The Saga of West Hill
Since 2010, Aberdeen has had a population increase of 9.24%, according to the World Population Review. If you need any physical proof of Aberdeen’s growth, just look at all of the new residential developments and apartments that have sprung up since then. It seems like these new plots of land always eventually get filled with new houses, which is due to the opportunities Aberdeen and the region has to offer.
Aberdeen certainly had a growth slump in the 1970s and 80s which was a stark contrast to the city’s early days when population doubled between 1900 and 1910 (163% increase) and consistently grew. Soon after Aberdeen declared itself a city in 1881, people carved up the surrounding prairie, platting new neighborhoods all around the initial plat that became downtown. People flocked from all over the eastern states to make Aberdeen their home. This is true for the mercantile firm owners known as Beard, Gage & Beard, who are credited with developing a most mysterious land development in Aberdeen known as West Hill.
Many have heard the term “West Hill,” however few probably know its origins, its footprint, and what it actually refers to.
Just where is “West Hill?” Well, it’s out west, and it’s Aberdeen’s only discernible hill. As you travel on Sixth Avenue going west, as you pass by Lincoln Elementary and the Salvation Army, the grade starts to rise, peaking just past Steven Lust Automotive. West Hill rises 17 feet above Main Street. If you look at the map on the previous page you can see mapmaker W.P. Butler indicates the east edge of the hill.
The story of the West Hill housing development starts in the early 1800s with Thomas Clarkson Gage. According to articles from the Aberdeen Daily, he moved to South Dakota in 1881 from Fayetteville, New York, where he operated a merchandise business with his father. After moving to the city, he began looking for business partners to start his own merchandise operation. He met brothers Henry and Frank Beard and negotiations were made to start their Main Street store, then eventually their real estate firm, known as Beard, Gage & Beard.
Opening in March 1882, the business became the most well-established and profitable firm in the area. Beard, Gage & Beard are also credited with having the oldest merchandise establishment in Aberdeen.
Because of their already established business, Beard, Gage & Beard wanted to develop a prosperous housing development that would increase the number of resident lots in the booming city. They platted a 25-block development, not contiguous with existing plats, on top of a hill. This land development would be known as “West Hill,” with the subtitle used in promotions, “Aberdeen’s Only Rival City,” presumably because it was not connected to Aberdeen. Beard, Gage & Beard were sure that it was to become the most successful development in the newly founded city.
The West Hill development can be found on the southwest part of town. It is now bordered by Twelfth Street to Fifteenth Street and from Sixth Avenue to Second Avenue. The West Hill development was considered desirable because of the land slope. The lots sold at the top of the hill were considered prime real estate because water could easily drain from the top of the hill down and didn’t affect the homes’ cellars. The area was also considered “strictly for residence,” which promised future homeowners that no large businesses would be setting up shop in their backyard. This would soon cause problems for the development later on in its history.
Once announced in 1886, ads appeared in the local newspaper that anybody planning on moving to Aberdeen should very much consider purchasing a lot and build a home in West Hill. Because of very promising marketing, many prominent Aberdeen citizens began purchasing these lots, sold in quarter-block sections, and West Hill seemed like it was to become a very important housing development for the city.
Very expensive mansions began to be built in West Hill, and it became an important site for many Aberdonians. Multiple articles from early publications, like the Aberdeen Daily, document that many of the people living in West Hill threw extravagant parties, whether it be birthdays or get-togethers with other people living in the neighborhood. In 1887 Beard, Gage & Beard built a sidewalk along Third Avenue from the Manitoba Depot (now Healthcare Plus Federal Credit Union) to West Hill. The stretch of sidewalk from downtown to West Hill was dubbed a promenade and labeled “Lover’s Lane,” as folks would take leisurely strolls through the neighborhood. Anybody who was anybody in Aberdeen wanted to live in West Hill, but, quickly, this mindset changed.
The West Hill development faced many problems in the late 1890s and into the new century. In 1894, Gage retired from the firm he created with the Beards. Due to the business’s valuable merchandise and real estate, he still remained in close contact with the Beards and continued to help run the business and promote his developments, said earlier editions of the Aberdeen American News. Also during this time, many of the prominent Aberdeen citizens who built mansions in West Hill soon abandoned or moved the homes they built, one example being prominent Aberdeen resident, Will Foster.
Documented in the Aberdeen Weekly, Foster built his West Hill home in 1887 at the height of the development’s excitement at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Thirteenth Street (Fifteenth Avenue in 1887). He moved to Aberdeen to start a family with his wife, an elocutioner who was one of the most well known in the country. Foster was the deputy register of deeds, auditor, and treasurer for Aberdeen for many years, and lived in West Hill until the late 1890s. He later moved to Chicago, where he became an executive in the Northwestern Railroad. Due to a series of unfortunate events, he returned to Aberdeen to bury his sister, who committed suicide.
After Foster left, another man known as J.C. Peterson moved into the old house to start his family. This didn’t last long, though, because in 1914, the Foster mansion, coincidently, burned down, with little to no remains. The house had a net worth of $6,000: $4,000 in real estate and $2,000 in furniture. The mansion was never rebuilt.
Another mysterious West Hill story begins with a man known as John T. McChesney. He was the president of the Aberdeen National Bank and built his West Hill mansion in 1886. At the time, McChesney was known to have the finest mansion in all of Aberdeen. By the late 1890s, McChesney had sold his home to the city and left Aberdeen.
Because of the real estate value and open land, the city of Aberdeen wished to convert McChesney’s house into a detention hospital. This was upsetting to the other residents of West Hill, because one of the major selling points for settling in the development was that the area wouldn’t be disturbed by businesses or other city-built buildings. The development was to be strictly for residence, but the city planned to disregard this and build the detention hospital anyway, which was said to greatly help the city of Aberdeen.
The residents revolted and went to City Hall, hoping to halt the plan. Due to the residents being extremely upset and promises held by the firm, the Aberdeen township supervisors put a stop to the detention hospital. To this day, resident records do not show where this area of land is. Curiously, on the map on page 49, there is a large open area with the name McChesney on it. Could this be where he ultimately built his home? And, where did it go? Oddly, city directories of the time only list the address of all these individuals simply as “West Hill.” No street numbers and no streets.
By 1901, West Hill was “extremely bare, but had excellent land,” said the Aberdeen Daily. The area was prime real estate, yet no new houses were being built in the area. Due to its land features and its excellent location in Aberdeen, West Hill caught the attention of one big business: The Milwaukee Railroad Company. The company found West Hill to be extremely useful to them, and took the bareness of the land as a sign of opportunity.
Around the year 1905, the railroad company chose to expand their land ownership in Aberdeen. The railroads have always been an important component to the city and made Aberdeen a hub for transporting goods via train. Aberdeen was one of the top railroad cities in the nation, so it made absolute sense for the company to increase their real estate. These expansions were written about in articles from the Aberdeen Daily and Weekly.
The first phase of their expansion started in 1906, with the construction of a gravity yard. A gravity yard was also constructed in Chicago for around $2 million, so, naturally, one was to be built in Aberdeen as well. This invention helped with cutting off railway cars without the use of a switch engine. Due to West Hill’s geographic incline, the Milwaukee used the land to their advantage, and finished construction of a gravity yard on the actual West Hill hill.
Once it was built, the gravity yard helped define Aberdeen as a division point in the Pacific Coast extension and the railway business as a whole. West Hill residents were unhappy with the Milwaukee Railroad Company’s extension, as it limited housing developments in the area, but went along with it, not knowing that there were to be multiple phases to the extension.
The second phase began the year after, in 1907, with the construction of a semaphore system to help navigate trains and create a safer environment for the railway hub. Due to the Milwaukee implementing Trans-Continental trains into their system, this semaphore system was deemed necessary to the development of their business, as with the previous gravity yard. A large tower with many signal arms, used to guide trains as to which lane they should stop, was constructed with a $3,000 price tag. Even though the system was necessary, the residents of West Hill were not happy with the very tall tower built in their backyard.
The final phase of the railroad expansion happened in 1909, which included actually excavating the hill north of Second Avenue to even out the area where switch yards were to be constructed. The land that was known for its incline was soon to lose its most prominent feature due to big business expansion, and the residents, once again, had an outcry of agitation at the changing of the land they so desperately defended. The railroad literally sliced through the hill, leaving a cliff still visible from various points when looking south from north of the tracks. Seems the upscale neighborhood just couldn’t catch a break.
Over the years, the entire area around and west of Lincoln Elementary School became known as West Hill by people who grew up in the west part of Aberdeen. However, another prominent and competitive development, known as Highland Park, was platted due south of, and a year or two after West Hill in 1888. Like its predecessor, many prominent Aberdeen citizens built lavish houses in the new, hip development. A man known as H.C. Jewett built a massive home at Ninth Avenue SE and Fifteenth Street S. but by the 1890s had moved it to the corner of Sixth Avenue and Jay Street. Highland Park suffered the same fate as West Hill. Neither could sustain their upscale image. Eventually, T.C. Gage changed his game and focused on selling individual lots, not quarter-block sized lots to folks of modest means. Even T.C. Gage left West Hill and built the small yellow and brown Victorian house that still stands at Kline Street, a few lots off Sixth Avenue, directly across the street where the library once stood.
Due to many unfortunate events and unforeseen circumstances, some of the most prominent mansions in Aberdeen have been lost to history. The West Hill development can still be seen today, but not in the way it was in its heyday, with extravagant parties and many mansions to boot. If you go to West Hill today, you can still see the gradual incline of land, and you can still find Dead Mans Hill at the cliff left by the railroad, but those will be the only thing that remains from the most mysterious land development in Aberdeen. // –Jonah Kost and Troy McQuillen
Special thanks to the Brown County Assessor’s Office and the Dacotah Prairie Museum for helping with research and for providing photos for this story.
West Hill Goes South
As it turns out, I grew up in West Hill. Not the swanky development that disappeared, but rather the “area” west of Aberdeen. We lived in a new housing development in Highland Park created in the early 1970s. Our neighborhood stood in distinct contrast to the more aged and well-lived-in places around us. I went to Lincoln School and experienced many of the landmark West Hill highlights (Lincoln School, School Patrol, Frontier Park, the Railroad yards).
The late William (Gene) Aisenbrey wrote two vignettes of his time growing up in West Hill during 1936-1941. He refers to himself and his buddies as the West Hill Kids or Gang, but affectionately refers to the section of town as “Poverty Hump.” Gene talks about the “cliff” or the steep slope created across the street from Second Avenue between Eleventh and Fourteenth streets after the railroad scraped through the hill. In his day, they rode their wagons down the hill, in my day, we launched our bikes off the top. My friend Joel Torigian called it “Dead Mans Hill” and many arms were broken on that hill. Joel would often tempt me down to the rail yards where we would float around on an old rusty fuel tank in the swampy slough. “Railroad police” often interrupted our fun and we’d sprint away, back up the cliff.
In 1989, a former Aberdonian published a couple of his memories of West Hill in an Aberdeen Amercian News guest editorial. Donald Soliday also mentions the reference to Poverty Hump and tells of highjinks among his West Hill Gang comprised of himself, Wayne Grunendike, Lyle Tullar, Bernie Tullar, Phil Soliday, Willie Giese, Merlin Olson, Bim Kuckleberg, and Vi Stoia. They devised a scheme in the late 1930s to steal watermelons off trucks lumbering to get up the West Hill hill. They had a system, completely undetected, of jumping on the back of the moving melon trailer while it slowed down to go uphill, then passing melons off to their trailing Model T car they bought for $10. Everyone had a role to play in the heist and it worked flawlessly, typically netting 20 melons. They paid off potential tattlers and snitches with watermelon from their bounty. Donald and his gang would also procure coal from the coal cars parked near by and sell it to neighbors. He first lived with his uncle in West Hill whose house had no running water nor plumbing in the late 1930s.
To sort of “slap the face” of the West Hill neighborhood, in 1957 a meat packing plant (for dog food) wanted to locate across the street to the West of Fifteenth street in the empty space. The neighborhood rallied and prevented the company from building. From upscale mansions, to dog food factories, West Hill has seen it all. // –Troy McQuillen
What Lies Between
If you look on the 1888 map, you see an unplatted quarter section of land said to be owned by J.R. and L.C. Dayton, two brothers who took out tree claims very early on. Today, this area would be east of Twelfthth Street up to Fifth Street, north of Sixth Avenue. After West Hill’s creation, this area started attracting squatters who thought the land was officially unclaimed. In 1890 it seems the Daytons tree claim was dismissed or canceled. Then John McChesney (see main story), claimed the quarter section as his own only to have that rejected as well. At the height of this confusion, nearly 60 people had staked claims in what became known as Squatterville, and some where actually living there in makeshift accommodations. The City of Aberdeen also claimed the area was rightfully theirs. A commissioner from the Department of the Interior had to come to Aberdeen to sort the mess out. His decision was to side with the squatters. Each individual claimant (less than 10 by this time) would have the chance to purchase their squatted parcels. Since the area was within the city of Aberdeen, it became part of the town and labeled “West Aberdeen.” The story actually went on for five years, however, this is a very truncated version of the drama.