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Marvin Hughitt

Appointed General manager (1876); Director (1877) Second Vice President and General Superintendent / General Manager (1880), and President (1887) of the Chicago & NorthWestern Railway Company.

Marvin Hughitt, General Superintendent of the C.N.W. Railroad Company, was in the county last week. He was looking up town sites. -Brookings County (Dakota Territory) Press, June 26, 1879

It was common in Dakota Territory during the Little House years for land companies to plat towns in the name of an official of a railroad company. The Western Town Lot Company platted twenty Dakota towns between 1879 and 1882 in the name of Albert Keep, the Chicago and NorthWestern Railroad’s president from 1877 to 1887. These towns included such familiar names as Brookings, Volga, Preston, Iroquois, and Huron.

De Smet and Manchester, on the other hand, were platted by Marvin Hughitt, who served as second-in-command under Albert Keep for many years. The plat for the town of Manchester was drawn up before the surveyors left to go back east in the fall of 1879, leaving Charles Ingalls in charge of their tools. De Smet was platted the following spring, on March 27, 1880.

In By the Shores of Silver Lake (Chapter 7, “The West Begins”), Laura Ingalls Wilder writes that as they are leaving the Big Sioux Railroad camp, surveyors are busy pounding stakes to mark a new townsite. This camp was just west of the present town of Brookings, but both Brookings and the next town to the west, Volga, were platted during the last week of December, 1879. The Ingallses traveled west from Walnut Grove in September.

The Western Town Lot Company was a subsidiary of the Chicago & NorthWestern. According to its articles of incorporation:

The principal business of this corporation shall be to buy, improve, plat and lay out into town lots, and sell and deal in land and town lots in the states of Iowa and Minnesota and the Territory of Dakota and in other states and territories where it may lawfully transact such business, to promote immigration, and the settlement or occupation of lands in such states and territories, and for this purpose shall be vested with full power to make contracts with individuals or incorporations for the purchase or sale of real and personal property.

Negative feelings about the railroad – some of which Wilder writes about in By the Shores of Silver Lake – were why railroad companies did not flaunt openly that they were also responsible for the town site companies locating towns along the tracks and selling town lots. The railroad further profited by hauling goods to settlers in these towns and charging exorbitant prices for them.

Who was this man responsible for the town of De Smet? Marvin Hughitt was born in New York in 1837. When not quite fourteen years old, he decided to leave the farm, and he found work in a telegraph office as a messenger boy while learning to master Morse code. By the time he was seventeen, Hughitt had become an expert telegraph operator.

Eager to seek his fortune in the West, Hughitt moved to Chicago and accepted the position as Chief of Telegraph with the St. Louis and Chicago Railroad. The job also came with the responsibility of train master, which meant that Hughitt dispatched all train crews. At one point during the Civil War, Hughitt stayed on the job for thirty-six hours straight in order to dispatch supplies and troops where needed. He had barely slept before being back on the job for another thirty-six hours. His hard work brought him to the attention of those in charge, and he was appointed assistant railroad superintendent.

Marvin Hughitt became railroad superintendent of the Chicago & NorthWestern Railroad in 1872, vice president and general manager in 1880, and its president in 1887. And no, it’s not Marvin Hughitt as superintendent of the division that we read about in The Long Winter (see Chapter 21) and Pioneer Girl; that was his successor!


Marvin Hughitt, not named in the Little House books or Pioneer Girlsee also superintendent