Riding the rails into Brainerd history

Cars, trucks and sport-utility vehicles in Brainerd are a common sight today. But horse-drawn and then electric streetcars provided public transportation in the early years of the city’s history.

People clear a path of snow for the streetcar in northeast Brainerd in 1984. Contributed / Carl Faust

Getting around town quickly, efficiently, safely and affordably proved a challenge in the early days of Brainerd’s history.

But entrepreneurs, dreamers and city planners were among those who believed in developing a streetcar system to move Brainerd lakes area residents from one end of the city to another.

The Brainerd Electric Street Railway Co. had its start when Charles F. Kindred, who lived where the parking lot of Sawmill Inn is today across from Brainerd's historic water tower, was granted franchises to build and operate a horse-drawn streetcar line within the city.

The streetcar line ran southwest from Mill Street near Rice Lake to Willow Street along the Mississippi River. Contributed / Minnesota Streetcar Museum


“The line was built during 1886-87 from a turntable near the Northern Pacific’s Headquarters hotel-depot … then east on Kingwood Street, across the city’s wagon bridge (on A Street) … to a second turntable at the end of the line near the middle of Ash and Third avenues,” according to the Minnesota Streetcar Museum.

Ties for the street railway were sawed out in August of 1887, with an estimated 3,000 ties required for the endeavor. By September of that year, the then-new streetcars arrived at the freight depot and included such then-modern amenities as stoves to heat them in cold weather.

RELATED: Crow Wing County history museum unveils new sesquicentennial exhibit
“When the streetcars begin to run. you can go on a fishing excursion to the dam and back for 10 cents,” according to the Sept. 16, 1887 edition of the Brainerd Dispatch.

Local historian Carl Faust said the establishment of a streetcar line was a sign of progress for the 5,700 residents of Brainerd in 1890.

Carl "Fert" Faust is Brainerd's 2021 Outstanding Citizen of the Year. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

“They knew they were in the big time once they got their streetcar, whether it was horse-drawn or electric,” Faust said.

Streetcars left the North Pacific depot every 40 minutes during the day, beginning at 7:20 in the morning, according to the May 18, 1888, edition of the Brainerd Dispatch.


RELATED: Brainerd historic water tower represents city
“I don't think we had a big enough downtown area that warranted it. I think the very biggest thing was northeast was almost like a town in itself. And forever. It was rather segregated from the downtown area because of that darn ravine,” Faust said.

John C. Luecke wrote about Brainerd’s streetcars in a publication by the Minnesota Streetcar Museum.

Four streetcars and the carbarn sit in the background as the company's management gathers for the picture. Contributed / Crow Wing County Historical Society

“A major setback came to the horsecar line in June of 1888 when the Villard Hotel, the anchor for the company's trade, was consumed by fire. From then on the 1.5-mile line did not fare well and by 1888, Kindred's company went into receivership and he left Brainerd for Philadelphia in disgust,” Luecke wrote.

The city ordinance granting a franchise for an electric street railway was passed in 1892. Charles N. Parker was given a 30-year franchise and was to have a line in operation by July of 1893 but he had to build his own power plant.

RELATED: Sesquicentennial: Test your knowledge of Brainerd’s history
“The rate of fare for any distance within the city limits on any line of said railway, shall not exceed five cents for each passenger with ordinary hand baggage,” according to the city ordinance.

Carl Zapffe wrote “Brainerd 1871-1946,” which was published in 1946 by Colwell Press Inc. of Minneapolis. He also offered background on the electric railway.


An electric streetcar makes the trip across a wooden bridge in Brainerd in the city's early days. Contributed / Crow Wing County Historical Society

“The route of the Electric Street Railway would begin at Willow and South Sixth thence north to Front Street; turning east at the First National Bank corner and going to Eighth Street [Broadway]; then it would go north to Kingwood and east to the ravine,” Zapffe wrote.

Parker erected at the ravine a private timber-trestle about 100 feet south of the city’s wagon bridge for the 4 miles of track that continued from the end of the bridge to Third Avenue, then north to H Street, east on H Street to Mill and north on Mill where it ended.

RELATED: 'All aboard!' Northern Pacific Center hosts Brainerd sesquicentennial celebration
“So that basically connected, you might say, two completely different areas of town,” Faust said.

Parker erected a car barn and an electric generating powerhouse, and on the east side of Mill Street, the Brainerd Lumber Co. and affiliates were erected and to the west of Mill Street was the dam and the city power plant, according to Zapffe.

RELATED: A moment frozen in time: Brainerd chamber reveals items chosen for 150th anniversary time capsule
“If you lived on the south end of Brainerd and you wanted to get to Gilbert Lake I suppose you’d take the streetcar, and that would get you right up to where the horse barn was when it was horse-drawn,” Faust said of the street railway that was operating its full length by 1895.

But Parker’s electric streetcar railway did not last.


“On (June 2) 1898, the big windstorm hit Brainerd. It blew down both bridges over the ravine. Parker said the street railway business did not pay, he did not replace his bridge and sold his cars and motors and abandoned everything else,” Zapffe wrote.

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 features stories for the Wadena Pioneer Journal. The weekly newspaper is owned by Forum Communications Co.
What To Read Next
Get Local


Must Reads