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.