one home has remained standing, the Gray House.
The house was built in 1890 by Andrew Anderson. Using local bricks for the construction, it truly was a Sims home.
While Andrew missed the initial boom of Sims, he would stick around, along with his family, for a little over a decade. In 1902 though, Andrew’s wife, Anne, would pass away. Taking his four children, Andrew would leave Sims.
In 1910, Tom Gray and his family moved into the house, where they stayed until 1930. Following Gray’s occupation of the place, it served briefly as a residence for school teachers.
Today, much of the brick has crumpled, and parts of the building are beginning to fall. Yet, it remains a symbol of what once was. A sign that Sims existed.