Brainerd's past has been closely associated with the mines, shops, mills, lakes and business houses, its churches, schools and homes. But it was the railroad that built the town.
It was the railroad that selected the site for the town brought money, men and prosperity to the new settlement in 1870.
Had the Northern Pacific chosen Crow Wing as the place for its headquarters, as was expected, there probably wouldn't be a "Brainerd Centennial" this year. Brainerd would have been "Crow Wing," and Crow Wing would not have died.
The railroad officials chose "The Crossing", the original name of the area before the existence of Brainerd, over the objections of Clem Beaulieu, a figurehead at Crow Wing, whose asking price to the railroad was too high. The railroad went elsewhere.
"The Crossing" was christened Brainerd in 1871 and named after the wife of J. Gregory Smith, the president of the Northern Pacific Railway. Brainerd was the maiden name of Smith's wife.
FIRST SHOP BUILDING--This is a view of the Northern Pacific Railroad shops and office as they looked in the I87Os. The picture was taken by W. H. Illingworth and loaned to The Dispatch by the Minnesota Historical Society.
With the establishment of Brainerd as the headquarters of the railroad and the site where the railroad would cross the Mississippi River, the population of Crow Wing dropped to half its former size. Its residents migrated to "The Cross ing" where the future looked bright with the railroad promising to build a staunch, lively, prosperous community.
Crow Wing soon dwindled to only a name.
Through its 100 year history, Brainerd has known some severe setbacks, as well as prosperity. In the early years, this condition was common among railroad towns.
When the Jay Cooke banking empire, the financier of the Northern Pacific, failed in 1873, it left the booming little town flat on its back. But despite the setback, the railroad kept going and Brainerd was soon back on its feet.
In 1873, there were 18 hotels, and public boarding houses, 21, stores and 15 saloons. The largest percentage of the inhabitants were single men whose home was the boarding house and whose club, the saloon.
Public conscience soon resulted in the establishment of a, city government, several churches, schools and protective units. People in the 1870's were jolly, good-natured, and searching for a home and fortune -- but they did not miss a chance for a good time.
Another setback came when the passenger car repair work was removed by the railroad to Como in St. Paul and the Staples cut-off was removed, thus taking Brainerd off the main line of the Northern Pacific from St. Paul to the west coast.
The railroad was responsible for building and equipping several large and important buildings in Brainerd such as the Northern Pacific Hospital, taken away shortly after the railroad moved its repair work to Como.
By then, the bridge over the Mississippi River had collapsed under the weight of a train carrying steel rails and merchandise. The collapse not only slowed the railroad's operation, but killed two people and injured several others. It collapsed July, 1875.
Then '81 was the biggest boom Brainerd has known. The railroad went under new management and organization. The railroad shops were enlarged and thousands of newcomers crowded the streets and walks.
The great lumber industry came in the 1880's, but was gone by 1905. The stands of Norway and white pine that seemed inexhaustible, had been cut away and the lumbermen moved on.
Fires have destroyed dozens of large business blocks a n d scores of homes of early Brainerd. Among the important buildings of the day that have been destroyed include the Headquarters Hotel, the Villard, the Arlington, Commercial, Antlers, and the Carlson Hotels, Bly's Block, Sleeper's Opera House, the Columbia Block and the first Northern Pacific depot.
If these buildings were re-stored, they would constitute quite a city in themselves. With the depletion of the forests and the subsequent loss of the lumber industry, Brainerd went into a rut.
Interest in ore deposits began in 1903, however, following the appearance of a rough sketch in a report of the United States Geological Society, describing the probable course of the Mesabe Ore District, if connected westward.
People were skeptical about the ore industry and few invested in mineral stock at first. The miners were a new breed of cat to Brainerd and the residents looked at them with suspicious eye.
But the coming of the mining industry was one of the biggest things that ever happened to Brainerd and Crow Wing County. New towns and cities sprang up including Crosby and Ironton.
Brainerd stands at the gateway to the state's summer playground and the resort industry began to grow in the 1920's, or after World War I. People began flocking to the Brainerd area lake country with the on-set of better transportation, better roads, more money and time to spend in leisure time activities.
Brainerd's future, like its past, has been linked inseparably to its natural resources, both environmental and people. In the beginning, it was the railroad that brought money, life and prosperity to what was in 1871 merely a spot on someone's map showing strong possibilities for a railroad crossing.
Brainerd is the largest city in Crow Wing County and situated on the Mississippi River at the geographical center of the state. The site is a level glacial plain 1,210 feet above sea level.
This was once a dense pine forest that served the Chippewa Indians as their hunting grounds and blueberry fields. The place was first seen by white men when Lt. Zebulon Pike on Christmas Day, 1805 camping here while on his trip of explo- ration up the river to find its source.
Brainerd has seven grade schools, a parochial school, 2 junior high schools, a senior high, a vocational technical school and a junior college. It has 22 churches, a Salvation Army, a Carnegie public library, and a county historical society. County fairgrounds are within the city limits.
Utilities are municipally owned. Deep wells supply the water. To remove manganese and iron, a plant was built using a process invented by one of its late citizens, Carl Zappfe, Sr., and became the first of that kind anywhere in the nation.
An elevated concrete storage tank stands in the center of the city and was the first of that kind built in the United States. This tank, known as the Brainerd Water Tower, is no longer in use but has long been considered a Brainerd Iandmark.
The city operates a sewage disposal plant. It buys electric energy but owns its own distributing plant.
The Northern Pacific Railways created Brainerd in 1871 and since then has maintained one of its locomotive repair shops here. It created one of the largest car-building plants, costing $1,500,000, equipped with the latest machines and able to turn out 14 complete boxcars every day.
In March, 1970, the Northern Pacific merged with several other railroads and is now known as the Burlington-Northern. The Greyhound Transportation Company has bus service on east - west and north - south lines across the state and maintains a station. The city and county jointly own a fully equipped, hard-surfaced, lighted, all weather public airport, offering North Central Airlines scheduled passenger service.
The Northwest Paper Company is the largest employer averaging over 600 employees. They have a large plant on the north side of Brainerd for the manufacture of printing and writing papers, envelope papers and other converting papers. A large coating addition to the mill was put into operation in 1964.
The Burlington-Northern (formerly the Northern Pacific) Railway is another large employer. The Manganiferous iron ore reserve of the Cuyuna Iron Ore District northeast of Brainerd is one of the largest developed areas in the world of that grade ore.
Within a radius of 25 miles there are 464 pine - and - birch studded sandy-shored lakes on which are located several hundred resorts, plus many miles of navigable scenic Mississippi River headwaters. Game fish of many species abound.
There are six golf courses, French Rapids ski area, the Ski-Gull area, a new race track and many area attractions such as the Paul Bunyan Center. There is also a fine population of wild game.
Summer vacationing, recreation and touring constitute a large industry.
Reproduced from the Centennial Edition of the Brainerd Daily Dispatch (1871-1971).