Brainerd’s birth comes at Old Crow Wing Village’s expense

Old Crow Wing Village at Crow Wing State Park was once a bustling fur-trading site, but the expansion of the railroad in nearby Brainerd years later caused the outpost to fade into near obscurity.

A recreated wooden sidewalk, and a building representative of 1800s architecture, mark the place where, in 1850, a town that some estimates say was home to 600 people, once stood. Today visitors to Crown Wing State Park can see where the community of Crown Wing, Minn., once stood. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch.

Little is left of Old Crow Wing Village at Crow Wing State Park, but once it was a vibrant commercial outpost that eventually gave birth to Brainerd as a community.

“The town died when the railroad chose to cross the river at Brainerd,” according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website about the park and the village.

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According to the state park’s website, the fur trade-era brought the Voyageurs of the Northwest and American Fur companies. Not long after, traders established posts along the Mississippi and Crow Wing rivers, and a branch of the Red River Trail brought ox carts through the area.

“It was a prime location for people that were traveling up the Crow Wing River and the Gull and the Mississippi River. Quickly, it was identified by fur traders as a good spot to have a fur-trading post,” said Ray Nelson, former president of the Friends of Old Crow Wing.

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The Ironton resident is a member and one of the founders of the Crow Wing County Muzzleloaders Club, which was formed in 1977. The group has previously participated in re-enactments at the park of what life was like during that time period.


“Allen Morrison, the first citizen of Crow Wing, established a post below the southern mouth of the Crow Wing River in 1823. Missionaries came to teach the Indians and build mission churches. The cemeteries remind us of the once-thriving community,” park officials stated.

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“The white population still lived in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Crow Wing was the furthest outpost basically that had any type of a community. In those early days, it was still pretty remote and pretty rustic,” Nelson said Thursday, June 24.

Paul Beaulieu, Clement Beaulieu’s brother, was involved with getting the oxcart trail to go from Winnipeg to St. Paul in 1845, according to Nelson. Crow Wing State Park is located about 10 miles southwest of Brainerd.

More than 18 miles of hiking trails, though the woods and along the Mississippi River, and following the route once used by Red River ox carts, are a feature that visitors to Crow Wing State Park utilize year-round. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch.

“And one of the safest trails that they could put together came through Crow Wing by Otter Tail Lake,” Nelson said. “And the trading of furs, at that time, was a lot of buffalo robes from the Great Northwest, up there — Dakota and Winnipeg and that prairie land — going to St. Paul.”

Crow Wing at that time had a tri-weekly stage service called the Minnesota Stage Co., running from Little Falls to Fort Ripley and on up to Crow Wing; another run of the company came up the Sauk Valley to Sauk Centre once a week, according to newspaper accounts of that time.

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“The park still has a section of the famous Woods Trail, which served ox cart traffic that carried supplies between St. Paul and the Red River settlements,” according to the DNR website.


Christopher C. Andrews in “Minnesota and Dacotah,” described Crow Wing in 1850 as a “homelike little village of about 100 inhabitants where the quiet was being scarred by the bustle of a boom and by the hammering and sawing as new buildings were going up.”

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Clement Beaulieu took over operations of the American Fur Co. in 1847 in what is now Crow Wing State Park and built a stately mansion in the former frontier village. The Greek Revival structure was returned to its original location and is being restored, according to park officials.

Nelson said, “Clem Beaulieu set up a trading post or a goods store where he had just about everything. And basically, when they (fur traders) came through, he sold them items and traded for items he figured he needed.”

“He was actually one of the people, instrumental, I guess, who caused Brainerd to become a town because he wanted to basically get a lot of money from the Northern Pacific Railroad that was building a railroad intended to come through Crow Wing,” Nelson said of Clement Beaulieu.

The railroad company made surveys at three sites: Crow Wing, Brainerd and French Rapids. But Beaulieu thought the other surveys were just bluffs and failed to realize that railroads sometimes build towns, so the Brainerd crossing was determined in 1870.

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“The railroad people, at the same time, were looking at other options because other people were setting up town sites,” Nelson said.

The railroad created its crossing at Brainerd and the village of Crow Wing eventually vanished into history as commerce and traffic moved north with the rail lines.

“The diversity of people that were at this location and interacting is what makes this state park interesting, and the town that was there was kind of ahead of its time,” Crow Wing State Park Manager Barry Osborne previously said.


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Missionaries from various branches of Christianity determined to spread the word of God to the native people and settlers of Minnesota were among the prominent residents of Crow Wing, Minn., which flourished and died out in the 1800s. Today their memory is preserved with a Catholic chapel on site at Crow Wing State Park. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch.

If you go …

Crow Wing State Park is located at 3124 State Park Road, about 10 miles southwest of Brainerd. It is open daily from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. In addition to driving, people can reach the park by biking from Brainerd down the Paul Bunyan State Trail and others travel down the river to get there.

The historic Old Crow Wing Village is located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Crow Wing rivers. Signs at Crow Wing State Park share the story of this once populous frontier town in the mid-1800s.

Start from the picnic area parking lot; from the boat landing, climb the stairs to Chippewa Lookout; stand high atop the Mississippi River for distant views, according to park officials.

Kitchigami Regional Libraries in Bemidji, Brainerd, Blackduck, Park Rapids,

Pine River and Wadena have seven-day Minnesota State Parks vehicle passes free of

charge to use at any Minnesota State Park or Recreation Area.


(Anyone 18 years and older with an active library account without fines can check out the passes at these select libraries and use them at any of the 75 Minnesota State Parks and Recreation Areas over the course of a week.)

For more information, call 218-825-3075, email or visit .

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at . Follow him on Twitter at .

I cover the community of Wadena, Minn., and write mostly features stories for the Wadena Pioneer Journal. The newspaper is owned by Forum Communications Co.
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