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The Ghost Town of Nininger, Minnesota

"Although only six months old, there are already 70 buildings erected and 500 inhabitants. Improvements of all kinds will continue to be vigorously prosecuted as lots have been sold on liberal terms, conditionally that several hundred thousands worth of improvements will be erected in 18 months."


- From an 1857 Nininger, Minnesota promotion



On the south bank of the Mississippi river, roughly four miles northwest of Hastings is the location of the once thriving city of Nininger. From 1856 through 1859, Nininger competed with the likes of St. Paul for the capital seat of Minnesota. Unlike St. Paul, Nininger was unable to maintain its population after the Panic of 1857 - a financial panic in the Unites States as a result of the declining international economy and over-expansion of the domestic economy. The St. Cloud Times reported in 1932, "nothing now remains of this boom town of the [1850s] except a few hidden foundations of old buildings. It's only a farming country now, but back in 1856 Ignatius Donnelly told the world that it would rival New York." (Schiplin, Maude. St. Cloud Times). Today, there are a few country roads that lazily criss-cross to the northwest of Hastings that comprises of Nininger. If you didn't know what you were looking for, there is little implication that the area is home to one of Minnesota's most famous ghost towns.


In 1856, two Philadelphians by the names of Ignatius Donnelly (1831 - 1901) and John Nininger (brother-in-law of Alexander Ramsey) decided to pursue the venture of relocating to Minnesota with the plan to establish a new city on the Mississippi river. The two businessman were focused on the notion that they could grow a community to become the capital of Minnesota with the right amount of advertising, marketing, and cunning. They purchased land roughly four miles to the northwest of Hastings. The land was quickly subdivided into plots of land for purchase.



Nininger was first platted at 3,800 lots - for an investment of $6 in 1856, you could purchase a lot in the fledgling town. Ignatius Donnelly himself purchased over 100 lots at a rate of $27.70 per lot. This injection of investment by Donnelly spurred belief that Nininger would become a thriving city in Minnesota; thus, the sale of lots were both quick and profitable. By October of 1856, the price of lots increased to $100 each; in December, $250 each; and by January of 1857, $300. Around 200 homes were build in the first year as well as several stores, mills, and roughly $40,000 in city investments such as plotting of roads and various improvements.


In attempt to drive progress of Nininger, the purchasing of lots included a clause that construction and improvements of at least $100 needed to be started in the first six months of purchasing the lot, and buildings needed to be fully completed within two years of the sale date. With these strict measures in place, the two Philadelphian businessman who started Nininger expected over half a million dollars in development would occur in the first two years of the city's establishment. The businessmen had high aspirations for the city, they expected that Nininger would soon rival its more populated counterparts upstream at St. Paul and Minneapolis.


Donnelly - using his businessman and marketeering whit- created a publication called the Emigrant Aid Journal, a newspaper designated for the purpose of spreading propaganda towards European immigrants about the beauty and ease of life in Nininger. Donnelly knew what he was doing with the Journal, having previously held title as Chief Editor of The Philadelphia Ledger. The Journal was independent in politics, focusing primarily on selling property in Nininger and persuading immigrants to move to the new community. The Journal was strategically distributed to places frequently trafficked by immigrants: reading rooms of Atlantic steamships, passenger trains and coaches, cigar rooms in New York City, and saloons in Philadelphia.



Donnelly went even further in his advertisements by employing public speakers and bar patrons alike in Philadelphia and Baltimore with the purpose to spread good word about Nininger. Advertisements were placed in newspapers throughout the Eastern United States and thousands of promotional cards were distributed in immigrant neighborhoods in New York City.


After the advertisement campaigns were in full-swing, attempts were made to have the county seat, then at Mendota, changed to Nininger. To further Nininger's prominence, a railroad by the name of Nininger, St. Peter and Western - the lifeline of towns and cities in the nineteenth century - was chartered to have a terminal in Nininger, though this railroad was never built. The railroad was planned to stretch from Nininger westward towards St. Peter through the heartland of Minnesota. The business plan behind the railroad was that Nininger would build a port along the Mississippi so that farm products could be freighted from the Minnesota river valley to Nininger, and then shipped down the Mississippi to its final destination.


As Nininger slowly increased in population, two goals were sought by its founders: the implementation of a ferry system and the construction of a grand hotel. The city already had two boarding houses in the Clinton and Handyside Houses. Regardless. plans were put in motion for the construction of a $40,000 hotel in the center of the city.


Nininger hotel investor George O. Robertson stated "if a first class hotel is erected, there would be an incentive for Eastern folks to abide at Nininger. Without that, their numbers would be insignificant." Furthermore, the Emigrant Aid Journal noted that the planned ferry boat would travel to the shore opposite of Nininger "to there divert through our city all the travel from the country south and southeast to St. Paul and to open us the custom of Cottage Grove, Point Douglas, and all adjacent land."



Nininger's marketing and advertising campaigns worked, and the city began to see a boom in population.


In March of 1857, there were 70 buildings and about 1,000 citizens in Nininger. To put things into perspective, at this time St. Paul had roughly 10,000 citizens; Minneapolis and old St. Anthony had around 6,000 combined. In total, the state only had about 85,000 citizens. Nininger made up over 1% of the population of Minnesota.


In its heyday, the city of Nininger had a small but meaningful economy when you put its scale in account with the rest of the state. Nininger was home to eight general stores, four blacksmiths, a gristmill, two sawmills, a plow factory, a door factory, six saloons, two boarding houses, a physician, a dentist, a private banker, a post office, and several real estate offices.


Although Nininger initially boasted that it would have an exuberant steamboat express to cross the Mississippi, they had trouble getting steamboats to stop in the city. There was only one month in the summer of 1858 when 14 steamboats were chartered to stop in Nininger rather than Hastings to the southeast.


The social and intellectual life was blossoming in Nininger. One saloon, Tremont Hall, became a common site for locals to host debates. Tremont Hall even hosted the first baseball club meeting in Minnesota in August, 1857. Another social hall known as The Good Templar Hall welcomed organizations like Nininger Boys Lyceum and Guards of Temperance.


Just as Nininger was firing up its engine, the Panic of 1857 struck. This recession began with the failure of the Ohio Life and Trust company. Like a domino effect, one by one major banks and employers went bankrupt across the country. Minnesota was especially vulnerable to this recession due to inflated property values and little economic output. The Panic of 1857 was a one-two punch and deathblow to Nininger. As citizens in the area became impoverished, they left Nininger to either nearby Hastings, Red Wing, St. Paul, Minneapolis. Although Nininger did not immediately fold, its bid for survival was doomed.


Ultimately, there were four causes that led to the setback of Nininger. Firstly was the Panic of 1857. Second was peace in Kansas which encouraged emigration to the territory of Kansas over Minnesota. Third was the hard winter of 1857, causing the Mississippi to be clogged with ice until May. and last was conflict with the Native Americans of the area, which resulted in several skirmishes between the Natives and the ever-arriving European settlers.


Just 18 months after Nininger's population peaked at over 1,000, the population plummeted to 469. Although the city of Nininger was failing, Hastings, its neighbor downstream, survived. Hastings became the county seat after it relocated from Mendota. Nininger was never able to compete with Hastings for the county seat, and was unable to contest with the economy of Hastings either.


Dakota County Courthouse, Hastings 1910 (photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society)

Nininger didn't go out with a bang, rather a whimper. Never recovering from the Panic of 1857, the city gradually decayed and faded from existence. Nininger was a ship without a paddle - a river town without a railroad.


By 1869, only Ignatius Donnelly remained in the ghost town. Donnelly had heavily invested in his home in Nininger, costing roughly $8,000 to build in 1856. Donnelly, being the advertiser that he was, touted that his home was to rival the grace and beauty of George Washington's Mount Vernon. Donnelly's goal for his mansion was to be a social and cultural capital of the area. Although Donnelly's home or city lived to his dreams, Donnelly himself had a storied career. Serving as lieutenant governor, a congressman, and later an author, Donnelly passed away in 1901. Multiple attempts were made to save his home by the Dakota County Historical Society without success, and in 1949, Donnelly's home was torn down for its scrap metal and lumber.



There's little physical evidence at the site of Nininger today to indicate a large community once lived there. Plenty of the history of the community died along with those that once called Nininger home. Much of the history and stories of Nininger were continuously promoted by Donnelly, who never stopped with his attempts to advertise that Nininger would one day become a great city. If you were to visit Nininger today, you wouldn't find much more than the steady hum of tractor engines and the wind gusting through stalks of corn. I guess that's why they call it a ghost town.


Sources


Fuller, Larry. "New York of West' Is Now a Ghost Town Near Hastings." The Minneapolis Star, September 2, 1968, p. A23.


Maude, Schilplin. "D. S. Brainard Tells Reading Room of Nininger, Home of The Apostle of Protest." St. Cloud Times, January 22, 1932. P. 6.


"The Rise and Fall of Nininger." The Minneapolis Journal, July 17, 1932. p. 2.


"Emigrant Aid Journal" The St. Paul Globe, October 13, 1903. p. 6.


"Emigrant Aid Journal" Tuskegee Republican, January 15, 1857. p. 2.


"Colored print illustrating the home of Ignatius Donnelly in Nininger, Minnesota, 1874." 1874. Minnesota Historical Society





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