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'All aboard!' Northern Pacific Center hosts Brainerd sesquicentennial celebration

The historic Northern Pacific Center in Brainerd hosted a sesquicentennial celebration Thursday, Sept. 23, to recognize Brainerd's ties to the railroad industry.

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Justina Richter, right, dressed in period costume, sells tickets for the History Week BBQ Cook-off at the historic Northern Pacific Center in Brainerd. The barbecue was one of the events during a sesquicentennial celebration Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021, recognizing Brainerd's ties to the railroad industry. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
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If you grew up in Brainerd, you grew up around trains, and Bruce Paine was no different.

“Both my grandfathers and my father worked for the railroad,” Paine said as he went on a guided historic tour Thursday, Sept. 23, of the Northern Pacific Center in Brainerd.

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Bruce Paine attended a historic tour Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021, of the Northern Pacific Center as part of a sesquicentennial event recognizing the city of Brainerd's 150th anniversary. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

The 52-year-old took part in the city’s sesquicentennial celebration on the 47-acre site where wedding venues, a convention center, businesses and offices are now located.

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“My grandfather had an office up in the clock tower. He was a shopkeeper or kept shop materials,” Paine said. “My dad was a switchman and then his dad — back in 1950, when there was a blizzard — fell off in front of a train and was killed, so that was pretty tough.”

NP Center History Week Gallery

Brainerd’s historic railroad district came alive again during the four-hour celebration that included children’s games, face painting, a barbecue contest, live music and more that was capped off in the night with fireworks.

Sheila DeChantal wore an 1880s-era costume dress she purchased online to Thursday’s event. She is the promotions director of 3 Cheers Hospitality, which does all the catering for weddings and events at the Northern Pacific Center.

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Sheila DeChantal wore an 1880s-era costume dress Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021, to the sesquicentennial event at the Northern Pacific Center. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

“That was pretty interesting,” DeChantal said of driving in costume, after exiting her SUV. “There was a lot of skirt. … It's actually just got like a little hoop skirt under the outfit that makes it poof. It's very light.”

DeChantal said she felt transported back in time in her period women’s outfit and seemed right at home with the historic brick and metal building materials that remained in the railyard.

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A sesquicentennial tour group at the Northern Pacific Center stands in the shadow of the abandoned and gutted power plant Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021, that supplied power and heat to the railroad shops. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

“I love to wear a costume. … I have a whole costume room at home,” DeChantal said. “This is just going to add to my collection. I didn’t have this era.”

The former blacksmith shop at the Northern Pacific Center in Brainerd was once the second-largest blacksmith shop in the country, according to Rick Fargo, who managed the site for almost a quarter of a century.

“Every place out here that has grass growing through they used to run tracks all over the entire site from building to building,” said Fargo, who gave tours Thursday of the Northern Pacific Center.

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A sesquicentennial celebration at the historic Northern Pacific Center in Brainerd Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021, recognizing Brainerd's ties to the railroad industry. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Brainerd owes its existence and much of its importance to the Northern Pacific Railway. Before it was decided the railroad would come to the area, there was no Brainerd and no thought of a settlement here, according to historians.

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“The railroad was the lifeblood of the city, and that’s why the city is here,” Fargo said. “For the first 20, 30 years, the people working here were the city of Brainerd, and that’s why everybody came here.”

The surviving complex today represents about 15% of the complex on both the north and south sides of the tracks as it existed at the end of World War II, according to the National Register of Historic Places registration form.

RELATED: A moment frozen in time: Brainerd chamber reveals items chosen for 150th anniversary time capsule
“In order to salvage it, you’ve got to put it on the National Register of Historic Places, so anytime you want to do anything out here we have to go through and get permission from the federal folks,” Fargo said.

The Northern Pacific car repair shops are located south of the railroad tracks on a large rectangular parcel of property. The first shops were all on the north side of the tracks. The total number of engines on the entire road in 1872 was 22, all of them wood-burning.

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Rick Fargo, left, a former Northern Pacific Center property manager, gave tours of the historic site in Brainerd as part of the "A Celebration at NPC!" sesquicentennial event for the city's 150th anniversary. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

“The shop buildings were constructed with considerable uniformity of style and materials, cream-colored common brick with redwood trim and rusticated sandstone window sills, and date between the years 1882 to 1925,” according to U.S. Department of Interior documents.


“The railroad was the lifeblood of the city, and that’s why the city is here. For the first 20, 30 years, the people working here were the city of Brainerd and that’s why everybody came here.”

— Rick Fargo


Before Brainerd, the railroad first considered locating at the Old Crow Wing Village. Little is left of it now at Crow Wing State Park, but it was a vibrant commercial outpost that was surveyed by the railroad company. But a crossing was created at Brainerd and the village vanished into history as commerce and traffic moved north with the rail lines.

“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 150 years ago),” according to the Centennial Edition of the Brainerd Daily Dispatch (1871-1971).

For more information on the city’s sesquicentennial celebration, visit https://bit.ly/39xRFhb .

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL .

I cover arts and entertainment, and write feature stories, for the Brainerd Dispatch newspaper. As a professional journalist with years of experience, I have won awards for my fact-based reporting. And my articles have also appeared in other publications, including USA Today. 📰
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