Building of the Great Northern Railway brought new life and new people to the Mondak area. With the building of the Snowden Bridge and Fairview Bridge, the Great Northern brought in crews of 300 bridge workers, most of them black. The African Americans, employed by the Union Bridge & Construction Co. of Kansas City, Kan., have caused the local authorities considerable problems during the past winter, nothing of a serious nature occurred until April 4, 1913, when the work camp and Mondak exploded in violence.
One of the laborers, J.C. Collins, an African American, was wanted for a crime committed somewhere in the South. The flyer bearing the charge and his description rested in the pocket of the newly elected sheriff, Tom Courtney, at Plentywood. Ordering his deputy, Richard Burmeister, to accompany him, Courntey headed for Mondak.
Conflicting stories of Collins appeared in other newspapers. The Yellowstone News reported Courtney and Burmeister, newly elected officials, came to Mondak for the purpose of getting in touch with general duties relating to their official duties. When on Friday morning their presence in Mondak became known, it was decided to have Collins arrested on the charge of carrying concealed weapons, and a warrant to that effect was given to the sheriff to serve.
The Sidney Herald reported, “Collins, who was employed by a bridge construction company, was boarding with a negro named Clay Beal. Beal sold his house and property to another negro named Patterson. When Patterson came to take possession of his property, it is alleged that Collins attacked Mrs. Patterson, beating her severely. Patterson swore out a warrant for Collins’ arrest.”
As soon as he got in town, Sheriff Courtney deputized Ted Wilson, a citizen, to guide the lawmen to the construction camp on the Missouri River. They stopped at the office of the Union Bridge and Construction Co. to learn the whereabouts of Collins. Sources suggest Collins was in the office to collect his paycheck and that he intended to leave the country. Wilson was sent in. That saved his life. Collins, himself, met Wilson. “Looking for me?” he rasped. From his belt he pulled an automatic pistol and disarmed Wilson. Then he walked out of the office door. Calmly, he stopped there, and taking deliberate aim, shot Courtney and Burmeister. Collecting their weapons, he made a fast break for the woods surrounding the camp. Courtney was killed instantly. It was his first attempt at an arrest. Burmeister, mortally wounded, died that night in a Williston hospital.
Collins realized that his plight was desperate. It was Friday, April 4, 1913, and the ice on the Missouri was breaking up. That barred an escape route to the South. Already, armed men were organizing a search of the woods for him. Reluctantly he snuck back into camp and gave himself up. His surprised captors were Jakey Seel, Luke Sweetman, Frank Weinrich and Bert Chase. Handcuffing the killer, the men loaded him aboard a spring wagon for the trip to the Mondak jail. A guard of citizens and men from the bridge was posted around the jail that night.
Word came in from Plentywood that a mob of men, incensed by the murders, was headed for Mondak to take justice into their own hands. The men guarding the jailhouse quietly disappeared. It was about nine o’clock that a mob formed and marched to the jail for the purpose of lynching Collins. The door was soon broken in with an ax, and though Collins made a desperate resistance, he was speedily overpowered, a rope placed around his neck and hung from a telephone pole without any ceremony.
As Alice Sweetman wrote more than 50 years afterward, “Later that night the body was cut down and the old Missouri told no tales – not even the oft-told one that a freshly poured concrete bridge abutment became Collins’ tomb.”
An old-timer by the name of J.M. Johnson recalled that, “They had some bars and sledge hammers to break the lock off the door, and then took the man up and hung him on a telephone pole. After they hung him, they tied the rope on the rear axle of an old Ford car and drug him all over town before they put the body in jail. After they had a few more drinks, they they went back and took the body down and threw it in the river.”
Dale Berry, Fairview, who was about 12 years old at the time, remembers seeing much of the events of the capture. Berry and his family had gone down to the south side of the river to watch ice break up. “We were to far off to know just what was going on, but we could see that there was a lot of excitement.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Information compiled from Fairview Times, Sidney Herald and Yellowstone News and an article by Ben Ennis.