Brainerd is at the center of a vast resort area that spreads out around the city. I confess I have mixed feelings about Brainerd, and not just because this was the place where I dropped my smartphone into the toilet. While the city has an interesting history, civic leaders have sacrificed the historic streetscape and architecture for the worst kind of car-oriented development: strip mall after strip mall filled with chain stores line Washington Street, the main east-west thoroughfare through town. You could be anywhere in the US driving by the same stores in the same looking storefronts. Besides that, it is very difficult to get near the Mississippi River in town, except for a few bridge crossings and a couple of small parks. A new park on the east edge of town will create more access, but in Brainerd proper, you’ll have an easier time finding locally-owned retail than getting to the river. Nevertheless, I don’t mean to sound too negative. Don’t just zip through town on your way to a lake cabin, like so many others do. There are a few treats in Brainerd, plus it’s home to some very nice people, so you should stop and visit for a day or two.
Brainerd came into existence because a landowner downriver at Crow Wing made a bad decision. When the Northern Pacific Railroad was looking to complete a line through this area, it initially planned on bridging the Mississippi at Crow Wing. However, Clem Beaulieu demanded too much money for his land, thinking the railroad was bluffing about building somewhere else. They weren’t.
The bridge was completed in 1871 at a location first known as Omamagua (a swift movement across a river) or The Crossing. The city soon was christened Brainerd by J. Gregory Smith, then president of the Northern Pacific Railroad; he chose the name to honor his wife, Eliza Brainerd Smith and her father, Lawrence Brainerd.
Brainerd was literally cut out of the forest. In 1878, a traveler marveled at the beauty of the wooden houses, most of which were painted white, set amidst the tall pines. In 1872, H.L, Bridgeman described the main street as:
…a long row of everlasting wooden fronts, peculiar to western railroad towns, and hiding cheaper and poorer structures behind.
Among the town’s many saloons and gambling halls was an establishment called the Dolly Varden Club. The first room you entered was roughly 40’ by 20’, with whitewashed walls and a sawdust floor; it was filled with gaming tables, tagged with names like chuck-a-luck, high dice, and mustang, while the back room was reserved for higher class games like rouge-et-noir and faro. You couldn’t buy alcohol at the Dolly Varden—it was prohibited by their deed—so most patrons were quiet and well-behaved.
Lyman White was perhaps most responsible for getting Brainerd started. He was an agent for the Lake Superior and Puget Sound Land Company, which specialized in platting towns and selling lots. He was president of Brainerd’s first city council and the second mayor and organized the First National Bank and the first school district.
By 1873, Brainerd had 21 stores, 18 hotels and boarding houses, and 15 saloons. In that same year, the Lake Superior and Puget Sound Company spent $7,000 in Brainerd on buildings, sidewalks, and streets to attract more settlers. In 1874, you could buy a 10-room house for $550 or, for a couple hundred dollars less, buy a nice house on Laurel Street between 5th and 6th Streets. If you felt like splurging, $700 would buy property on South 5th Street that came with a house, bathroom, cellars, furniture, stove, chickens, and pigs.
In 1873, the railroad moved its offices to St. Paul and half of the city’s residents left with it. The town struggled until 1879 when the railroad began bringing jobs back. When the railroad expanded its operations in Brainerd in the 1880s, it triggered a population boom for the city, from 1,864 residents in 1880 to 7,110 just five years later. For decades, Brainerd was heavily dependent on the railroad for jobs; some estimated that 90% of the jobs in Brainerd in the 1920s were tied to the railroad.
Brainerd was never an especially busy place for steamboat traffic on the Mississippi, though. The downriver rapids were not easy to navigate, and the dam built in 1888 didn’t help much, either. Brainerd saw a few excursion boats like the Lotta Lee but not much else.
Brainerd had a tough time in 1875. In that year, the railroad bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed as a train passed over it, killing the engineer and three others. In that same year, Thomas Lanihan was elected mayor after the previous one resigned. His election was not appreciated by folks in power, however. He was a garbage man whose name had apparently been put on the ballot as a protest and joke. Even though his victory was legal, the city council refused to recognize him. They opted to dissolve the city rather than seat him as mayor. For six years, the city was governed by the township board.
Brainerd may have been heavily dependent on the railroad, but there were other employers. The Brainerd Lumber Company’s sawmill provided work for hundreds of men until 1905; after that time, a paper mill has provided steady employment for many. Brainerd also benefitted somewhat from its proximity to the Cuyuna Iron Range, partly as a rail transfer point for ore being shipped to Missouri and Illinois.
Baby Face Nelson visited Brainerd on October 23, 1933, not for a fishing vacation but to rob the First National Bank. He got away with $32,000 and left a few bullet holes in the façade of the building that are still visible.
Brainerd suffered a terrible loss during World War II. During the Bataan Death March in April 1942, 43 men from Brainerd, serving in the 109th Armor Battalion, died. Most died from disease or were killed for not keeping up with the group.
A few random facts about Brainerd:
- City sidewalks were made of wood until 1900; the last plank walk was replaced in 1907.
- Paul Bunyan arrived in 1950 and set up an amusement park.
- Brainerd finally got fluoride in its water in 1980 after a long legal battle.
- The movie Fargo portrays Brainerd but no scenes were shot in the city; the movie did not receive an enthusiastic response from locals.
Brainerd suffered a major economic blow in the 1980s when the railroad closed much of its operation in town and transferred workers to other locations. The resort and service industries provide a lot of jobs, but most don’t pay anywhere close to what the railroad did. Brainerd has, as a result, struggled to chip away at its unemployment rate, which is all the more reason to stop into a locally-owned business and spend some dollars.
Baxter (2010 population = 7,610)
The neighboring village of Baxter was founded in 1904, named for Luther Loren Baxter, a lawyer for the Northern Pacific Railroad. Baxter was a small village for much of its existence, even after the entire township incorporated as a village in 1939. By the 1970s, though, new subdivisions were popping up like zits on a teen’s face. Baxter today is a bedroom community of residential subdivisions and strip malls and a lot of open space between them.
Exploring the Area
The Crow Wing County Historical Society Museum is the best place to get oriented to the area’s history, with exhibits on the railroad, logging, mining, 19th century home life, and much more.
For a walk on the quiet side, explore the 500 acres and miles of trails at the Northland Arboretum.
Kiwanis Park (1101 East River Rd.) is one of the few places in the city where you can get next to the Mississippi River.
Just east of town, there are several hiking trails around the French Rapids access; in winter, you can cross-country ski on the same trails. Get to it by taking Crow Wing County 142 at the Brainerd Airport.
For a bit of mindless fun, head to the visitors center and pick up a list of the Paul Bunyan statues around town, then go find them. There are several, including the one by the visitor center and next to the water tower (aka Paul Bunyan’s flashlight). At Paul Bunyan Land, you’ll find a 26-foot tall version that talks, even addressing you by name.
The Franklin Arts Center is home to studios and shops for many area artists.
The Paul Bunyan State Trail connects Brainerd to Bemidji on 112 miles of paved off-road path that cuts through forest and around lakes. If you didn’t bring a bicycle with you, you can rent one from Trailblazer Bikes in nearby Baxter or Easy Rider in Brainerd. Easy Rider also rents canoes and kayaks and winter gear like snowshoes and ice skates.
Brainerd International Raceway draws huge crowds for the annual drag races. If you’ve got some spare cash, you can attend the Performance Driving School to learn the art and skill of race-car driving.
Mississippi River Overlook Park in Baxter (6005 Oakdale Rd.; 218.454.5100) has an easy hiking trail through the woods that leads to the river and to a canoe landing.
Crow Wing State Park is another treasure along the Mississippi River, with several miles of riverfront hiking and prairie, pine trees, and hardwood forest. The park also preserves and interprets the site of the village of Crow Wing that once prospered here. The Crow Wing name is derived from the Ojibwe word for the area: Kah-kah-gi-wi-giwan-isepi or Raven’s wing, which describes the curving shape of the river as it flows into the Mississippi. The French who heard the name were unfamiliar with ravens, though, so they translated it as Crow Wing (aile de corbeau).
If you are interesting in scuba diving in the area’s lakes and former open pit mines, check with the Minnesota School of Diving for tips and equipment rental.
For an intimate river trip with an experienced guide, check out Water Wolverine. Custom trips in specially equipped fishing kayaks for a couple of people on the Mississippi or another body of water can be arranged, although fishing is optional. Tours can be guided or independent, depending on your interests; call at least 2 weeks in advance to reserve a time.
In winter, Ski Gull is the place for downhill skiing, tubing, and snowboarding.
Where to Eat
I spent a week in Brainerd in 2011 and the whole experience was much better because I could look forward to a good cup of coffee and conversation every day at Coco Moon (601 Laurel St.; 218.825.7955).
The Jack Pine Brewery in Baxter offers freshly made, hank-crafted beer; the tasting room is open evenings Wednesday through Saturday, as well as Sunday afternoon. Get a pint there, then buy a growler to take with you to the campground or hotel.
For a light lunch, or a hearty breakfast for that matter, Northwind Grille (603 Laurel St.; 218.829.1551) in central Brainerd is a good choice, sorta like a diner but higher class.
For bar food with a little atmosphere, check out the Last Turn Saloon. Located in the basement of a historic central Brainerd building, the bar and restaurant is decked out with art glass and finely carved wood, paying homage to a tavern of the same name that was the last stop on the way out of town for loggers heading to the woods.
The Sawmill Inn (601 Washington; 218.829.5444) is a long-time favorite in the middle of town; breakfast is probably the best meal. Check out the photos of old Brainerd on the walls.
The Prairie Bay Grill in Baxter emphasizes farm-to-table dining, buying most of their products from local growers. The menu is extensive, and includes creative sandwiches, wood-fired pizza, and gourmet entrées.
Where to Stay
The campground at Crow Wing State Park is in a wooded area, with a few sites on a high bank near the river.
Brainerd International Raceway has several RV sites and an open area for basic camping called “The Zoo.”
Gull Lake Recreation Area has spacious sites in a wooded area next to Gull Lake, about ten miles northwest of Brainerd.
Niemeyer’s Rugged River Resort is on the Mississippi River just northeast of Brainerd; they have six updated cabins with good views.
Shady Hollow Resort is ten miles southwest of Brainerd on Hardy Lake, which is very near the Mississippi River. They have eight comfortable cabins and a campground.
Chaparral Bunkhouse Motel is a small, independent motel just north of Brainerd with a dozen clean, large rooms.
Bed and Breakfast.
Whiteley Creek Homestead Bed and Breakfast rents rooms and small cabins in a lush and laid-back, eco-friendly setting.
Brainerd International Raceway has a dozen furnished two-bedroom, two-bath condos.
Next stop downriver: The Ripleys
Next stop upriver: Cuyuna Iron Range