Brainerd’s early history and fortunes were tied to the railroad industry, which made the 1875 collapse of the Northern Pacific Railroad bridge over the Mississippi River a tragedy.
The train’s weight on the bridge contributed to the accident on the morning of July 27. The engineer, a fireman and several passengers perished. The engine, nearly a dozen cars of merchandise and almost a dozen cars of steel rails went into the river.
The 650-foot Howe-Truss railroad bridge in Brainerd consisted of three spans of 134 feet each with the center span about 60 feet above the water, according to a marker dedicated last month during the city’s sesquicentennial celebration and designed in part by Jeremy Jackson.
“We're coming up on the 150th anniversary in 2025 of that and we're trying to organize an event where we’re bringing in family members, descendants of these individuals or relatives, to have a memorial service at the marker,” Jackson said Thursday, Oct. 21.
Jackson is a historic investigator and researcher with the Camp Ripley Sentinel Landscape Literature Review project team.
“There was a pier that was in the river close to the western bank. It sank a considerable distance. … The bridge was out of alignment … and the bridge is tilted towards the north or upstream just a little bit,” Jackson said of the all-wooden bridge before it collapsed.
James Peterkin, an engineer; Richard Grandon, a fireman; and passengers Magdeline Aitkin, Abbie Johnson and Buk-quan-ja died as a result of the bridge collapse; the span from the west side of the river to the center was the portion that failed.
“The bridge had actually been condemned.”
— Jeremy Jackson, historical investigator and researcher
“The bridge had actually been condemned according to one newspaper article I found,” Jackson said. “I think it's very important that that's noted.”
The tracklayers and construction train crossed the finished bridge on March 8, 1871, according to the marker designed in part by local historians Carl Faust and Ann M. Nelson, and three days later railroad officials and dignitaries made a round trip from Duluth to Brainerd.
Peterkin was in charge of the train when it went into the river. The 25-year-old from Poughkeepsie, New York, was single and worked for Northern Pacific for many years and was characterized by accounts of the time as an “efficient, reliable and worthy officer and man.”
“It was a poorly designed bridge. Plus, by the time it collapsed four years later (after construction), it was an all-wooden bridge,” Jackson said.
According to “The Northern Pacific in Minnesota” by John C. Luecke about reports of the bridge’s condemnation in 1872: “After inspecting the structure it was determined that the first pier on the east side of the river had sunk nine inches since being installed.”
The sesquicentennial celebration marker dedicated to the victims of the accident, the first-responders and early railroaders who helped establish the city is located across the street from the Brainerd Police Station and behind the fire department.
“The wreck is described as frightful to behold. With the exception of the engine and the two cars on the west bank, the entire train ... is piled in a heap in the river. The cars are completely smashed into kindling-wood,” according to the July 29, 1875, edition of The New York Times.
“There was no riprap and riprap is very important for any bridge. You need to put rocks or boulders around the base of any structure,” Jackson said. “If you go look at the Mississippi River today, even around the concrete piers of the bridges, there’s riprap … to help avoid erosion.”
A coroner’s jury at the time found “several officials of the Northern Pacific Railroad, whose duty it was to make an examination of the bridge as to its safety, were either incompetent to judge of its condition or were guilty of gross neglect in not making the necessary repairs.”
Much of the debris from the bridge collapse is still in the Mississippi River, such as railcar debris and the freight, which included rails, and barrels of spikes and bolts, according to Jackson, for the continuation of the westward construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad.
“It took them 14 days to put up a temporary replacement bridge — 14 days — with no technology. … That one was replaced the following March,” Jackson said of the replacement bridge built by March 31, 1876, comprised partly with steel, which lasted significantly longer.
“The disruption of rail traffic was minimal compared to what it could have been and what you would expect based on the time.”