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Carleton and Burleigh City

By | Last Modified: May 19, 2019

Carleton and Burleigh City (AKA Burleighton) were early tent cities that were established in 1872 during the ensuring townsite contest, along the original projected path of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Both cities, along with Edwinton (later Bismarck), competed to be the legitimate townsite. At their height, these cities swelled to some two hundred residents.

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).

Carleton City

Carleton City, named for Charles Carleton Coffin, sprouted along the riverbank near the original crossing, at the mouth of the Heart River directly across from Fort McKeen (later named Fort Abraham Lincoln). Along with the town, inhabitants had reportedly staked claim to six miles of riverfront.

A reported 15 saloons and several homes of “questionable” use were located inside Carleton, giving the town such undesirable nicknames as Whisky Point, Point Pleasant, and Lookout Point.

One source says that Carleton was wiped out by flood in 1874, but another source suggests it lasted much longer.

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, near Camp Greene. 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.

Burleigh City

To its east, Burleigh City was established about two miles east, on or near the present-day site of Bismarck Airport on land proclaimed by Doctor Burleigh. Burleigh City is marked on one of the earliest survey maps of the region. A newspaper article from June 27th mentions such streets as “Greeley Avenue” and “Durfee Square” inside Burleigh City.

While both Carlton and Burleigh City are mentioned by June 1872, it’s unclear which actually came first, although Burleigh City is mentioned as early as May 1872. Regardless, it’s undeniable that Burleigh City became the more prominent of the two, although Carleton survives longer. In fact, many accounts of the era incorrectly identify Carlton and Edwinton as Burleigh City. Burleigh City and the original railroad path, along with Edwinton, are even marked on one of the earliest survey maps of the region.


  • 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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