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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published August 14 2011

Eriksmoen: ‘Father of Fargo’ gained and lost many fortunes

The man known as the “Father of Fargo” owned some of the finest real estate in Fargo and, at one time, farmed the largest tract of land in Cass County.

During the 1870s and early 1880s, Jasper Chapin was perhaps the wealthiest man in what is now southeastern North Dakota. But by the latter 1880s, Chapin was broke and homeless, and on Jan. 26, 1894, he committed suicide. During his lifetime he was said to have gained and lost nine fortunes. Every time Chapin got knocked down, he would get up, dust himself off, and move on to another successful endeavor.

His wife, Emma, died in 1884, and the grit and tenacity that were Chapin’s trademarks were gone. He fell into a deep depression and was unable to overcome the serious financial setbacks he suffered during the next few years.

Chapin was born Jan. 7, 1822, in western New York. In the late 1840s, he was a farm supervisor near the city of Jamestown, N.Y., and in 1852 made his way to California. For the next 30 months, he tried his hand at gold mining and farming near Monterey and Santa Cruz.

Chapin returned to New York. When the town of Leavenworth in present-day Kansas was founded in 1856, he settled there, establishing a boarding house and saloon on the banks of the Missouri River. In the 1860s, he followed the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads as they moved into Colorado and Utah. Chapin hauled railroad supplies and provisions for the workers, reportedly earning $500,000 a year.

In the mid-1860s, after gold was discovered in Alder Gulch in present-day Montana, the booming community of Virginia City was established. Chapin built the Chapin House, a high-scale boarding house, “the leading hostelry of the mining camp.” After a few years, he filed for bankruptcy, supposedly losing most of his wealth in poker games.

Chapin arrived in Brainerd, Minn., in September 1870, just ahead of the Northern Pacific Railroad. He followed the railroad west, setting up a large tent at Oakport, three miles north of Moorhead. It served as a hotel and saloon. He believed this was the site where the tracks would cross the Red River. When he realized they crossed the river at Moorhead, Chapin set up his tent (hotel/saloon) at Fourth Street and First Avenue North in Moorhead.

Chapin established the Chapin Block in Moorhead and the Bruns and Chapin blocks in Fargo. In spring 1873, Chapin accepted an offer from the NP to manage its Headquarters Hotel in Fargo. Later that year, he built Fargo’s first opera house at the corner of Broadway and NP Avenue. Chapin was also involved in civic pursuits. With Christmas approaching in 1873, he made sure a large tree would be displayed and saw to it that presents were available for all the children. He was also foreman of the first grand jury in Fargo. Even though he did not attend church, Chapin pushed to have a Methodist church constructed at the corner of Ninth Street and First Avenue South.

Chapin put his farming background to use when the NP sold the Headquarters Hotel in 1874. He purchased a 700-acre farm north of Fargo and sowed 300 acres of wheat in what “was the first large tract of its kind in Cass County.” With his farm doing well, Chapin plunged back into business. He secured a large building that he turned into a bar, billiards room, restaurant and private club. With partners, he also established an entertainment hall and an apartment complex.

During the latter 1870s, Chapin erected several more apartment buildings and, in 1879, built a large central market on the east side of Broadway between NP Avenue and First Avenue North. With the money rolling in, Chapin approached the NP with an offer to purchase 10 blocks from Broadway to the Red River. NP turned down the offer but sold lots to Chapin on which he built four stores. He also rebuilt the Fargo mill and constructed a railroad roundhouse. With the money left over, Chapin bought five sections of land in Ransom County and another section near Breckenridge, Minn.

It was about this time Emma was stricken with paralysis and confined to a wheelchair. He cut back on his business speculations to consolidate what he owned and spent more time caring for his wife.

In spring 1880, Chapin’s name was put forth as a candidate for mayor. Because of his proclivity for drinking, swearing and playing poker, Chapin’s moral judgment was called into question. In an editorial, the Fargo Argus wrote, “His ungodly attacks upon everything sacred and moral, render him a conspicuously bad man to represent the better class of citizens of Fargo.”

We will conclude our story about Jasper Chapin next week as we focus on his time as Fargo mayor and his rapid financial, emotional and physical decline following the death of his wife in 1884.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at: cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.