Brainerd

Population (2010)

13,590

Introduction

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.

Visitor Information

Direct your questions to the folks at Visit Brainerd (218.825.0410) or the Brainerd Lakes Chamber (800.450.2838). There’s also an information center at the rest area south of town on Highway 371.

History

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.

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.

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.

In winter, Ski Gull is the place for downhill skiing, tubing, and snowboarding.

Getting on the River

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.

You can rent a canoe or kayak from Easy Riders Bicycle and Sportshop (415 Washington St.; 218.829.5516); shuttle service is available, but you should schedule it in advance.

Entertainment and Events

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.

Farmers Market

The Brainerd Lakes Area Growers Market sets up on Tuesday mornings in the parking lot at the Franklin Arts Center (1001 Kingwood St.) and Friday mornings at Gander Mountain parking lot (14275 Edgewood Dr.); the markets generally run from early May through October.

Festivals

Arts in the Park (Gregory Park; 424 N. 5th St.) features arts and crafts from over 100 vendors from the region and beyond; look for it around the 4th of July.

The annual Crow Wing County Fair (2000 SE 13th St.; 218.829.6680) brings together farm animals, tractor pulls, motocross racing, and live music in early August.

In late October, Geritol Frolics showcases the talents of performers over the age of 55 who sing and dance and generally show off in a vaudeville-style performance; the shows are in the auditorium at the Franklin Arts Center (1001 Kingwood St.).

**Brainerd is covered in the Headwaters Region Guide and Road Tripping Along the Great River Road, Vol. 1. Click the link above for more. Disclosure: This website may be compensated for linking to other sites or for sales of products we link to.

Where to Eat and Drink

Every time I visit Brainerd, I look forward to a good cup of coffee and conversation at Coco Moon (601 Laurel St.; 218.825.7955).

The Roundhouse Brewery (1551 Northern Pacific Rd.; 218.454.2739) serves hand-crafted beer in a beautiful space in the historic old rail depot.

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.

Neighboring Baxter also has a couple of good options.

Where to Sleep

There’s a wide range of lodging options in the area, from rustic camping to luxury resorts, from chain motels to private homes. The options below focus on independently run places in Brainerd proper or near the Mississippi River. It can be very difficult to find a room in the area during the NHRA Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway in August.

Camping

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.

Resorts

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.

Bed-and-Breakfast Inns

Whiteley Creek Homestead Bed and Breakfast rents rooms and small cabins in a lush and laid-back, eco-friendly setting.

Moderate and up

Brainerd International Raceway has a dozen furnished two-bedroom, two-bath condos.

Getting There

Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport (16384 Airport Rd.; 218.825.2166) is just east of the city; Delta has daily service to Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport.

Jefferson Lines offers long-distance bus service; they stop in Brainerd at McDonald’s near Cub Foods (Highways 210/Washington St. NE at Highway 25). Your best bet is to purchase tickets online (they are not refundable); you’ll need to print a boarding pass and bring an ID. You can also buy a ticket on the phone (800.451.5333). If all else fails, you can show up without a ticket, and the driver may let you ride to the next station that sells tickets where you can buy one.

Where to Go Next

Next stop downriver: Baxter

Next stop upriver: Cuyuna Iron Range

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Brainerd Photographs

A Song for Brainerd

Toolmaster of Brainerd by Trip Shakespeare (1988)

©Dean Klinkenberg, 2012,2015

By |2019-01-03T10:17:04+00:00September 6th, 2012|Minnesota|0 Comments

About the Author:

Dean Klinkenberg, the Mississippi Valley Traveler, is on a mission to explore the rich history, diverse cultures, and varied ecosystems of the Mississippi River Valley, from the Headwaters in northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. He is the author of Rock Island Lines, a mystery, and several guidebooks for the Mississippi Valley.

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