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March 2015 - A Pioneer Railroad Builder of South Dakota

Charles Prior put many towns in South Dakota on the map.

Prior was an official in Minneapolis with the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway Company, commonly known as the Milwaukee Road. His job was to decide where the new railroad tracks would go and make new towns along the railroad. Between 1880 and 1884, at least 23 towns in what would become South Dakota were platted, or laid out, on land owned by Prior, according to “The Influence of Railroads upon the Processes and Patterns of Settlement in South Dakota” by James Fredric Hamburg.

These towns were Milbank, Waubay, Webster, Bristol, Andover, Groton, Bath, Aberdeen, Mina, Ipswich, Wilmot, Frederick, Westport, Warner, Mellette, Ashton, Tulare, Bonilla, Virgil, Alpena, Woonsocket, Artesian and Roswell.

Of these towns, Prior is believed to have named at least eight. Different explanations exist as to why he chose the names Bristol, Andover, Groton and Ipswich. They include naming the towns after cities in England, after towns in his native New England, and to honor his mentor, S.S. Merrill, who was a Scotsman. He is credited with naming Wilmot to honor Judge Wilmot Brookings; Alpena for Alpena, Mich.; Virgil for his admiration of the poet; and Woonsocket for a town by the same name in Rhode Island. Some sources state that he also named Aberdeen in honor of Alexander Mitchell, president of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway, who came from Aberdeen, Scotland.

In an interview published in the Prior Lake American in 1976, Harold Rhame of Saint Paul, Minn., said: “My grandfather, Charles Prior, was a very meticulous man. Everything he did was proper and precise. He kept a daily diary and in it recorded items, many of which were rather mundane, though many items were records of historical value.”

For example, at LaCrosse, Wis., on March 14, 1867, Prior mentions that the men on the gravel train went on strike asking for wages of 12 cents an hour.

A contemporary of railroad magnate James J. Hill, Prior wrote in his diary on July 8, 1879, “Saw Jim Hill in St. Paul, who says that John C. Duncan of Des Moines, Ia., has 30 miles of railroad to sell him for $30,000. Hill wants me to take half with him.”

Prior refused the offer.

Prior was born in Connecticut on Aug. 1, 1833. His family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, when he was about 5 years old. He studied at Oberlin College and at Ohio State University, graduating with a degree in civil engineering, according to his obituary. He soon started working for railroads as a civil engineer.

He became associated with Milwaukee Road in 1857.

“Under Mr. Prior’s direction, the first line of the St. Paul road was brought into Minneapolis in 1870,” read Prior’s obituary. “The following year he became superintendent of the Minnesota division and extended lines throughout the state. He supervised construction of the road into North and South Dakota and played a prominent part in mapping Aberdeen.”

As a line was built, a town would be platted every five to 10 miles. This is where farmers would bring their crops and livestock to send to the “city.”

When the tracks of the Milwaukee Road reached Groton, the company had intended to angle its tracks northwest toward Bismarck, passing through Columbia. Usually, towns gladly gave the railroad land for right-of-way. However, the Richmond Townsite Company asked the Milwaukee for right-of-way payment and a drawbridge over a river. Prior, according to “Brown County History,” refused to meet these demands and rerouted the rail line straight west from Groton. The tracks reached Aberdeen on July 6, 1881.

Prior and his wife, Delia, had purchased the land on which Aberdeen is located for $380 on Nov. 10, 1880, according to the “Brown County History.” The original plat of Aberdeen consisted of 16 blocks: two blocks east and two blocks west of Main Street, extending four blocks south from a strip along the Milwaukee right-of-way.

In 1881, three additions to Aberdeen were platted by Prior, or were platted under his guidance.

Prior retired from railroad work in 1887, to take up operations in real estate. He traveled extensively. His grandson said that Prior kept daily office hours in downtown Minneapolis until a few days before his death on Nov. 13, 1921, in Minneapolis. The cause of death was pneumonia, a complication from a broken hip.

Although Prior named many towns in South Dakota, only one town in the state was named after him. That town in the northeastern part of the state soon changed its name from Prior to Corona.

A city and lake in Minnesota both honor Prior by being named Prior Lake.

This moment in South Dakota history is provided by the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation, the nonprofit fundraising partner of the South Dakota State Historical Society at the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre. Find us on the web at Contact us at to submit a story idea.