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Comstock, Solomon (1842–1933)

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Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County
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Black and white photograph of Solomon Comstock, ca 1890.

Solomon Comstock, ca 1890. Photograph by C. M. Bell. Used with the permission of the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County.

Solomon Comstock earned his law degree from the University of Michigan in 1869 but worked with railroads when prospects of finding a job in his chosen career path seemed dim. In Moorhead, he began a law partnership and traded in real estate with the Northwest Land Company. In the 1880s, he worked with James J. Hill’s Northern Pacific Railway to plat townships across Minnesota.

Comstock was born on May 9, 1842, in Maine. His father was in the lumber business, and from a young age, Comstock knew that was not what he wanted to do with his life. He attended the Maine Wesleyan Academy in Readfield, Maine—a school known for its law program—in his early twenties.

Comstock received his first practical legal training in the law office of Judge Humphrey in Bangor. Two years later, he went to the University of Michigan to strengthen his education and prepare for the bar exam. He gained admittance to the bar in 1869 in Omaha, Nebraska.

Railroads offered both adventure and employment opportunities to Comstock. The Southern Pacific Railway was laying track in Texas at the time and needed a bookkeeper for its construction crew. The company hired Comstock for the job but eventually went bankrupt. Not finding decent work elsewhere, he traveled to Minnesota. In 1870, he worked in Minneapolis as a licensed attorney for a while and then again was out of work. All was looking bleak for Comstock— until he moved to Moorhead.

In 1871, Comstock found a position as a laborer on the Northern Pacific. The job brought him to the tent town of Moorhead, a hotbed of crime and violence. In 1872, Moorhead organizers began appointing officials and selected Comstock as the first Clay County Attorney on April 26, 1872.

Comstock’s appointment stemmed from the aftermath of a gun fight concerning two outlaws: Dan “Slim Jim” Shumway and Edward Curran (Shang Stanton). After the incident, Stanton was unhurt; Shumway was shot through the stomach and later died. An innocent bystander, Daniel Thompson, was struck by a stray bullet in the groin and died. The City of Moorhead demanded law and order, and eventually Stanton was arrested. In part because Comstock was the only local resident with a law degree, he was appointed county attorney and carried out Stanton’s prosecution.

Comstock served as the Clay County Attorney from 1872 until 1879. During this period, Moorhead grew from a shanty tent town into a railway town, and then into a regional trade center. Gambling houses and gun fights kept the fledgling legal system busy as Comstock sought to build Moorhead into a respectable town. Comstock was dedicated to his family as well as his city; in 1874, he married Sarah Ball, and the couple had three children: Ada, Jessie, and George.

In 1875 Comstock was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives, where he encountered railroad baron James J. Hill. Hill sought to control a bankrupt railway—the St. Paul and Pacific—and needed legislators on his side. Realizing how much Moorhead stood to benefit from a railroad, Comstock collaborated with Hill and helped him gain control of the St. Paul and Pacific. In return, Hill chose Moorhead as the site for his business.

Comstock helped to open the Bishop Whipple School (later the site of Concordia College) by donating land for a campus. In 1885, when Moorhead needed another school to serve its increasing population under the 1858 Normal School Act, Comstock made another land donation. The six acres he offered were used to build Moorhead Normal School (renamed Minnesota State College in the 1950s and Minnesota State University Moorhead in 1975).

Between 1883 and 1888, Comstock served four consecutive terms in the Minnesota Senate. After retiring from law practice in 1884, he continued to advance his political career and his real estate business and served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1889 until 1891. He campaigned for Minnesota attorney general in 1882 and lieutenant governor in 1884, but both bids failed. While working as a politician, he served as president of the Northwest Land Company, a real estate development firm that he helped found in 1883.

Comstock died on June 3, 1933.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
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  • Related Resources

Harness, Gregory. "Solomon Gilman Comstock: Portrait of a Pioneer." Master's thesis, Minnesota State University, 1975.

“Minnesota News.” St. Cloud Journal, May 2, 1872.
https://newspapers.mnhs.org/jsp/viewer.jsp?doc_id=mnhi0031%2F1EMKAE57%2F72050201

“Minnesota News.” St. Cloud Journal, May 9, 1872.
https://newspapers.mnhs.org/jsp/viewer.jsp?doc_id=mnhi0031%2F1EMKAE57%2F72050901

MSS335
Federation of Women’s Club[s?] of Clay County Records, 1926–1942
Manuscript Collection, Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, Moorhead
Description: Written records documenting the origins and evolution of the Federation of Women’s Clubs of Clay County.

Red River history, Comstock House
Manuscript Collection, Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, Moorhead
Description: Manuscript documenting the history of the Red River region of Minnesota.

"Thompson, S.P. (xxx–1872) Shooting Victim." Alexandria Post, May 4, 1872. http://boards.ancestry.ca/localities.northam.usa.states.minnesota.counties.clay/278/mb.ashx.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of Solomon Comstock, ca 1890.
Black and white photograph of Solomon Comstock, ca 1890.
Black and white photograph of Solomon Comstock, James H. Sharp, and S. G. Roberts, 1880.
Black and white photograph of Solomon Comstock, James H. Sharp, and S. G. Roberts, 1880.
Black and white photograph of Solomon Comstock and other Moorhead residents, ca. 1889.
Black and white photograph of Solomon Comstock and other Moorhead residents, ca. 1889.

Turning Point

In 1875, Solomon Comstock meets James J. Hill and helps build the railroad system in Moorhead. Their collaboration influences Comstock’s decision to continue practicing law and stay in Moorhead.

Chronology

1842

Solomon Comstock is born in Argyle, Maine.

1865

Comstock attends Maine Wesleyan Academy at age twenty-three.

1865–1866

Comstock attends Kent’s Hill School.

1869

Comstock is admitted to the bar in Omaha, Nebraska.

1870

Comstock practices law in Minneapolis as a licensed attorney and counselor.

1871

The Northern Pacific Railway arrives at Moorhead, bringing Comstock and other company workers with it.

1872

Comstock is appointed Clay County Attorney in Moorhead.

1874

Comstock marries Sarah Ball on May 27.

1881

Comstock founds the First National Bank of Moorhead.

1883

Comstock House is completed.

1884

Comstock retires from his law practice.

1889

Comstock begins his first term of office in the U.S. House of Representatives.

1933

Comstock dies on June 3.