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March 2, 2009

The town that isn’t there

Filed under: Our Favorite Things — Lori Williamson @ 12:30 pm

If this blog were called “favorite people” mine would hands down be Ignatius Donnelly. Since it is not I’ll  work him in in another way. How ‘bout a map of the town Donnelly planned as the Chicago of the north?

George P. Hopkins

Plan of the city of Nininger, Dakotah County, Minnesota.

Philadelphia: T. Sinclair’s Lith.

The economy was booming in this area before the Panic of 1857 and Minnesota was platted, or laid out, for enough towns to accommodate a population fifteen times the state’s actual numbers! One territorial legislator with a sense of humor, noting the alarming number of proposed towns, offered legislation setting aside 1/3 of Minnesota for agriculture.

Nininger City, near present day Hastings, was typical of the real-estate speculator’s dreams to capitalize on the territorial boom, except that it was Ignatius Donnelly who promoted this particular town as the “Chicago of the North.” Donnelly partnered in this venture with John Nininger, brother-in-law of Alexander Ramsey. Nininger’s wife noted that “two heads were better than one even if one – even if one should be a ‘Sour Kraut’ and the other a ‘Paddy.’” Donnelly promoted the town as far away as Scotland through speeches, a newspaper, and an Emigrant Aid Association. By the summer of 1857 the “city” reached the point of having nearly one hundred houses, a school, an Atheneum, and a modest cultural life, but water was still being brought up from the river by oxen. The fate of Nininger City was hurt when Hastings won the designation of county seat, but its fate was sealed in August of ‘57 when credit tightened [is this starting to sound familiar?] and banks called in their western paper. Speculative ventures like these “paper towns” were hardest hit. The depression also dried up the land grant program for railroads and the proposed Nininger, St. Peter, and Western Railroad, a necessary component to the town’s success, was a casualty.  Donnelly’s nearly realized dream of becoming a millionaire vanished.

My favorite part of this favorite things story occurs early on. The ne’er-do-well John Donnelly almost sabotaged the project, and the economic well being of his little brother Ignatius, by “misbehaving” in while in Nininger. When John returned to Philadelphia he proclaimed to the very people Ignatius was trying to interest in investing in his project that “Hell is a better place than Nininger City.”

For a further list of these pre-panic ghost towns see Brad Oftelie’s carto-bibliography Territorial Plat Maps of Minnesota.

Note: One of the two copies of this map in the MHS collection has a familiar ownership signature written in red on the face of the map. It reads, with a flourish, “A. J. Hill.” Alfred J. Hill was born in London in 1823 and migrated to the U. S. as a 33 year old. Soon after settling in St. Paul Hill served in the Civil War in the Corps of Topographical Engineers. It is his collection that forms the core of our library of over 22,000 Minnesota maps.

Patrick Coleman, Acquisitions Librarian and Map Curator

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3 Responses to “The town that isn’t there”

  1. John Milton Says:

    This is delightful. I’m inspired to go down there and see the place that never happened.

    Patrick Coleman reply on March 9th, 2009:

    Wait for a nice warm spring day and i’ll join you.

  2. Joe Hoover Says:

    My favorite phantom town is the “City of Fort Snelling” found in an 1860 map of Hennepin County. This was a real-estate speculation of Franklin Steel who purchased the Fort Snelling military reservation with the idea of subdividing it to settlers until the financial collapse of 1857 halted work on it.

    Wikipedia article: http://cli.gs/3Utuma



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