Minnie H was product of Caption E.E. Heerman’s Will

By Heerman J. Naugle

Reprinted in the Benson County Farmers Press
Minnewaukan, ND
May 3, 1995


The story of the “Minnie H” property starts with the birth of her owner & operator. Edward Edson Heerman was born in Salem Pond, Orleans County, Vt., April 18, 1834. His parents were farm people and as were most farmers of that day, they were self-sufficient on their farm. They raised their own sheep, carded & spun the wool into thread & wove it into cloth. Raising their own food, making their clothes, shoes & many of their utensils & tools developed self reliance & initiative in the children. While Captain Heerman was yet a young boy, the family moved to Pennsylvania and later to Iowa, settling near what is now Burlington.


From this home, at the age of 16, Captain Heerman started out on his own. Carrying all of his worldly possessions in a small bundle & with but a few cents in his pocket, he started for the shores of the Mississippi river, for he had decided to seek his fortune on the river.At the age of 19, he was in command of his own steamboat on the river. The first of a fleet of 13 steamboats which he owned and operated on the Mississippi and Chippewa rivers. Almost all of his boats were named in one way or another for his only daughter, Minnietta Heerman, later Mrs. Minnie H. Naugle of Devils Lake.


For nearly 30 years his business prospered. Then progress brought the railroads into the transportation picture and their entry spelled doom for the river traffic. An opportunity to bid on transporting a load of freight to Ft. Benton, Montana opened up and thinking of the possibility of finding a new location to transfer his steamboat activities, Captain Heerman made what became the successful bid for the contract. On April 27, 1880, he sailed from St. Paul down the Mississippi river to St. Louis, then up the Missouri river to Ft. Benton. He arrived there with his load of freight on July 4, 1880–a distance of nearly 4200 miles. This was the longest continuous trip ever made on inland waters by steamboat.The trip did not result in finding a new location, however and the captain returned to his operations on the Mississippi and Chippewa rivers, until 1882 he made a trip to Devils Lake, Dakota territory. This was his second trip into Dakota, as in 1858 he and five associates had become interest in steamboat navigation on the Red River and had established a town site called East Burlington, seven miles south of Fargo.


During the Indian massacred of 1862 the settlement was burned and wiped out. In the meantime, the coming of the railroads was the beginning of the end of steamboat passenger traffic on the Mississippi. “On July 16, 1882, commercial steam boating on the Chippewa was a thing of the past,” Caption Heerman wrote in his memoirs. Continuing his search for a new location, Captain Heerman, then 48 came to the Lake Region when it was practically a wilderness, arriving at Odessa on November 3, 1882. The following story of the building of the “Minnie H” is taken in part from Captain Heerman’s own memoirs and bears the title “Tales of Hardships.”

“There was a stopping place at Odessa at the eastern end of the lake. Plenty of town lots were available. The lake had been partly frozen out from the shore and the ice was about 4 inches thick, I think. The next day, I came further up the lake, where a town called Devils Lake City had been laid out about 1 mile north of the lake and about 2 miles east of where the city of Devils Lake is now situated. On November 5, the snow all disappeared, I spent 5 days in all at the lake. Devils Lake was a beautiful body of water fringed with timber and the locality was dotted with other beautiful lakes. I examined the soil and believed I had found an empire of undeveloped resources. The shores generally were not far from the timber line and the lake extended nearly to where the depot of the city of Devils Lake now is. On November 8, I returned to my home at Reads Landing, Minnesota, sold everything I had and on November 27, made a contract for the making of the frame of the steamer “Minnie H,” to be operated on Devils Lake. There was, at that time, not many settlers near the lake, but there was a number of town sites. The Dana & Simmeral families had claims southeast of Devils Lake city, on the lakeshore. Major Benham ran the hotel at Devils Lake city. Creelsburg was prospective; Colonel Creel & Colonel Uline were there. George Moore and Frank Pitcher had claims near town. Major Stansbury was here. The Pools, the LaRues, Mr. Lafe Palmer and Captain Jesse Palmer had claims in the timber on Rock Island. Three companies, I think, were stationed at Fort Totten, on the south sides of the lake, with Colonel Conrad in command. Frank Palmer was Indian Storekeeper and Mr. Peck was post trader. Many others could be added if I could think of their names. There was quite a strife about a town site for the lake. Nothing was settled until Mr. J.J.Hill came out in the winter, some time I think, in February 1883. “I remained in Minnesota until everything was underway. My first shipments of boat materials were made in November 1882. The total registered 14 carloads. At that time the end of the track was beyond Larimore and the railroad construction company was pushing grade on to Bartlett.” “The first 3 carloads to arrive at Larimore contained the machinery and the sawmill. We left Larimore, December 12, 1882 in a snowstorm, attempting to get the first 3 carloads on to Bartlett. We had to shovel snow all night to keep the engine alive. I lost an overshoe and had town men shovel in my place at $1.00 an hour. The engine had to go back for a snow plow, which came from Grand Forks. I walked on to the end of the track, hungry, on the night of December 16, reaching Osburn’s for the night. The engine got to the end of the track at the same time. Five days were consumed in moving the train from Larimore to Bartlett. The construction crew pulled off and the 11 remaining carloads were left at Larimore, which was 35 or 40 miles from where I built the Steamer “Minnie H.” All of this material was hauled later by team, at great expense, to the boatyard, in what is now Lakewood on the shores of Devils Lake. The first ton of hay I bought cost $45.00; oats were $1.00 per bushel; other things were in proportion. “After getting the 3 cars to Bartlett, I improvised a storage place and commenced to haul. Great quantities of snow fell. There were no railroad roads; we just drove out over the great prairie and we made slow progress getting to the lake.” “Purchasing a claim, I commenced to build a living place on the banks of the lake. I must say that was the coldest job I ever got into. The wind blew a gale nearly everyday, making it very hard and dreary. At times in building, it took 3 men to fasten on a board; one to hold the board, one to hold the nail and one to pound the nail.” The snow drifted, piling up in great drifts and making it almost impossible to do much. We finally had a place to get into and that was a happy night. We all suffered great hardships, more than most folks will ever know. I was here 2 months without one letter getting through from home. “On January 13, at Bartlett we loaded the Minnie H boiler, which had been built in Cincinnati and shipped here entirely new. January 15 we started out with the boiler. We increased our horsepower to nine span of horses and used sticks under the runners. For the first 2 days we made a distance of 10 miles and the teams had to scatter over the prairie for shelter or stable room. Many teams gave out . . . One evening I guided the teams in the dark until we got to Steven’s. The little home was already crowded, but they made room for us. The horses were crowded into the barn. During the night, the wind blew so hard through the tiny cracks and crevices in the barn, that by morning the snow had drifted 3 feet deep inside.” “The Pat Murphys took us in one night and sheltered us. Two Teams turned back and only three were left.” On January 17, we arrived at Rock Island, but without the boiler; we found it impossible to haul it in the deep snow and drifts. I then built a big stone bone, that would not turn over the big drifts. The result of this was that the teams could not pull it that way. I was finally able to procure a pair of logging sleds. I transferred the load in the big sleds and I finally found 4 teams sufficient to haul it to the place of building. We arrived there January 23, consuming 11 days in moving the boiler 20 miles by team. “On one of these days of hardship the thermometer at the Fort was said to register 50 degrees below zero, I wish to add right here that while I have seen lots of hard winters, this was the worst that I ever experienced.” “It took most of the winter to haul all of the carloads left at Larimore. We would unload the material the best we could and on our return would not find it until we had shoveled it out of the snow. One sled load was never found. I waited and picked my time and did much better with the rest of the material than I had with the boiler.” “I soon had the sawmill in operation. Everything sawed in the shape of slab or board was soon carried off. The most of my good building lumber was shipped in from the Chippewa river country. Some of the shorter lengths, I found in the timber here. I sold a lot of lumber for claim shacks. We sawed all day, but at night there were no boards for anyone, although people were standing around wanting lumber. I found the sawmill a great convenience in building a steamboat in such a country as this was then, only a great prairie wilderness, opened to white settlement, just one year previous, in 1881. “About January 29, we had a living place where we could cook and eat and sleep. It seemed very much different. We could then accomplish something more satisfactory.” I had procured a good crew of caulkers from Milwaukee and ship carpenters from Minnesota. The Minnie H was finished in the late spring of 1883. Her dimensions were 110 feet over all; beam 20 feet 6 inches; depth, 8 feet at the bow, and 7 1/2 feet at the stern; 150 ton burden and she drew 3 1/2 feet of water. She could and did accommodate freight, U.S. mail, and passengers from Devils Lake to all points on the lake. She made 2 successful trial trips on July 2 & 3, 1883. From the commencement of the building of the steamer, one might say in advance of any settlement, the newspapers and railroads did their part to boost the settlement along. There were the hardships of my first settlement in Devils Lake. As I said before, this was a wilderness and I was sinking $35,000 in it. The boats were one of the best things for this country. The railroad had been extended to Devils Lake and a fine dock build not far from the depot at Devils Lake, with a railroad track out to and alongside the steamboats, so that freight could be unloaded from the cars to the boats. A fine dock was also built at Minnewaukan, where the Northern Pacific connected at the other end of the lake. The first passenger train (on what is now the Great Northern Railroad) met the Minnie H on the Fourth of July 1883 and brought an excursion including railroad men, editors and commercial men from points in Dakota territory and from St. Paul. They had a fine day and a fine trip which was enjoyed by all on board. Mr. Brown of the St. Paul firm of Brown & Tracy was on board. The fact that this was a new country to be settled made it more enjoyable than it would have been otherwise. Many a good write-up for the lake and the country came out of that trip. Many similar trips were made later on in the same interest, to bring people into this new wilderness. For nearly 30 years, I kept a record of the lake’s water level. With the exception of a few years, the water level steadily fell. In the fall of 1889 the boats made their last trip to Devils Lake. The water had receded so much that the boats thereafter had to land at the narrows of the bay, about 1 1/2 miles from Devils Lake and were never able to get back to town again. The boats had done quite a business. Realizing the loss of water and landing, I undertook to see if it was not possible to torn the Mouse and Sheyenne rivers into Devils Lake in order to save the lake. A preliminary survey was made later, but because there was not sufficient business to justify the expense the matter was dropped. The time card for the Minnie H states here scheduled trips were as follows:

Leave Devils Lake, for Fort Totten, daily at 9:00 a.m.
Leave Fort Totten, for Devils Lake, daily at 2:00 p.m.
Leave Devils Lake for West End & Minnewaukan at 4:00 p.m., Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays
Returning-Leave Minnewaukan for Devils Lake at 4:00 a.m. on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays


For years, during the 2 weeks of Chautauqua season, she often carried as much as 1,400 tons of freight and 3000 passengers to Fort Totten and other points of interest on the lake. Over the period many excursions were made, some gratuitous, in the interest of various organizations. Such were the Devils Lake Cornet Band excursions of May 31, 1885 and August 25, 1885 and for the benefit of the M.E. Church, August 13, 1885 to name just a few. Many important personages visiting this area traveled on the Minnie H. When General William T. Sherman came to visit Fort Totten in August of 1884, he, his 2 daughters & several friends traveled from Devils Lake to Fort Totten on the Minnie H.


The Minnie H was in operation on Devils Lake every summer from July 4, 1883 until the fall of 1908. The water level of the lake dropped steadily during this time with a corresponding decrease in the volume of business. In the spring of 1909, because of low water level and small income from passenger traffic. Captain Heerman, after careful consideration, decided to leave the boats permanently in dry dock. The process of dismantling them then began. The pilot house of the Minnie H was moved to the yard of his home in Devils Lake, where it provided a fine playhouse for his grandchildren and in later years fro his great-grandchildren. The flagstaff was placed in the yard in front of the house, where it stood many years. At present it is in the yard of the Pioneer Daughters Museum cabins at Fort Totten. The pilot wheel is in the State Historical Society building in Bismarck. The whistle is still in use and blows many times a day, from the State School for the Deaf in Devils Lake. Most of the wood of the rudder has been made into gavels. Of special historical interest is the fact that this rudder was made of native North Dakota oak. The reason for this was that the sled load of materials which was lost and never recovered had contained the lumber for the rudder. So, since it was lost, Captain Heerman went into the woods at what is now Lakewood and selected a native oak tree from which he fashioned timbers for the rudder. And from this rudder of native oak-many years later-Captain Heerman had a gavel made, to be presented to the first native North Dakotan to be elected Governor of North Dakota, George Shafer. In the Governor’s Mansion at Camp Grafton are furnishings made in part or in full from timbers taken from the hull of the Minnie H. Diversion of river water into Devils Lake, was project conceived by Captain Heerman when the water level, first, began to fall. In his later years, the 1920’s with revival interest in this project, Captain Heerman had gavels made out of this same native oak rudder and through the kind efforts of Sivert W. Thompson of Devils Lake, had them presented to the President of the United States and to the Speakers of the House and the Senate. In December, 1956, a gavel was presented to retiring Gov. Norman Brunsdale at a banquet in Devils Lake, honoring him for his work in furthering water conservation and diversion in North Dakota.


Captain Heerman passed away in October 1989, at the age of 95. It was indeed a satisfaction to him, that his boats attracted tourist and settlers, helped them find locations, provided many of them with means of earning a living and were a great aid in opening up the Lake Region to settlement. In a total of 59 years of steam boating, Caption Heerman’s record shows no serious injury to passengers and not one loss of life. His story is one of hardship and endurance, ingenuity and skill, courage and faith; it exemplifies the type of man that settled this country and helped immeasurably to make it what it is today.