A Brief History Of Portal


Gordon Sjue


It would not be inaccurate to say that Portal owes its existence to the arrival at the U.S./Canada border of the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault St. Marie Railroad, commonly known as the Soo Line. Portal was and largely still is a railroad town.

In the late 1800s investors in the newly established Soo Line Railroad were interested in a route to the grain producing areas in order to supply grain to the mills in the Twin Cities. As a result, the Soo Line played an integral part in opening up North Dakota and Northeast Montana to settlement. Many of the original homesteaders traveled to Portal on the Soo Line and used it as a jumping off point to continue on to their claims.

It is commonly accepted that Portal was established in 1893 upon the arrival of the Soo Line, although there is reference to two buildings being erected in Portal in 1892 by or for the Soo Line so as to accord them squatter’s rights. Whichever date is used, it probably makes Portal the first established community in Burke County, which at that time was part of Ward County. The arrival of the “Iron Horse” no doubt provided the impetus for Portal, as it did for many towns in North Dakota to begin, grow and prosper. It is interesting to note that the new town was originally to be called Sterling. Since there was already a Sterling in North Dakota, Portal was given its name, probably by the railroad, for obvious reasons.

It is well established that the tracks into Portal arrived in 1893. The last half mile or so, which is now the town site of Portal, was laid over a marshy area. Portal residents have been fighting that decision ever since. One of the first residents, Esther Caroline “Cassie” Irving recalls that in the early years row boats were often used to get around the town site. Ms. Irving became an employee of the Canadian Pacific Railroad as a clerk at a time when women were not readily accepted in the workforce. When railroad officials came to town, she would be allowed by her supervisor to take the day off. She was so highly respected by the CPR that she earned the assignment of opening a newly constructed depot for the Soo Line in Portal.

It is unclear exactly when the Canadian Pacific Railroad arrived in North Portal to connect to the Soo Line. It could possibly have been in 1893 or a short time later. As a result of the hookup of the two railroads, the United States Immigration Office and the Canada Customs and Immigration Offices were established in Portal and North Portal in 1901. They were opened in response to travelers, immigrants and goods passing between the two countries. Portal was also a starting point for prospectors and fortune seekers traveling to the gold fields of Alaska and the Yukon. As a result of increasing traffic and especially immigrant settlers passing through Portal to settle in Saskatchewan and Alberta, Portal earned the sobriquet “Gateway to the Great Northwest”. To this day Portal is still one of the major midwest ports of entry for rail and highway traffic. At about this same time Chinese laborers were entering the U.S. at Portal, in part, destined to provide crucial labor to build more railroads. Through their eyes Portal may well have been the “Gateway to the Great South”.

Many famous people were to travel through Portal by rail over the first half of the century. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor passed through Portal in I950. The former King of England and the Duchess were in route to his ranch in Alberta. I remember as a young boy being enthralled listening to Hazel Kjelson (Holmes) tell us about the day Babe Ruth passed through Portal on Soo Line's passenger train, The Mountaineer. Hazel's son, Keith, had the honor of being the last passenger to depart Portal on the Soo Line passenger train in December 1963.


Although established in 1893, Portal was not surveyed and platted until 1899. It was incorporated as a village in 1905 and in 1914, as a result of a vote taken by its citizens, Portal was incorporated as a city. The 1913 census reported there were 567 residents in Portal.

Streets in Portal were named after prominent citizens of the town when it was platted. Levi Haffie, Mark Murphy, Galen and Albert Makee, Horace Prairie, Seth Crosby and Andrew Olsen were some of these early residents so honored.

There were many businesses established in the first decade of the 1900s including at least two banks. Although it has been decades since it has been open for business, The Portal State Bank remains on Main Street. In the late 1920s the bank, then called the Union Bank, fell on hard times as did many banks throughout the country. The General Manager and Cashier at the time was Charles H. Marshall a prominent attorney and respected businessman. On September 15, 1929, Mr. Marshall took his own life by hanging in the back of the bank. The bank had closed a few weeks prior to his death. It was written in the local paper, The International, that the bank was closed due to depleted funds. The International stated Marshall left a note to his wife and explained that “grief, discouragement and conditions surrounding the closing of the bank had caused him to become despondent and had almost driven him to insanity. Fearing a nervous breakdown and thoughts of becoming a burden to his wife and daughter prompted his rash act”.

In about 2007 Charles Marshall’s grandson, Larry Anderson, visited Portal. He is the son of Marshall’s only child, Muriel. Mr. Anderson related to me that when he was growing up his mother told him of her father's great anguish during the time leading up to the closing of the bank. She recalled on numerous occasions patrons of the bank coming to their house begging for their money so as to be able to feed and clothe their families. Of course there was no money and they went away empty handed or with a small personal contribution from Mr. Marshall. The Portal State Bank building was restored by Mary Sjue in the 1990s and was placed on the Registry of National Historic Places.


The history of Portal would not be complete without mentioning its colorful past with regard to the consumption, sale and smuggling of liquor. North Dakota was a dry state from the day it obtained statehood in 1889 until the end of prohibition. Its close proximity to the Canadian border, where alcohol was legal, made it a natural location for those seeking profits in the liquor trade. Our history is filled with stories about these days from "blind pigs" (a lower class establishment where one could buy illegal liquor) to rumors of locals running booze across the porous border. As youngsters in Portal we heard stories of Al Capone passing through Portal on his way to Moose Jaw to further his criminal enterprise. He was also said to have on occasion stayed in the Grand View Hotel. Whether these stories are true or not, they have become part of the folklore of Portal and North Portal. The International reported that prohibition worked no real hardship on the citizens of Portal as it was easy to step across the line to the Union Hotel in North Portal where the consumption of alcohol was legal. The law in Canada did require the bar to close at 7:00 PM. This was widely ignored as it was well know that the clock did not work well in that establishment. A new RCMP Officer, Constable Ensor, was assigned to North Portal and he set out to change Portal's and North Portal's drinking culture. The arrest of the owner of the hotel did not set well with the locals. When half the town turned out to testify to his innocence, he was set free. The International henceforth referred to this officer as Constable Eyesore.

It must be mentioned that the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) organized a successful and highly visible chapter in Portal. One can imagine they did not lack for want of work to do or souls to save.

The end of World War II saw the return of the "greatest generation". They were not the same farm and small-town boys that marched off to war just a few years before. Years away from home changed them forever. Portal experienced a revival of sorts in the 1950s and 60s. On Fridays and Saturdays there was often a dance in the Memorial Hall and the bars were standing room only. It was not unusual for Main Street and Railway Avenue to be lined bumper to bumper with parked cars. Yes, Portal was the place to party in this area in those days.


Records reflect the first school in Portal was opened in 1901 at the location of the old Union Brokerage. Miss Mary Gabbel was the first teacher and was paid the sum of $40 per month. This school burned down and a new school was opened in the renovated residence of Dr. Parker.

As a result of a growing population and and influx of students from Lignite, Northgate and North Portal, a new school was built in 1913. The first graduate was said to be Clarence Roan who was killed in action in World War I. The school, of which many of us have fond memories, saw the last graduating class depart the stage in 1968. Barbara Wegener has the honor of being the last graduate. A new grade school was built in the mid 1960s but that too closed after a few years. Both school closures can be attributed to the gradual decline in the population of Portal. All communities in Burke County experienced similar declines and several other communities lost their schools.


Yes, there was offical corruption in those days also. From 1910 to 1913 U.S. and Canadian vets colluded to steal healthy horses from U.S. immigrants to Canada. Homesteaders were shipping their fine draft horses to Canada to work the fields. Upon reaching the border some horses were falsely declared to have Glanders, a contagious respiratory disease, and were quarantined and later condemned. The unscrupulous vets then sold the perfectly healthy horses on the local market. The scheme was ultimately exposed and the two vets reportedly lost their positions.


Not unlike the other communities in North Dakota, Portal prospered until the 1930s. The long, slow decline in population and community vitality hit Portal as it did most small towns in the Midwest. There were many factors for the slow decline, mechanized farming, changes in railroad operation, drought, improved methods of transportation, modern technology and the depression to name a few. Many young men returning from World War II no doubt felt life in small towns lacked opportunities and was too confining so they looked to the cities for a new start. The population of Portal has leveled off and seems to be holding at about 125 to 150 persons. Area oil activity and the new, busy port of entry with its many employees will likely provide some stability for the foreseeable future.


It would be impossible to list all of the persons who were born and raised in Portal or lived here for parts of their lives who have made important contributions in all walks of life on local, national and international levels. William Bissell, class of 1953, was part of the team that invented a method to cool liquid-fueled rocket engines. Ana Sutton, daughter of one of Portal's earliest residents, John Swennumson, left at an early age to ride horses in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. Tony Chezik, an early resident and businessman in Portal, was a nationally recognized trap shooter who was selected to represent the U.S. at the 1912 Olympics. Steven Gunderson may well have been the greatest high school shotputter in the history of North Dakota. He set state records in each of his sophomore, junior and senior years. The last record endured for nearly 30 years.

Many of the readers of this web site will have a direct or indirect connection to Portal. You are always welcome to come home for a visit.

Author's note: It was never my intention to write a complete history of Portal. That endeavor will require much more time, research and dedication. I have tried to present an overview of Portal's history and add anecdotes that I believe are interesting and would have broad appeal. The lives of many interesting and important people and important facts in Portal's history have been sacrificed in the interest of brevity.

In researching the literature and other sources for this article, I was unable to find a condensed version of our town’s history appropriate for this web site. Fortunately, I was able to collect a wealth of information from several sources. I would like to thank those listed below for their contributions.

The Portal Story by Lydel Burton Pierce, 1960
Whispers from the Press by Wesley Engstrom
Biography of an International Railroader by L. Gail (Dunbar) Kapiczowski
The Early History of Portal by Mary Daley
The archives of my late mother, Mary Sjue
The International, Portal's weekly newspaper from the turn of the century until the 1940s