Fueling 1910’s horsepower

Horses helped with railroad projects in the early 1900s.

JSSP Keith Norman Column Sig
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The 1910 construction season was busy with railroad projects in Stutsman County.

Two projects were moving dirt to create railroad grades with the Midland Continental working on its line from Edgeley to Jamestown and the Northern Pacific building its branch line from Pingree to Wilton.
While steam shovels were occasionally utilized for digging deep cuts through hills, most of the work was done with true horse power 112 years ago.

One of several contractors working on the Midland Continental was utilizing 200 teams of horses. Contractors on the Pingree to Wilton project employed similar herds of equine labor to move dirt.
And while there was no gasoline or diesel costs for these projects, there was still a fuel cost to keep things moving. Horses can graze on grass for a lot of their nutritional needs but animals working hard, say pulling scrappers to move tons of dirt, need feed with a higher density of energy and nutrition.

Which meant oats became one of the hottest commodities in Stutsman County in 1910.

The contractor working out of Pingree was looking to buy 20,000 bushels. We can assume contractors on the Midland Continental sought similar quantities.
Newspaper accounts say a bushel of oats was selling for 35 cents at the start of the 1910 construction season. Adjusted for inflation, that would be about $10.50 now.


The work of Helen Hughes Dulany was elaborately displayed in some of the leading magazines of the era and Helen was contracted to design products for some of the largest companies in the U.S.

As the summer progressed, and those horses kept working and eating, the price of oats climbed to 50 cents a bushel or about $15 today.

That is about a 50% increase and a demonstration of the supply-and-demand economy. Prices might even have gone higher but feed dealers began importing boxcar loads from Minnesota to supplement the locally grown feed.

Farmers, and the entire community, were more self-sufficient back in the early 1900s. Farmers raised the crops they sold for cash along with food for their own family and the grain needed to keep their horse-powered farm equipment working.

With gas and diesel-powered farm equipment, the need for oats has diminished. Apparently, there are not enough oats raised in Stutsman County these days for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to report.
Kidder County is the nearest county with a bit of oats crop. Farmers there raised about 21,000 bushels in 2021.

That is just enough to build the grade of a railroad line from Pingree to Wilton.

Author Keith Norman can be reached at

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