The history of Brainerd rightfully starts with its predecessor, Crow Wing, a few miles south, at the junction of the Mississippi and the Crow Wing rivers.
With the coming of the railroad and the choosing of the present site of Brainerd instead of Crow Wing for the railroad headquarters, the settlement, one of the earliest in the history of Minnesota, gradually faded.
Crow Wing was founded by C. H. Beaulieu who established a trading post at the mouth of the Crow Wing River in about 1837. He was probably the first white settler in this part of Minnesota.
He carried on a profitable business for many years and operated the headquarters of the Chippewa Indian trade at Crow Wing. It was to this settlement that Indians brought their handiwork, beads and basketry and furs in exchange for clothing and food.
Christopher C. Andrews in "Minnesota and Dacotah," described Crow Wing in 1850 as a homelike little village of about 100 inhabitants where the quiet was being scarred by the bustle of a boom and by the hammering and sawing as new buildings were going up.
THE CROSSING--It was this bridge which gave birth to Brainerd Choice of the bridge Site meant that a city would grow up around it. Railroad officials recognized this and laid out a townsite near the bridge. First called "The Crossing" the name Brainerd was chosen to honor the wife of the railroad's president. The building across the river housed the general offices of the railroad. The picture was taken about a dozen years after the bridge was built and Brainerd was founded.
Crow Wing in 1856 had reason to be proud.
Throughout the Northwest, especially in the territory of Minnesota, people looked forward to a prosperous future. Hundreds of townsites sprung up. Minnesota was at the peak of prosperity.
Then came a crash. Townsite values dropped to zero. However, Crow Wing lived on -- it was already established.
Crow Wing at that time had a tri-weekly stage service called the Minnesota Stage Co., running from Little Falls to Fort Ripley and on up to Crow Wing. Another run of the company came up the Sauk Valley to Sauk Centre once a week.
SLEEPER BLOCK--By 1884, Brainerd's business district had spread east of Sixth street. Shown above is the Sleeper Block on Front street east of the Sixth street intersection. The Sleeper Block was long one of the largest and best known business blocks in Brainerd. Several of the early newspapers occupied space in the building over the years. Occupants at the time this picture was taken included Grandelmeyer Millinery Shop, Bason Hardware Store, and Howe Lumber Company office.
Had the Northern Pacific Railway bought property at Crow Wing as C. H. Beaulieu expected, there probably would not have been a Brainerd.
The town of Crow Wing fully expected to get the main east and west line of the road. In fact, the major reason why it did not is that satisfactory townsite negotiations could not be settled.
The railroad company negotiated for sometime with Cleni Beaulieu and made him an offer, but Clems price was too high.
The company made surveys at three sites -- Crow Wing. Brainerd and at French Rapids. But Beaulieu thought that the other surveys were just bluffs. After all, there was no other town except Crow Wing. However, he failed to realize that railroads sometimes build towns.
Had the railroad crossed the river at Crow Wing, it would have skirted Mille Lacs Lake and served much richer farming country, and the Staples cut-off would not have been necessary.
The Brainerd crossing was determined in 1870. Shortly after the survey party came to the site, several men at Little Falls formed a temporary company and went up the river to secure the ground for a townsite.
Proceeding to Crow Wing by wagon, then by canoe, they reached the point about the same time the railroad surveyors were completing their work.
They pretended to be hunters and remained nearby until the surveyors left, then located and marked out a claim embracing what they deemed sufficient for a town and for railroad purposes.
Then they went back to Little Falls, and sent part of the company back to the claim to construct two or three temporary residences. They divided the ground, each member being assigned to his part.
Some of these claims were sold to Mrs. Hester Gilman, who entered part of the present site of Brainerd. The record on the patent was December 10, 1870. She in turn sold her rights to the Lake Superior and Puget Sound Company, a subsidiary of the Northern Pacific Railroad.
The other claims were also sold to the company. At about the same time, Charles Darby "jumped" a portion of the townsite not included in Mrs. Gilman's claim and built the first house of round logs near the ground now occupied by the railroad shops.
Brainerd was first called, "The Crossing." It was also suggested to call the settlement "Ogamagua," or Queen or Chief Woman; the name given by the Indians to Mrs. Emma Beaulieu.
Brainerd is the maiden name of the wife of former Gov. J. Gregory Smith of Vermont, the first president of the reorganized Northern Pacific Railroad Company.
Governor Smith was not only a railroad official he was a romanticist and when his wife gave up her ancestral name of Brainerd for the common name of Smith, he compensated for the sacrifice by naming the town after her.
After Brainerd became firmly established, property values in Crow Wing tumbled and the townsite to which Clem Beaulieu tenaciously clung had no sale value.
Old Crow Wing was doomed and soon passed out of existence. Most of the old town was transplanted into the new settlement upstream.
Thus died one of the oldest settlements in the state which had an attractive natural advantage, and looked forward to a magnificent future.
Young Brainerd The founding of Brainerd proceeded with no fanfare, the residents were too busy harvesting the timber.
The exact day Brainerd was founded is not pinpointed. However, it was sometime late in the summer of 1870. At that time, the town consisted of one small frame building used as a townsite office and numerous tents and lean-tos constructed with a piece of two-by-six nailed to two trees.
The Northern Pacific Railway Company laid out all the townsites except Detroit Lakes, from Carlton to Moorhead. The original plat of Brainerd was made in 1870 and recorded in September, 1871.
The townsite agent at Brainerd was Lyman P. White, Sr., known also as "Pussy" White and affectionately as "The Father of Brainerd." The Indians called him "The Big White Father."
He came to Brainerd in 1870 by stage from St. Cloud for the railroad had not yet reached the settlement. Here he built the first frame house in Brainerd, the lumber coming from Sauk Rapids by team, about 60 miles away.
Lyman White was president of the first council and later mayor of Brainerd. He was active in organizing the First National Bank, the first school district, and the Episcopal Church. He died at 91 years of age in 1902.
During 1871 and 1872, settlers by the hundreds came to the 'City of the Pines." Being on the main line of the Northern Pacific Railroad, and having the railway headquarters and general offices located here, Brainerd received its full share of publicity.
The eyes of the Northwest were focused on the new town. People with money, people with out money, in search of adventure, of a fortune, or a home, swarmed into Brainerd.
The largest percentage of new inhabitants were unmarried men whose home was the boarding house and whose club the saloon.
There were many adventurers, gamblers, and other "undesirables" who came to Brainerd to ply their trades.
Lights from the kerosene lamps of the saloons shone through uncurtained windows as an invitation to drink and be merry. Hundreds of railroad workers and builders accepted the hospitality of the barkeeper and the gambler.
Tricks like "turning a flask of liquor into a man" were performed with rapidity second only to the spin of the roulette wheel. The flask did its trick well. Dollars, eagles, and double-eagles passed from hand to hand as pawns in grim games of chess.
Although there was someshooting, it was less than might be expected in a new railroad settlement in the wilderness where most of the men were without homes. The families that came here were set upon making Brainerd a city of homes with property protected by a public conscience.
This resulted in the early establishment of a city government, the dedication of several churches and the organization of various educational and protective units. People were jolly, good natured and unloving, in search of home and fortune, but they did not miss a good time in the process.
A traveler in 1878 described Brainerd as a town with "attractive residences and business houses, nearly all painted white, couched beneath and almost surrounded by the evergreen. towering jackpines one of the grandest panoramas of variety and beauty to be found on the line of the Northern Pacific.
Early Buildings As stated earlier, the first house in Brainerd was built by Charles Darby. The second was built by Stuart Seeley of hewn logs, in 1870. It was used as a boarding house, saloon and dance hall until it burned in 1873. It was built on the east bank of the river, north of the railroad bridge.
A third house was a small hastily built affair, used as saloon. The fourth was the home of L. P. White on the corner of 7th and Juniper Streets.
As soon as settlers started flocking into Brainerd, the number of tents, lean-tos, boarding houses, saloons, and stores multiplied. In 1873, the Lake Superior and Puget Sound Company spent $7,000 on buildings, streets, and sidewalks in order to induce men with money. Property values were at rock bottom immediately after the failure of the Jay Cooke bank in 1873. In those days, one could buy a 10-room house and lot complete with bathroom, cellars, furniture, stove, chickens and pigs for $700.
The first "regular" hotel was at Sixth and Laurel Streets. Then came hotels like the Headquarters, Stratton House, Leland House, Commercial Globe. Nicolet, French, Antlers, Earl Mahlum, East, Villard, City, Arlington, Ideal, Windsor, Palace National, Central, Ransford, and Harrison.
The center of all social and recreational functions -- from church suppers and sales to public and private dances and parties -- was on the second, floor of Bly's House, at Front and Sixth Streets. The building also contained several offices and Masonic Lodge rooms.
The first hardware store, opened in 1872 by E. H. Davie. The first saw mill was in 1872 near the railroad bridge. It was later moved three-quarters of a mile south of Brainerd. The daily capacity of the mill was 50,000 feet of lumber, 80,000 shingles, and 25,000 lath.
It used a 125 horsepower steam engine and in later years employed as many as 75 men.
The first drug store and the Brainerd Brewery were opened in 1872. The first lawyer was George W. Holland, for many years prominent in politics, business, and civic affairs. The first religious service ever conducted in Brainerd was in 1870, in a little log boarding house near the river.
The first newspaper was the Brainerd Tribune, M. C. Russell, publisher and editor. It was published in St. Cloud. The first 300 copies were expressed to Brainerd by stage. The Brainerd Tribune was the first newspaper on the Northern Pacific, east of the Rockies.
Advertising was the big thing then and sometimes the entire front page was a paid ad.
As of February 22, 1873, Brainerd had 21 stores, 18 hotels and public boarding houses, 15 saloons, 2 billiard halls, 1 livery stable, 1 tailor shop, 3 barber shops, 2 blacksmith shops, 1 brewery, 2 photographers, 1 newspaper, 5 churches, 4 lawyers, 3 lodges.
The population was estimated at 1,500, about 40 percent more or less transient.
The town of Crow Wing in 1866 had seven families of white residents, 23 families of half-breeds and Chippewa Indians, plus many transients, a total population of less than 200. By 1866, there were 2 stores, numerous boarding houses, 2 hotels, 1 blacksmith shop, 2 churches, 1 church school, and 2 saloons.
Shortly after Brainerd was founded, the recorded population of Crow Wing dropped to one-half its former size. The number of transients also receded. From then on, Crow Wing was only a name.
Reproduced from the Centennial Edition of the Brainerd Daily Dispatch (1871-1971).