January 14, 2021 — People out east were a more than a little surprised on this date in 1878 to see an illustration of the Bismarck Opera House in the latest edition of Harper’s Weekly magazine. Many of those readers didn’t even know that Bismarck existed; much less that it had an Opera House!
In the late 1800’s Harper’s Weekly was the most popular periodical in the United States. Thanks to an ambitious artist by the name of William Rogers, its readers were given the opportunity to learn about the “wilds of Dakota.”
William Rogers’ journey into Dakota Territory began in St. Paul in 1878. After covering President Hayes’ appearance at the Minnesota State Fair, he headed west. He jumped on the Northern Pacific Railroad and rode it west to Bismarck.
News of the artist’s arrival found its way into the September 25 edition of the Bismarck Tribune. The paper reported, “W.A. Rogers of Harpers Weekly is sketching matters and things about Bismarck.”
On speaking later of his adventures at the Bismarck Opera House, Rogers reported, “In the frontier town the “opera house” is a very important institution; and Bismarck in 1878 boasted a combination under one roof of courtroom, faro bank, saloon and theater.”
He continued by noting, “It was thus that without undue exertion one could litigate, speculate, ‘irrigate’ or be entertained, according to his tastes or needs.”
The sketch of the Bismarck Opera House that appeared in Harper’s Weekly was accompanied by vignettes of other scenes that Rogers drew while in the area, including a “Black Hills Freight Train,” “Selling Buffalo Robes,” a “Telegraph Repair Car” and “Bottled Groceries.”
Rogers left Bismarck and spent three weeks visiting and sketching the Standing Rock military post. His illustrations from the Standing Rock Agency are among his most important.
After returning to Bismarck, he headed off for “Fargo on the Red” and then hopped a steamboat to Grand Forks and Winnipeg. There he sketched scenes of “Fort Gerry, Manitoba” and “Harvesting on a Bonanza Farm” as well as many other scenes.
The sketches that Rogers made on this three-month western sojourn established him as an important illustrator of the West. Honing his cartoonist skills, he eventually went on to succeed Thomas Nast as Harper’s political cartoonist.
“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at shopprairiepublic.org.