North Dakota Couple was Born in What is Now a ‘Ghost Town’


You can learn a lot from a town, even after it’s residents have left. With just one family remaining, Sims, North Dakota, just south of New Salem in Morton County, is considered a ‘ghost town’. 

KX News sat down with a couple who share a first-hand account of its history. They tell us why Sims is still an important landmark on the state map.

Sims began and ended with the railroad. Joel Johnson was born in Sims.

He explains, “The reason Sims was there in the first place was because of all the spring water that was available there because the engines need a lot of water. And then, of course, the coal was there, and then they started a brickyard, so in the early 1880s, Sims was really booming. It probably had 1,500 people at one time.”

Johnson grew up on a family ranch just north of here in the 1930s, but this is all that’s left of the town.

He shares, “My brother and I, we used to walk the railroad all the way home every night after school, about three miles. We’d see how long we could walk on the rails and not fall off.”

Sims was established in 1883, and by 1884, it was in its heyday. 

The town had a successful brick factory for a few years. In fact, part of North Dakota’s original Capitol was built from Sims brick.

Johnson adds, “They found out a few years later that the brick kind of flaked off and didn’t look good after a few years, so that’s why it closed.”

The single house is the last standing structure where you can see the original Sims brick. The last family that lived there moved out around 1946, the same year the Pacific Northern Railroad changed routes and no longer went through the city.

Johnson explains, “So that’s when Sims really died.”

By 1975, the town had a population of one.

Johnson’s wife Donna says Sims Scandinavian Lutheran Church, where we sat and talked, is what keeps Sims on the map to this day.

Donna Johnson adds, “It’s a historic site, so people will drive through here and check things out.”

The church was opened in 1884 by 43 founding members, eight of whom were women.

It’s still fully operational, and Johnson says many of today’s members are a part of families that have been attending for five generations. She says it’s the oldest Lutheran church west of the Missouri River, in North Dakota.

She adds, “At least we think it is.”

A special renovation project on the church in 2008, even caught the eye of the town’s most famous visitor.

Donna Johnson shares, “He eventually told us who it was, which I couldn’t believe, but he said, ‘Don’t tell anyone’.

The Johnsons got the opportunity to shake hands and share a conversation with First Lady Laura Bush.

Donna Johnson explains, “She came downstairs and she had coffee with everyone and visited, and was absolutely just the loveliest person.”

Johnson says Sims doesn’t feel like a ghost town.

She says, “No, it’s not a ghost town. We have people in that direction and that direction.”

The Johnsons now live a few miles away, in Almont, but will continue to attend church in Sims, and keep its memories alive.

Sims was established when North and South Dakota were still the Dakota territory.

State Historical Society Curator of Collections Mark Halvorson explains, “Before 1885, it had been identified as a coal mining region. It was called ‘Baby Mine’ on the early maps, even the maps up to 1885. In 1883, it became known as the town of Sims. It was a ride along the railroad line, and it was an important town, not only for the coal mine, but it also had a good deposit of clay.”

The coal and clay came together to make up the famous, Sims brick.

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