Alexander McKenzie (1851-1922) was a Bismarck pioneer, entrepreneur, railroad agent, law enforcement officer, and political boss. He is widely credited with securing Bismarck as the new capital of Dakota Territory in 1883.
Likely the state’s first millionaire, McKenzie ultimately amassed a fortune and became the most influential man in state politics. He was reportedly once the largest private land owner and richest individual in North Dakota. Despite setbacks later in life, his estate at the time of his death was valued at $500,000.
Nicknamed the “senator maker”, McKenzie eventually developed a powerful political organization penned the “McKenzie Machine,” which dominated local politics until about 1908. McKenzie served as Burleigh County Sheriff from 1874-1886, and was once designated a deputy U.S. Marshall. He also served as the North Dakota Republican National Committeeman for two decades.
McKenzie was close friends to local entrepreneur Edward Patterson, who named his new high-rise luxury hotel after McKenzie when it opened in 1911. Around the time of McKenzie’s death, the hotel was renamed Patterson Hotel.
Little is known about McKenzie’s early life, with details on his early life in dispute. It is generally accepted that Alexander McKenzie was born on April 3, 1850 in Ontario, Canada. He quit school at only 11 years old to seek his fortune.
At some point, McKenzie resided in New York, where he worked as an elevator operator. While employed in this position, McKenzie sustained life-lingering injuries when the elevator plummeted eight or nine stories.
According to most reports, McKenzie arrived in Dakota Territory in 1866, at age 16, where he later became a scout for General Custer. He dabbled in several industries, including the railroad, where he secured important connections to eventually become an influential agent for the company.
Rise to Power
McKenzie was illiterate when he was first appointed Burleigh County Sheriff in 1874, but his menacing size aided him in maintaining law and order in the otherwise lawless county. He was elected to this position six times and later became a deputy U.S. Marshal. Eventually, a friend taught him to read and write.
By the 1880s, McKenzie was building an empire. He acquired numerous real estate investments and established the city’s first water system. His privately-owned waterworks pumped unfiltered river water through a system of pipes. Alexander Hughes later joined as a partner in the venture, which remained privately-owned until 1923, when residents passed a bond measure to acquire the water department and fund a filtration plant.
In 1899, McKenzie’s investments turned to the gold mines of Alaska, which lead to his ultimate arrest in 1901. He also owned mines in Arizona and British Columbia.
In 1909, McKenzie reportedly earned more than $1 million upon selling 300,000 acres of land.
McKenzie also was director of the First National and Capitol National Banks in Bismarck.
The McKenzie Machine
McKenzie’s political dominance began in the early 1880s when the Northern Pacific Railway appointed him their chief political operative for the territory.
Originally a Democrat, McKenzie was cognizant of the Republican stronghold in Dakota Territory so he switched parties in 1882. Consequently, McKenzie served as the state’s Republican National Committeeman for two decades.
In 1883, he was elected into the capital commission, who was tasked by law to select a new capital for Dakota Territory. It was here that McKenzie first made his mark on history. Acting under Northern Pacific guidance, it was McKenzie who procured enough votes for Bismarck to become capital, convincing Alexander Hughes to cast the deciding vote.
That same year, McKenzie organized an exhibition to the Minnesota State Fair that included Sitting Bull, Gall, Crazy Horse, and John Grass.
Engineering the surprising capital acquisition for Bismarck powered McKenzie’s political clout. For years, the “McKenzie Machine” dictated most politics in the region.
Although he himself never held political office, McKenzie leveraged his stature to decide who represented his party and indirectly coerced decrees in his favor, even from his opponents.
As an agent for the Northern Pacific Railway with investments in multiple industries outside of the state, McKenzie favored big business, which directly influenced the creation of the competing Nonpartisan League, ironically later housed at the hotel once bearing his name.
Arrest and Downfall
McKenzie was arrested in 1901 for fraud and contempt of court, alleging he illegally influenced a court decision to award Alaskan gold mine rights to him. When the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ordered the mines back, McKenzie refused.
He served three months in prison before getting pardoned by President McKinley.
Upon returning to North Dakota, McKenzie’s political political stronghold started unraveling in 1906 and he vacated his national committeeman position two years later.
McKenzie soon after permanently relocated to St. Paul, where he died on June 22, 1922 – reportedly two days after learning of the death of his wife, Eva, who had passed roughly one month prior.
He received a state funeral with honor guards at the North Dakota State Capitol and was interred at St. Mary’s Cemetery. Despite his influential history, his grave remained unmarked until a group of local pioneers dedicated a granite marker in 1938.
His estate at the time of his death was valued at $500,000.
McKenzie had a total of six children from two different marriages, although he successfully kept his second wife and their children hidden from even his closest friends and family for more than 30 years.
First Wife & Children
His first, and only public, marriage was to Mary Ellen Hayer in 1877, with whom he had three children. At age 8, their son, John Alexander, died of diphtheria. The two divorced four years later, in 1887, at which time McKenzie bought a house in Saint Paul, Minnesota for his recently separated wife and their two daughters to reside in.
Second, Secret Family
McKenzie married again, in 1890, to Eva (some sources say Elva) Stewart, a Bismarck school teacher. For reasons unknown, he kept his second marriage a secret from everyone, even from his closest friends and family.
In 1893, the couple had their first child, a daughter. The following month, McKenzie established an apartment in New York for Eva and their newly born daughter to reside in. Two more children, both boys, were born to the McKenzies over the next couple years.
His second marriage, and the couple’s children, were not discovered until McKenzie’s passing in June 1922 – only a month after the passing of Eva. The discovery was made during the execution of McKenzie’s estate.
McKenzie is both a celebrated and controversial figure. While he achieved many successes – politically and personally – and was widely respected during Bismarck’s pioneering days, his fall from grace beginning in the early 1900s cast a big shadow on his overall legacy, particularly in the years immediately following his death.
Within months of his passing, the first-class hotel and unofficial political headquarters that once bore his name was officially renamed the Patterson Hotel. Even Edward Patterson himself, once a close friend to McKenzie, had grown distant and became an active member of the Nonpartisan League – McKenzie’s political foe, even later housing the League at the hotel formerly named for McKenzie.
The fact that his grave remained unmarked for 16 years speaks volume to his reputation upon death.
Today, McKenzie is remembered as a pioneering icon. He is credited with awarding Bismarck the capital of Dakota Territory – and ultimately North Dakota. While his McKenzie Machine was ousted between 1906-1908, his influences continued to impact North Dakota politics well after, in the form of opposition from the Nonpartisan League, which was principally established to oppose McKenzie’s political machine.
No streets or subdivisions in Bismarck bare McKenzie’s name. McKenzie County and the cities of Alexander and McKenzie, all in North Dakota, were named for him, however. Despite that the McKenzie Hotel was renamed Patterson Hotel, the re-exposed original McKenzie nameplates on the building prominently remind us of McKenzie’s significance.
McKenzie also achieved national celebrity status, from a 1906 novel called The Spoilers, which was a fictionalized account loosely based on McKenzie’s attempted takeover of the Alaskan gold mines. The novel was made into a 1942 movie featuring John Wayne.