After 139 years, Churchs Ferry, North Dakota, to be dissolved

·6 min read

Aug. 6—CHURCHS FERRY, N.D. — Paul Christenson has lived in Churchs Ferry his whole life. He plans to stay, even with the town's end in sight.

He has served as the town's mayor over two different stretches, first from 1987 to 1992, and again from 1999 to now. As the population of Churchs Ferry has fallen to only six people (Christenson says six live there, but a sign in town says seven), he has taken on more responsibilities, mowing, plowing and trimming the trees as a one man-city shop.

Christenson, who has lived in Churchs Ferry for 64 years, stayed through widespread flooding and a government buyout of most of the town. He says he will remain there long after the town ceases to exist.

"Until I croak. I'm going to be buried under that big white tree over there" he said, gesturing toward a weeping birch near his auto repair shop.

On June 14, residents of Churchs Ferry voted 5-1 to dissolve the town. It means the tiny community — located northwest of Devils Lake — will no longer be recognized as an incorporated city, effective Sept. 1, ending a 139-year run.

The town, founded in 1883, fell victim to the rising waters of the Devils Lake basin in the 1990s. Most of the land in the town was bought by the Federal Emergency Management Association, and houses were torn down or moved. With a shrinking number of residents and very little tax revenue, the town's money has slowly been spent.

"It's time," said Christenson. "We're out of money."

Churchs Ferry is named for Irvine Church, one of the first settlers there in the 1880s. Church started a ferry service on the Mauvais Coulee, which runs past the town. The town was originally called Church's Ferry, but later lost the apostrophe to comply with United States Postal Service regulations.

At its peak in 1910, the town had a population of 457, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Christenson estimates that number was closer to 900 around 1915 because of the town's train stop.

"Those were the best times in this town's history in the '20s, '30s and '40s as everybody was settling and coming out this way," said Christenson.

The city hall, one of the few buildings still standing, was a product of the Works Progress Administration, built in the 1930s. It was used until 2005, until the city could no longer afford to heat it.

Jim Sorum, who now lives on a farmstead near Churchs Ferry, fondly remembers growing up there. He describes a thriving town, full of kids and their mischief, school sports and holiday celebrations.

"It was just a community ... that was full of life. We really enjoyed it," he said.

He remembers one Christmas Eve when Highway 2, which passes nearby, was closed because of a storm. Community members hosted stranded drivers in the gymnasium.

"It's in towns like that you have a strong sense of identity, and that identity is a shared identity with people that live there," he said. "To make a community, everybody has to participate."

The final high school class at Churchs Ferry graduated in 1988. There was only one graduate.

By 1990, the town had 118 people, but as the waters of Devils Lake rose through the 1990s, many left the community for higher ground. In 2000, the census counted 77 in the town, and around the same time, FEMA started buying out land in the town. By 2010, that population dropped to 12. Fifty-two structures have been torn down in Churchs Ferry.

The last church in Churchs Ferry, Zion Lutheran, held its final service in May 2011. That spring, flooding had surrounded the church, shutting down its sewer system. Today, a concrete slab and an empty belltower remain where the church stood. The bell has been moved outside the remaining portion of the town's school, which serves as the alumni association's museum.

This spring, the City Council of Churchs Ferry decided to do a few last projects — graveling the roads and putting up a town monument, for example — before turning the town over to the county. The monument, placed at the site of a former Methodist church, depicts Churchs Ferry and lists the years it was recognized as a town: 1883-2022.

"That was our final big purchase as a city, just to leave something here to show that we were here," said Christenson.

As outlined by North Dakota Century Code, when a city in North Dakota dissolves, the county assumes control of all property owned by the city and the city's public records. The county also inherits any debt a city may have, and can levy a tax on properties within the city's boundaries to pay off that debt.

Christenson says the town will have about $3,000 left at the time of dissolution.

"We're trying to do it the right way, without anybody else having any other financial commitment here," Christenson said. "Not harming anybody, not hurting anybody. We're just going to slide out."

Once the county does assume control, there will not be much left for it to manage, he says. A majority of the land was bought by FEMA, and Christenson has bought as much remaining land in town as he can. Two other houses remain in town, and the alumni association owns the land where the school was located.

"I've taken it upon myself for the last 22 years to keep this side of the track, where we all live, looking like it did prior to the buyout — or at least as close as I can get it," he said.

While few remain in Churchs Ferry, dozens who grew up and went to school in the town return each summer for the annual school reunion.

Louise Nelson, of Leeds, North Dakota, who graduated from Churchs Ferry in 1970 and serves as the alumni association's secretary and treasurer, said people from the community still want to reconnect, even years after graduating and leaving.

"You share the same history, the same stories and it's fun to see everybody and catch up, and just be in Churchs Ferry," she said.

Christenson says he is often asked what will happen to Churchs Ferry after it dissolves.

His answer: "Nothing."

The town will no longer be a government entity, which will take the responsibility of running it off Christenson's plate, but he says the outside world will not be able to see any changes.

"Yes, the dissolution of the town is something. But at the same time, if you come back here next year at this time, everything will look exactly as it does today," Christenson said. "Ten years from now, hopefully, it will still look like it does today."