The city owes its existence and much of its importance to the Northern Pacific Railway. Before it was decided that the railroad would come to the area, there was no Brainerd and no thought of a settlement here.
The railroad brought mechanics, laborers and merchants. It established a great industry and built a fine city. Dreamers and men of vision speculated on the merits of such a road nearly 140 years ago.
As early as 1834 Dr. Samual Bancroft Barlow wrote about the advisability of a railroad to the Puget Sound. He was the first man to publicly advocate it and to carefully estimate its cost and advantages.
He figured the cost of 300 miles at $10,000 per mile and suggested that the United States government finance it and pay for it within three to six years. He added that "At the very moderate rate of ten miles an hour, a man would go from New York to the Columbia River in 12 days and a half; consequently he might go there, transact business, visit friends, examine the country, and be in New York again in one month."
The original Northern Pacific Railroad Company was organized with Josiah Perham as president. About 20,000 shares of stock were sold, but the cost of securing the charter emptied the treasury.
DEPOT AND WATER TOWER--This photo shows the old depot and water tower for the Northern Pacific Railway company. The date it was taken is unknown.
Without funds, admitting that his plan to sell stock to the general public had failed, Perham and his associates disposed of the charter in 1865 to J. Gregory Smith, G. W. Cass, and others. Under the reorganization, J. Gregory Smith became the president.
However, the only progress during the next few years was surveying probable route across Minnesota westward to the Sound. Between 1868 and 1870, the railroad had gone to sleep -- no funds or prospects of any.
Then early in 1870, Smith enticed the banking house of Jay Cooke and Company and secured a promise of $5 million. Construction began at a point known as N. P. Junction (now Carlton), 27 miles southwest of Duluth, under U. S. government sponsorship.
The railroad cut through the forest, graded the lowlands, and sliced down hills, laying ties and rails and on March 11, 1871, the construction train rolled into Brainerd.
SHOPS IN THE 1880s--The group of men shown here were shop employees in the early 1880s. They are shown in front of the old NP shops.
An engineer on the train said in 1922, "I was engineer on the locomotive that pulled the first passenger train into Brainerd. We could not turn around here and had to back to the Junction."
"It was extremely cold, and the firemen and I suffered much. We had no curtains to break the wind. -- Jay Cooke, who financed the building of the road, was on the train with many officers and friends from St. Paul and New York City."
The general headquarters and repair shops were in Brainerd. Hundreds of men were employed. Building operation were in full force. Everything looked rosy for the new town.
The Headquarters Hotel, erected in 1871 by the Northern Pacific, was the leading building in the town. The three-story structure occupied a two-acre lot.
THE ORIGINAL boilermakers of the Northern Pacific Railroad in Brainerd are pictured in this 1899 photograph. Rudolph Creger, foreman, is the man with the sledge hammer.
There were 50 or 60 sleeping rooms, a dining room seating over 100, parlors, offices, and other rooms. Water from an overhead reservoir was piped to all the rooms. The hotel had an ice house with a 700-ton capacity, arranged to provide refrigerator store rooms for fruits, vegetables and meats.
In 1872, a large, three-story office building and depot was built near where the concrete water tower now stands.
The first railroad shops were all on the north side of the tracks. In February, 1872, the total number of engines on the entire road was 22, all wood-burning.
The enormous construction expense proved too heavy a drain on the U. S. treasury, and in the panic of 1873, the Jay Cooke and Company banking house was the first to fall, September 18, carrying with it Cooke's private fortune.
DEPOT IN 1890s--Things buzzed at the Northern Pacific depot in the late 1890s. The depot was the center of activity In Brainerd. Most businesses depended on railroad employees for their profits. Saloons depended on the railroad men too. The railroad brought new business, the mail, new residents and dignitaries to the growing new town. The depot was one of the many buildings which burned in the early 1900s. It was replaced in 1921.
The country found itself in the throes of a severe panic. Work at the railroad stopped and for a long time, no more road bed was graded, no rails laid and no cars repaired.
One worker related: "I was employed in the capacity of yard clerk in the lumber yard under the late J. C. Barber. One day in September, 1873, he brought me a copy of a telegram announcing the failure of Jay Cooke "The significance did not impress me until a few days later, when I was discharged, along with two-thirds of the entire shop force. Then came several years of the hardest times Brainerd has ever seen; the population dwindled to less than half of what it was in 1872....."
In July, 1875, the bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed under the weight of a 22-car train carrying steel rails and merchandise killing the engineer, fireman and one or two caboose passengers.
Barrels of flour, port and other merchandise floated down the river.
In 1873, the offices of the Northern Pacific Railroad moved to St. Paul. Following the panic, the road continued under the receivership of J. M. Hannaford, and gradually conditions improved and work was resumed, but with rigid economy.
In October, 1877, the last spike was driven at Sauk Rapids, connecting the Twin Cities and Brainerd by a direct line. Formerly, all traffic to southern Minnesota went by way of Duluth or the N. P. Junction.
In 1879, Henry Villard, a rising railroad magnate, perfected his $8 million blind pool and gained control of the Northern Pacific. Under his presidency, the road expanded.
The year 1881 was the biggest boom Brainerd has known. The railroad shops were enlarged. Thousands of strangers crowded the sidewalks and the estimated population including many transients was 14,000.
The Brainerd Dispatch claimed 16,000 two years later, but the year after that only 12,000.
The most notable event in the history of the Northern Pacific was the completion of a through line to the coast in August, 1883. Somewhere out in Montana, the rails met, thus joining the east to the west by hands of steel.
A golden spike was driven and ceremonies spread along the Northern Pacific line.
About this time, the Brainerd and Northern Railroad was built. Originally a logging road, it steadily developed in importance. It later became the Minnesota and International Railway with headquarters in Brainerd.
In 1917, one of the most familiar landmarks in the state passed when the Brainerd depot burned to the ground. The Northern Pacific then erected another depot.
In the 1920's, at least 90 percent of the families were dependent upon the railroad. A mile west of the city, the railroad also operated a large tie- treating plant.
On July 1, 1922, rail workers launched their nation-wide strike. When the strike call came, the Brainerd shop men walked out as did their fellow workers throughout the nation.
The local shops at that time employed 961 men of which 462 were old employees who returned shortly to their jobs. The payroll normally included about 1,200 names. During the strike period, the Brainerd men lost over half a million dollars in wages.
As World War II drew to a close, extensive additions were made to the railway shops in Brainerd. A tie-handling plant costing $100,000 was added to the timber preservation plant and numerous other additions have since been made to other facilities on the shop grounds.
Biggest addition was the 916 foot steel-and-brick building, constructed at a cost of $1,500,000 for making steel freight cars. One man commented at the time it was built, it was the greatest boost the company had given Brainerd since it built the original shops.
In 1968, an air brake shop was added to the present facilities handling the air brakes for all of the cars in the system. A wheel shop was completed recently which takes care of half of the freight wheels for the system.
The shops today include the car shop, the locomotive shop the timber preservation plant, the air brake shop, the wheel shop and the stores department plus switch and section crews.
The car shops both build and repair freight cars. Since 1947. more than 13,000 new cars have been constructed including freight, ore, gondolas, box, freezer and flat cars.
The locomotive shop until 1951 did repair work for the whole line, but now repairs only its own yard engines. The Livingston, Mont., shops, more centrally located for the line, have taken over this function.
The blacksmith shop used to finish and assemble all locomotive wheels and axles for the line as at one time, the special equipment required for that task was located only in Brainerd.
The district stores department at Brainerd, is the largest storeroom on the line and distributes a high percentage of the material used for maintenance of the tracks, buildings and car repair.
Employing about 125 at present, the department receives about 5,000 cars of material annually and ships about 3,500 carloads.
A shop which has been part of the Northern Pacific layout from the beginning, it distributes various types of material including small items in the stationary division to the needs of the dining car division.
The Brainerd shops are the largest in physical area which the Northern Pacific maintains and employs the largest number of men, although the Livingston shops are approaching the same figure.
Employment here now approaches 270 men, plus 125 in the stores department and up to 50 at the tie plant for an approximate total of 540.
In comparing the current employment with that of the late 1800's, it must be remembered that mechanization has changed employment patterns.
Superintendent of the Brainerd shops from 1941 until his retirement in 1958, was John E. Vanni, Clarence Jordan is the present superintendent. Railroad employment has long been a vital part of the Brainerd area's economy and the merger of the Northern Pacific railroad with other lines into the new Burlington Northern system is not expected to alter this situation.
During merger negotiations, it was pointed out that the railroad car shops would continue to operate in Brainerd after the merger and might even be expanded.
Since the merger has been put into effect, officials of the new line have confirmed this by stating that the Brainerd shops will be one of the major facilities of the new railroad system.
Though Brainerd has since branched out as an agricultural, retail and resort center, and as the home of assorted industries and businesses, it is still closely geared to one of America's Class A railroads, the Northern Pacific.