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Published August 08 2012

Colorful Fargo mayor gets place in pantheon

FARGO – This morning, city officials will unveil a portrait of Jasper Chapin, Fargo’s third mayor. It’s part of the city’s ongoing quest to fill out City Hall with a complete set of portraits of Fargo’s mayors.

Chapin, known as the “Father of Fargo,” served as mayor from 1880 to 1882. He was renowned in equal parts for his active business life and colorful – sometimes salty – demeanor.

Last year, Forum contributor Curtis Eriksmoen delved into the details of Chapin’s life. We’ve assembled some of the highlights here:

So who was this guy?

Chapin, a New York native born in 1822, traversed the country seeking his fortune in farming and gold mining.

By the early 1870s, he had followed the Northern Pacific Railroad to Moorhead, where he set up a tent that served as a hotel and saloon. In 1873, he moved to Fargo to run NP’s Headquarters Hotel. He built the city’s first opera house, and went on to develop several sections of downtown Fargo.

In 1880, he was one of the wealthiest men in the region, and was elected mayor of Fargo with more than 80 percent of the vote. In his two one-year terms, he got the ball rolling on a city sewage system, struck deals for Fargo’s first electric and gas plants and helped further develop the railroads, among other projects.

An upstanding fellow

That depends on whom you asked.

Sure, he had a hand in magnanimous civil pursuits like making sure the city put out big Christmas trees with presents for all children. But he also had a reputation for drinking, gambling and losing fortunes as quickly as he gained them in roughneck settings like mining camp poker games.

When he ran for mayor, the Fargo Argus newspaper wrote: “His ungodly attacks upon everything sacred and moral, render him a conspicuously bad man to represent the better class of citizens in Fargo.”

Things didn’t end well for Chapin. After his wife, Emma, fell ill and died in 1884, he fell into a deep depression and saw his fortune fall by the wayside. The fire of 1893 wiped out his remaining businesses and left him destitute.

He tried to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge over the Red River in Grand Forks, but the river was too shallow. The following year, he shot himself fatally, setting off a citywide day of mourning.

Which mayors missing?

Of the city’s 29 mayors, five are still absent from City Hall’s Wall of Mayors.

Chapin was the oldest – a distinction that now falls to Woodford Yerxa. He was mayor from 1883 to 1885. The most recent was William Smith, who served in 1912 and 1913.

The tricky part is finding images of people who lived so long ago, said Karena Carlson, Fargo’s communications manager.

The city stumbled upon an engraving of Chapin, for example, when the wife of City Administrator Pat Zavoral spotted it in a local shop.

Chapin’s portrait, painted by North Dakota artist Burdette Calkins, was based on the engraving.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502

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