In our Hidden History series, we share the story of settlers who moved to North Dakota for a better life and struck it big.

In 1883, Joseph Colton and his son-in-law James Johnson came to the Burlington townsite, located where the Pioneer Village currently sits. On their way, they noticed coal falling out of the hillside.

“They started a townsite at that time, and they also realized there was coal in the area and they were the first coal mine in the valley,” said David Leite, President of the Ward County Historical Society.

That coal mine was started in the fall of 1884. Colton and Johnson only had a crew of about 5, so mining was a slow process. By 1886, more settlers were coming to the area, bringing with them stoves, which increased the demand for coal.

Now, one worker stayed at the mine full time, digging and leaving it there until customers came to buy it. The coal was wheelbarrowed out, but a much more efficient way of transporting it was on the horizon.

“In 1893, the Soo Line had come through the area and Mr. L.M. Davis did some test drilling and found there was a large area of coal, right where the village is sitting and into the hills beyond it.
So he brought some land from the Johnson family,” said Leite.

The Soo Line also bought land and put in a passing track that could hold around 40 cars. From there, the business exploded. They built barns for horses and constructed boarding houses where coal miners could eat and sleep until they built homes of their own.

Leite said, “He was a very clever businessman, and he realized that he needed to keep his men working in the summer too, so they didn’t have to leave and retrain people too, so he started a brick plant in the area. He realized that the clay they were moving could be used for bricks.”

The brickyard was a success, and many of the buildings in downtown Minot were built with those bricks. By this time, the Burlington townsite was growing fast, along the tracks, but tragedy would soon strike.

“The banks failed and the towns did poorly. There was a large fire in 1929 that devasted the downtown, Burlington,” he added.

The city was rebuilt, but the coal never returned. Today in Pioneer Village, if you take a tour of the Soo Line building, you’ll find some pieces of the past.

The 19th-century tools that dug that coal, the cars that carried the freight. And the pictures of what Burlington once was and how it came to be.

The coal mine isn’t the only piece of hidden history in Burlington. It is also the oldest city in Ward County.