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Railroad Roundhouse symposium offers look at what was and what could be

Brainerd's railroad legacy, still visible a the Northern Pacific Center in east 1 / 4
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A Railroad Roundhouse, a free symposium at the Northern Pacific Center in east Brainerd Saturday, is creating a link between Brainerd’s past and future.

And it is all connected to Brainerd’s beginnings as a railroad center. But for those who think of history with little relevance for today, railroad enthusiasts see an opportunity for future growth linked to Brainerd’s first breaths.

The Northern Pacific Railroad’s construction train arrived in Brainerd on March 11, 1871. Brainerd became the Northern Pacific’s headquarters. J. Gregory Smith, for whom Gregory Park is named, was the railroad’s president. The new railroad city was christened Brainerd in honor of Smith’s wife’s maiden name. A sprawling Northern Pacific Center on the city’s east side had railroad offices and repair shops for railroad cars. The railroad constructed a hotel and a hospital. In 1899, the shops employed about 650 men.

Now the brick Northern Pacific Center buildings are home to warehouse, commercial and office space.

Saturday’s symposium in the mammoth Blacksmith Shop includes presenters well versed in railroad history with John Luecke, Jeremy Jackson and Douglas Birk. Luecke has written or co-authored 10 books on Minnesota’s railway history, including the Northern Pacific. Jackson is researching logging railroad history in the Crow Wing and Cass counties. Jackson and Birk, former director of the Institute for Minnesota Archaeology, are writing an illustrated two-volume book on the logging railroads.

Jackson and local historians Carl Faust and Andrew Hook helped organize the symposium.

Hook said the history is part of the identity for the Brainerd lakes area.

“People don’t realize just how important the railway was,” Hook said. “It basically transformed the United States. We’re looking at Internet and all of these kinds of technological changes and the railway was at least as big as anything we have today.”

Settlers were transported westward and goods — such as grain and lumber — traveled east and to shipping ports where American products traveled around the world.

“If people ignore history we are just going to get buffeted around by a lot of change and we are going to have no idea where we are going,” Hook said.

The railroad brought people to Brainerd who were enthusiastic about building for the future, Hook said. Those people, he said, believed in positive change and were working hard to make it happen.

An idea that will get more exposure at the symposium is a hope to build on Brainerd’s railroad legacy for the future with a railroad museum. Hook said the Northern Pacific Center would be the perfect setting for an interactive museum along the lines of the Science Museum of Minnesota.

Hook sees a way to involve high school and college students in primary research, that would be a way for students to open doors at bigger universities. A museum project may be one suitable for Legacy grant dollars. But in order for the project to have traction to go forward, Hook said it needs grass roots support.

“If we don’t have that, I don’t think there is any point to do it,” he said. “If this is successful, it has to have local support.”

If there is an interest, Hook said a living, interactive museum could be a force in attracting people to the Brainerd from outside the region. The Spam Museum in Austin features hands-on activities, family events, even a game show. The Spam Museum, built in an old Kmart store, has 100,000 visitors annually.

“There is no reason why we couldn’t have some of that here,” Hook said, adding people may think of a museum as a place where artifacts go to collect dust. But this could be a place to engage people in history while preserving it through recorded interviews and interactive displays that taps into current digital technology. “It should be a linkage also to our future.”

Hook said it could be a place to connect generations. He sees the potential to involve students in efforts to record oral histories. There are lessons rooted in the past about people who worked to better and improve themselves not for a few weeks but for the long haul, Hook said, adding that is still of value today.

A working group is expected to explore the museum concept.

The free Kitchigami Regional Library railroad symposium is supported by Legacy dollars and assisted by Brainerd History Group. Now volunteer organizers are hoping people will take a little time out of their weekend to join the discussion and take part in the Railroad Roundhouse event.

Hook said: “The best way to find out where you are going is to look at where you’ve come from.”

RENEE RICHARDSON, senior reporter, may be reached at 855-5852 or Follow on Twitter at

Renee Richardson
Richardson is a Pacelli High School graduate from Austin, Minn., who earned an applied science degree from the University of Minnesota, Waseca, with an emphasis in horse management. She worked extensively in the resort industry. She received an associate’s degree from Central Lakes College, where she was editor of the Westbank Journal student newspaper, as well as a summer intern at the Dispatch. She graduated from St. Cloud State University summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and interned at the St. Cloud Times covering business while attending SCSU. She's been with the Brainerd Dispatch since 1996.
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