Great Northern Locomotive near Grand Forks ca 1925


Selkirk docked at Grand Forks, 1877

Primary Business Address:

2405 Belmont Road

Grand Forks, ND  58201

Phone:  701-775-2216


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Early History

The history of Grand Forks, ND is rich in its diversity.  The first people to inhabit the area of Grand Forks were nomadic Native American tribes who traversed the area of Grand Forks County during buffalo hunts.  The first Europeans to visit the region were fur traders who made alliances with the native people to trade beaver and bison furs for manufactured goods.

Selkirk Colony.  In 1811, Thomas Douglas, the Earl of Selkirk, established an agricultural colony at present-day Winnipeg, Manitoba.  The young colony was dependent on  imported food and equipment to build new farms and survive the harsh winters.  Ships from England tried to supply the settlers via Hudson’s Bay and the Hayes River, however, the short arctic summer often interfered with the unloading and transport of the precious cargo.

Oxcarts.  The solution to the problem was finding another, albeit slower, route.  It was more reliable to have goods transported by way of New Orleans, up the Mississippi River to St. Paul, MN, and then over land with wooden oxcarts (aka Red River Carts) through the Minnesota and Red River Valleys to the Selkirk Settlement.  The oxcarts were organized into trains driven by Metis (people of Native American and European descent) , who understood the rigors of the trails and how to overcome breakdowns and natural obstacles.  The pace was very slow, often an oxcart train could make only two trips a summer. 

Steamboats.  In 1858, the businessmen of St. Paul offered a thousand dollar reward to the first man who could successfully navigate the Red River by steamboat.  This prize was collected by Anson Northrup in 1859.  Northrup took his steamboat, the North Star, up the Minnesota River to Crow Wing, dismantled it and transported the parts to the Red River near Georgetown, MN.  Renamed the Anson Northrup, his steamboat arrived at Fort Garry, north of Winnipeg, Manitoba, to a cheering crowd.

Alexander Griggs, of Hill, Griggs, and Company, St. Paul, MN, first traveled the Red River in 1870 using flatboats to carry cargo downstream.  Late that fall, Griggs and his crew stopped for the night at “Les Grandes Fourches,” (as it was called by French fur traders), intending to continue to Fort Garry the following day.  By morning, their flatboat was frozen in place.  Griggs built a cabin for shelter during the winter of 1870-71 and became convinced that this site held great potential for a new town.  Griggs registered a land claim for present-day downtown Grand Forks and encouraged friends and relatives to join him in this opportunity of pioneering a new community.  He officially platted the town site in 1875.

Hill, Griggs and Co. launched its first steamboat, the Selkirk, in 1871 with Griggs as its captain.  Soon, several steamboats were in operation on the Red River, including, Dakota, Cheyenne, Manitoba, and Minnesota.  Steamboats dominated Red River transportation until the arrival of the railroads.  Their heyday lasted from 1871 to the 1880s, and then were mainly used to transport grain short distances to the railroads. 


North Dakota’s first  railroad, the Northern Pacific, reached Fargo in 1871.  James J. Hill’s St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway, later renamed the Great Northern Railway, arrived in Grand Forks in 1880.  The Great Northern was Grand Forks’ first railroad and was the most important railroad to North Dakota, because it had more lines serving the most populated region of the state, the Red River Valley.  In 1887, the Northern Pacific extended a line through Grand Forks, connecting the NP with Winnipeg, Manitoba.  The railroads brought many new settlers to Grand Forks and provided good jobs.  Their tracks, warehouses, and depots determined the town’s layout and business district.  The rails still serve as the boundary between Grand Forks’ north and south sides.   

Today,  modern interstate highways and airlines carry most travelers to and  from the city.  Semi Trucks handle most retail shipments.  But the railroads still carry North Dakota wheat through Grand Forks, to markets all over the world.

                                    By:  Leah Byzewski

Historic Grand Forks

Alexander Griggs


Steamboat Captain and Founder of Grand Forks



Transportation and


 are the keys

  to understanding the History of

Grand Forks