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Carleton and Burleigh City

By | Last Modified: January 24, 2018

Carleton and Burleigh City (AKA Burleighton) were early “tent cities” that were established in 1872 during the ensuring townsite contest, along the original project path of the Northern Pacific Railroad.

Carleton City, named for Charles Carleton Coffin, sprouted along the east riverbank near the point where the railroad was expected to cross the Missouri River, originally at the mouth of the Heart River.

Carleton was likely on land secured by John J. Jackman, who was a member of Colonel Sweet’s surveying party. Financed by competing railroad tycoon James Hill, Jackman organized a five-man party in an effort to preempt land claims ahead of Colonel Sweet. His party arrived only hours before Sweet, occupying roughly two miles along the riverfront.

On the other hand, Carleton may have been further south. An 1872 article simply states it was “above Apple Creek. This could position it closer to the the mouth of the Little Heart River, as opposed to the Heart River.

To its east, Burleigh City was established along the railroad’s projected route on the land proclaimed by Doctor Burleigh, near or on the present-day site of Bismarck Airport. Burleigh City is marked on one of the earliest survey maps of the region.

Both towns eventually folded after Northern Pacific adjusted its rail line northward, to its present-day path, and established the town of Edwinton (now Bismarck).


  • One source says the towns were established as soon as 1871, but this contradicts other reports and seems unlikely. There was little activity until 1872, certainly not enough to support towns. Carleton City, in particular, was largely supported by the military personnel stationed at Fort McKeen directly across the river, which wasn’t established until June 1872. There are also no discovered references to either town before 1872, and Burleigh had not yet commenced grading work as of a June 29, 1872 news article. Northern Pacific didn’t even award contracts between the Red and Missouri Rivers until October 1871. Lastly, a news report from March 1872 states that surveying was only complete to the James River.
  • A source says the name “Carleton” derived from Carlton, Minnesota, where the railroad’s groundbreaking took place in 1870. Despite its similar name, this seems unlikely due to the spelling difference. Carlton, Minnesota – the city and county – were named for Reuben B. Carlton. Charles Carleton Coffin, on the other hand, once worked in the engineering division of Northern Pacific.

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