Editor's Note: The following story about Brainerd's very early days was published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press October 22, 1922. Written by H. L. Bridgman, it told of a visit to Brainerd 50 years ear her and carried the following headlines "Easterners Found Brainerd Roaring Camp of Vice in Woods 50 years ago; Wicked Town with No future as Hail Center, View Expressed by Visitors, Gambling Open at Dolly Varden Club and Other 'Joints'; Hanged Suspects."
Leaving Duluth at 3 o'clock yesterday afternoon, we arrived at Brainerd, "The City of Pines, 115 miles from Duluth at 7 p.m. Considering that ours was a "wild" train with no right to the track, and orders to keep out of the way of all regular trains, our actual running time was not over four hours.
Our average speed was 30 miles per hour. One section of 20 miles was run in 30 minutes. Yet an easier or less fatiguing trip could not have been made on any of the roads in the nation.
We shall see and learn more of the road, however, as we go west; only to relieve any anxiety, it may be best to remark that the official examination has not yet begun, and the commissioners, after yesterday's experience begin to hope that their trip over this "new road in the wild country" may not be so extremely perilous after all.
A year or more ago, and particularly during the construction of the road westward to Brainerd, the junction was the headquarters of all the rough and abandoned characters which clustered and festered along the road, but they have long since disappeared and gone west, leaving the junction today deserted and depopulated.
BRAINERD WIDE OPEN West of Aitkin the lakes which are so numerous and so beautiful in all parts of the state, appear more frequently and the country becomes more sandy. The lumber is larger and more valuable. The soil is all the way, however, then and light, and will not for a long time be sought by the emigrant farmers. At least if the stories which they tell here of the splendid prairies to the west are half true.
Brainerd which now enjoys the possession of the headquarters and general offices of the Northern Pacific, stands at the crossing of the road with the Mississippi, and at the junction of the unfinished St. Paul and St. Cloud branch with the main line.
The town is spread over a sandy plain, well elevated above the river, and covered with a thick growth of pines. These are of a variety known in Minnesota as the "jack pine."
We first saw Brainerd at night and the view was both novel and pleasant. The winds sang through the tops of the pines, the lights in the scattered houses twinkled among the trees, and the whole place seemed like a camp in the woods, or one of the cities of fairy tales.
Long dark vistas opened occasionally through the pines, indicating where some of the principal streets had been extended, and the fires burning in the eastern woods lighted up the heavens and threw a poetic color over the whole.
Leaving our car and its company and strolling out to see the town and its life, we soon found evidence that Brainerd pays attention to more practical matters than moony nights and the poetry of the pines.
The principal street of the town, a long row of everlasting wooden fronts, peculiar to western railroad towns, and hiding cheaper and poorer structures behind, was flaming with illuminated signs and gambling places indiscriminate, and all of which seemed to be doing a thriving business. The arrival of the company's pay car in the afternoon doubtless had something to do with the busy aspect of the place in the evening.
The most conspicuous and evidently the "highest toned" of the numerous sporting establishments on the streets sailed under the popular name of the "Dolly Varden Club," and desirous of seeing all the life on the frontier I took personal observations of the place.
The building was a rough, wooden affair, whitewashed inside and the ground strewn thickly with sawdust in lieu of a floor. No attempt of concealment was made, but the gambling was carried on in full view of the street and every passerby.
The first room, entered directly from the street was perhaps forty feet long by twenty wide, and arranged around this at intervals were the tables where the various games were played. A cotton rag bearing in red paint the name of the game going on beneath it, was affixed to the wall above each table and served as a guide to the inquiring speculators.
The games in this room were all of the cheaper and commoner sort "church-a-luck," "high dice," and "in us tang," while a new scheme was called "grant and greely" attracted little attention and no business.
These back woods sports evidently do not bet much on certainties.
In the rear of this large place was a smaller room where the more aristocratic games were dispensed and where the true royal tiger may be met and conquered -- if you have the luck. The faro and roughet-noir tables were well patronized and a crowd of eager spectators throng each group of players.
The company, though largely of coarse material, is however singularly ordered and quiet. No liquor is sold on the premises in compliance with the conditions of the deed by which the site of the building was conveyed, but placards in red announced that "gentlemen will be furnished with refreshments" by the proprietor, for which they will please pay in advance.
On either side of the Dolly Varden are several similar establishments, the bulk of all their business coming, of course, from the employees of the railroad. Usually the stakes played for are small - the dealers will take anything from 10 cents to $50 but somehow in Brainerd, as in all other places, the leeches manage to make large and handsome livings out of the earnings of the working-men.
Advance in position and population with a good local government which is near at hand will doubtless drive the gamblers into retirement, if not out of Brainerd. But meanwhile the railroad company might easily protect its employees and the public morals by exercise of its own authority.
Murder Suspects Lynched Just across the street from the Dolly Varden is a conspicuous sign announcing the Last Turn Saloon which takes its expressive name from an incident which occurred in front of its doors a few weeks ago.
Some time in August, a murder was committed in the neighborhood town of Crow Wing, and two half-breeds, brothers who were suspected of the crime were imprisoned in the Brainerd jail to await trial. But two or three days had passed when a part of Crow Wingers, aided by some of the "citizens" of Brainerd proceeded one night to the jail, took the culprits, marched them out to the principal streets and beneath the largest pine in town, hung them.
No form of trial was suffered to delay the execution, and but few moments were allowed the wretched to prepare for death. While the ropes were being adjusted to the convenient limb, one of the half-breeds carelessly nodding toward its brother, repeated several times, "He did it," but except this, there was no confession, no plea for life or mercy.
One of the brothers was elevated first into mid-air, the other looking calmly on, and when the later's turn came, he never flinched. In his unconscious struggles, however, he clutched frantically at the swinging body of his brother, and half senseless, began climbing up toward the limb from which they were suspended. This was the signal for a pistolshot from one of the lynchers and faster than they could be counted, fifty bullets were lodged in the bodies of the murderers.
Next morning the bodies were taken down and the formal investigation held to discover the participants in the tragedy and sustain the dignity of the law, the result of which was that the only person who was proved to have been present or to have had anything to do with the affair was the individual who kindly offered a prayer for the poor devils just before they were strung up.
And this is why the saloon, in front of which stands the gallows pine, is called "The Last Turn."
The hopes of Brainerd for the future are based upon the facts which have made it; that it is the official headquarters of the Northern Pacific; that the direct line from St. Paul and the south, up the Mississippi reached its junction with the main line here; that the company's machine and repair shops are here; that steam navigation of the upper Mississippi begins here and that it is a beautiful, temporated and agreeable place of residence.
All of these things are undoubtedly true, yet my faith that Brainerd is to realize all that she now hopes is not altogether clear. In the first place the town is artificial, the creature and product of the railroad, and the moment the plans of the corporation change its life is checked and its growth stopped, as though the Merrimac were taken from Lowell or the fishing banks from Cape Cod.
"A Very pleasant town," I remarked to one of the prominent officials who has no land or other speciration on his hands and who looks at things solely with an idea to business, "but there is nothing here which has not been put here and which might not as well have been put anywhere else."
"Just as well anywhere else," he replied, "and which never ought to have been brought here."
Skeptical of Town's Growth Ex-governor Smith of Vermont may properly be called the father and founder of Brainerd. He gave it the name of his father-in-law, Lawrence Brainerd, the first president of the Vermont Central, has given it a memorial Congregational Church, which is now nearly completed, and had he continued president of the Northern Pacific would have undoubtedly dealt kindly and liberally by the town.
There is no denying the fact, however, that Brainerd is not now the proper and most convenient location for the general offices and principal business center of the Northern Pacific.
The officers who are engaged in the daily operation of the road feel this constantly and say so openly and emphatically and one of the most important still disregards orders of months standing to remove his headquarters.
He is held responsible for the efficiency of his department, and prefers to disobey orders rather than deprive himself of the absolutely necessary facilities for the discharge of his duties.
The disadvantage of Brainerd as a center of operation and supplies is apparent at a glance, when it is considered that St. Paul, the natural focus of the Minnesota railway system, is two days distant by rail. Duluth is the lake terminus, a day's journey off that branch to St. Paul.
The Northern Pacific has, however, generous plans for Brainerd which even modified by the new regime will make the place one of the most important along the line. A large building for the offices of the company, two stories of wood and fifty by one hundred and fifty, or nearly that size, is just completing, and will be occupied during the coming winter.
The reason of the selection of Brainerd as the location of the main offices and central headquarters of the company appears nowhere clearly understood. When those who should know most about it are asked, they look wise and say, "The Lake Superior and Puget Sound Land Company had something to do with it."
Churches and Newspapers The Mississippi is one of the features of Brainerd, but not one particularly important or impressive. The river at this point is not more than 450 or 500 feet wide, and is deep, dark and slow moving. The railroad bridge as substantial and permanent as could be, is wholly made of wood. During the summer small boats ply on the river to Pokegama Falls, nearly 200 miles to the north. Above that the river is still navigable for light draught boats almost as much farther. The boats, however, run only at irregular intervals and do but a moderate business.
Brainerd, like Duluth, is well supplied with the means of civilization -- churches, schools and newspapers. The Episcopal Church standing in a beautiful grove a little distance north of the station, is a commodious well-finished building tastefully arranged and seating 250 persons.
A silver communication plate bears the name of Thomas H. Canfield of Burlington, Vt. as the giver, and William B. Ogden of Chicago has promised the society a bell for their church. Near the Congregational Church the Methodists are building, and the Episcopalians are about fitting up the former freight office of the railroad company for a day school house.
The leading journal of the town is the Brainerd Tribune, weekly, with 750 circulation and an enterprising manager who came up here from Nashville, Tenn. A campaign sheet called the Greeley Wave is also issued from the same office by an in- dividual who makes his appearance in his own columns as publisher and proprietor, editor, county auditor, judge of probate, deputy clerk of district court, real estate and insurance agent liberal candidate for judge of probate, and "will also solemnize marriages."
The whole force of printers in town consists of two men and a boy, and they work on in contentment, ignorant of the typographical union.
Brainerd at present though a city only in name, aspires soon to be one in fact and is preparing for an election under a municipal charter of the last legislature.
She has robbed Crow Wing of the dignity of the county seat, and much nearer the geographical center of the state is ready in her ambition to enter fully organized and equipped to enter the lists with St. Paul for the ultimate possession of the capitol.
She has a company of state guards, fully organized and equipped and is doing herself a more practical service by raising and training an efficient fire department two large manufacturer of lumber are now in full operation and flouring mills are projected for next session. Its stores are numerous and well-stocked with all that the demands the county people require.
Dry goods stores, groceries and household merchandise of every kind retail almost as cheaply here as in St. Paul and Chicago, and have taken from Brainerd though but two years old, nearly every privation and deprivation which in the early days attended life on the frontier.
All these indications of thrift and independence, encouraging anywhere, are doubly so in Brainerd whose hold upon the exclusive support and patronage of the Northern Pacific is at best not confirmed.
We have seen the town by night and day and tomorrow we "go west" again, to Moorhead at the end of the Minnesota division, the limit of the state, the Red River of the North.
Speculators Beat Railroad to Site
A party of speculators from Little Falls beat the railroad to the Brainerd townsite and one of them, Charles Daly or Darby, built a homestead cabin.
His homestead included the present site of the Northern Pacific shops. He was bought off by the Lake Superior & Puget Sound company.
Reproduced from the Centennial Edition of the Brainerd Daily Dispatch (1871-1971).