On Fargo’s west side–in the general vicinity of 15th or 18th streets, depending on where you are–there is a swath of unbuilt land with an open concrete trough at its bottom. A century ago that was Long Lake, a seasonal body of water that defined the city’s western edge. On maps today, it’s called County Drain #3 and serves the inner city as valuable open space for soccer or just walking the dog.
In the 1880s Long Lake often held enough water to be fished and attracted wildlife as a supplement to the boomtown diet. Lest you think it was an unqualified urban amenity, however, let me tell you a story–a true one–about its consequences for two Fargo families living near its edge.
Ten years or so into its urban life, Fargo had grown steadily westward along the NP right-of-way. Just west of Long Lake on Seventh Avenue, a wheel manufactory had opened and other industries were the topic of speculation in a decade that may have been our most speculative. In this boomtown mentality, speculators bought property at breakfast, sold it at lunch, and bought it back again during dinner–all at a profit. I suppose the real estate bubble burst, eventually, but with less disastrous results than our own recent meltdown. Little stood in the way of unbridled exploitation.
Between Thirteenth Street (now University Drive) and Long Lake, William Bruce Douglas developed six blocks as “Douglasville,” a neighborhood with a wide range of residents, from railway trainmen and butchers to attorneys and self-identified “Capitalists.” Among them were Frank and Susan Irons and their neighbors Richard and Emma Birge. In the Fargo of 1882, everyone was from somewhere else: Frank Irons was born in Illinois; Richard Birge hailed from Connecticut. Both arrived with wives and children–quite a lot of the latter, until the fall of that year, that is. In the meantime….
The city had no organized program for waste removal. So getting rid of stuff was open season on the environment, not a good thing when you consider all transport was poop-powered (horses, oxen, etc), livestock were permissible within city limits (cows, chickens, etc.), and slaughtering was a daily necessity for a rapidly expanding population. All that offal and shit had to go somewhere. By late summer, Long Lake was a bubbling morass of decomposing animal waste of every sort.
The Fargo Argus noted in late October and again in early December the outbreak of an unexplained fever in the vicinity of Douglasville. The Birge and Irons families lost five children; Mrs Birge nearly joined them. But it was an early winter and the cemetery was inaccessible, so Rev B. F. Cooley offered the site of Gethsemane Episcopal church at Third Avenue and South Ninth Street as a burial place for Charles and Peretic Irons and Fred, Ward and Vesta Birge. They were all under ten; Fred had sung in the Gethsemane choir. By definition, life is ironic, so it will come as little surprise that: #1) no one was fined for dumping in Long Lake; “germ theory” still being in its formative stages, no one connected the stench of Long Lake with the presence of disease along its shore; and #2) Father Cooley was fined $50, quite a penalty in 1882, for the illegal interment of five innocents on his church property.
The children’s eternal rest has been intermittent. Construction of Gethsemane Cathedral in 1892 and of a social hall in the 1950s disturbed their sleep. And they moved once again in 1991 when the church sold its center-city property for a courthouse parking lot. The Irons and Birge families had long since left these parts (by about 1900), one imagines with mixed emotions about what and who they had to leave behind.
There’s a story here that’s real and plenty of inspiration for one that won’t be.