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Mississippi River's low water level reveals Brainerd history

The Mississippi River in the Brainerd lakes area is running low because of little precipitation, revealing interesting historical artifacts about the city’s past just in time for its

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Local Brainerd historian Carl Faust stands on a natural rocky jetty in the Mississippi River Friday, Aug. 13, 2021. The river is at historic lows revealing interesting artifacts such as a pair of old pipes which reach into the river on the left side of the picture. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
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Michael Hawkins has a great view of the Mississippi River from his riverfront home in Brainerd. But lately, he hasn’t exactly liked what he’s seen.

“We’ve only lived on the river for just roughly 10 years, and I don't think I've ever seen the river this low. In fact, I know I haven’t seen the river this low,” said Hawkins, who lives on Bluff Avenue less than a mile from Essentia Health-St. Joseph's Medical Center.

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The rocky Mississippi River bottom is exposed Friday, Aug. 13, 2021, across from the athletic fields in Brainerd. The historic low water has revealed several interesting historical artifacts along the river this year. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Local historian Carl Faust, however, has seen more of the city’s past recently due to the drought and low water level that reveal riverbeds with historic finds.

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“This has been kind of a banner year for exploring the riverbed because it is so low — the lowest it has been since 2012,” Faust said. “I did make a good effort to go out there and explore the entire river basically from Rotary Park clear up to the dam and back again, you might say.”

Mississippi River

Faust said the Crow Wing County Historical Society Museum and Research Library possesses a scan of a photo of the river in 1976 when the water level was 2 feet lower than it is today.

“That photo there is really kind of the benchmark that we use for any other years where the water is low, so we can see what was there, you know, in ‘76, see what's moved around things, see how things have changed,” Faust said.

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Faust has lived on the Mississippi River downstream in Baxter since 2014 and has owned the lot since 1991, so he has been monitoring the river ever since.

“In fact, where I live down here on Camwood Trail on the river, the river is down no less than 9 feet from where it started this spring. And it wasn't a very high spring, so you can imagine the things that show up,” Faust said.

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Cribs, which were used to secure booms of logs on the Misissippi River north of the Washington Street Bridge, have become visible with the low water on the river this year. Cribs were created by driving logs into the river bottom with the narrow end first. Historians can tell which are cribs and which are deadheads by inspecting the knots and see if the limbs would have been facing down. The cribs were then filled with rocks to keep them in place. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

The low river provides an opportunity to see timeless treasures marking the area’s history.

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“We like to go down the bluff just to treasure hunt … because back in the day, the Mississippi River was used for logging and lots of goods were transported, so we'll find just old bottles or artifacts from buildings that were torn down,” Hawkins said. “And a long time ago, they used to use the river as a dump.”

Low water levels reveal much of Brainerd's early history, according to Faust, and the historian has created a detailed PDF on his website that he updates with photos of his finds.

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“There's a very clear pipe or some object in the river going from the west side to the east side, just north of the railroad bridge, and I've seen that like only three times,” Faust said of an example of what he discovered because of the low water level.

The 4-inch pipe extends at least halfway out into the river at an angle to the north and comes straight down from the old NP Hospital, according to Faust, who looked at the 1907 Sanborn Fire Insurance map that listed a 4-inch main going from the NP Car Shops to the NP Hospital.

“You're taking this thing you've seen three or four times in your lifetime — this pipe — never would have found it if you hadn't found it first in the river and then worked backward and then looked at the maps, so that was kind of fun,” Faust said.

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Local historian Carl Faust stands on a concrete culvert Friday, Aug. 13, 2021, near the Mississippi River access below Evergreen Cemetery. The culvert is still being used to drain an unnamed creek that ended at the river below 4th and Bluff Ave. In 1914 the city decided to reroute the small creek and drain it into the river using the large culvert drying up a large portion of land below north Brainerd. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Greater appreciation

Hawkins said his house was built in the late 1800s near Bluff Avenue and North Third Street. BluffCrest Creative LLC, his photography business, is operated out of his home.

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“We have an island that is directly behind the home … and when it gets really low, the flow kind of gets really slow on that side. Well, this year, the flow came to a complete stop … pretty much turned into a pond right behind our house … something we've never seen,” Hawkins said.

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Michael Hawkins Contributed / Michael Hawkins

Hawkins’ home is about 60 feet above the river, and he said he and his family kayak, canoe, snowshoe, hike and bike on and along the shores of the Mississippi River.

“We often sit atop the bluff or stand in our living room with a cup of coffee and enjoy watching the blue herons, eagles, beavers, otters, deer, bear, fox, ducks, geese and the many other creatures that use the river as their home or a stopover as they head somewhere else,” Hawkins said.

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Shane Riffle, CEO of the Brainerd Family YMCA.

Shane Riffle is the CEO of the Brainerd Family YMCA and lives off Eagle Ridge Drive in a riverfront home, too.

“The wildlife is just fantastic. We see bear every now and then, a lot of bald eagles, osprey and more woodpecker species than I can count,” Riffle said.

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The rocky Mississippi River bottom below the Washington Street Bridge has been exposed this year due to low river levels. The drought conditions have revealed several interesting artifacts about Brainerd's river history. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Riffle said his living room and dining room both have large windows that overlook the river.

“On the bank closest to our side of the house, there's a deeper channel, so boats have still been going through, we've still noticed canoers, kayakers. But on the far side of the river, it's a lot of weeds,” Riffle said.

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Local Brainerd historian Carl Faust inspects bricks which were imbedded in concrete Friday, Aug. 13, 2021, at the Mississippi river access below Evergreen Cemetery. The concrete was used to prevent the river bank from eroding during high water.

Hawkins said he has found “things of interest more than things of value” during his treasure-hunting trips along the river in addition to enjoying the river’s aesthetics.

“The Mississippi is just scenically beautiful. It's historic. There's fishing, recreational opportunities. It’s, I think, one of the most underappreciated or undervalued resources in our community, but I think that people are starting to view it differently,” Riffle said.

For more information about Faust and what he has discovered because of the low water level of the Mississippi River, visit his website at bit.ly/3t0AhdO . The Dispatch will also have video of the river via images captured with a drone, along with commentary by Faust, which will be available soon.

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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