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2021 drought leads to historical discoveries in Mississippi River

The drought of 2021 created low water levels that helped historians search the bottom of the Mississippi River in Brainerd for historic artifacts, which dated back to the origin of the city.

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At the middle of August 2021, the Mississippi River levels in Brainerd seemed to reach the lowest point of the summer. In the background, the Brainerd Dam holds the water level up for Rice Lake and the river north and east of the city. During this period of low water, several historical artifacts were visible on the bottom of the river. The water level was being compared with 1976 when another drought had impacted central Minnesota. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

A passing comment by Brainerd Dispatch Community Editor Chelsey Perkins to me in the midst of the summer drought sparked a project that involved local historian and this year's Citizen of the Year, Carl "Fert" Faust.

Faust, Jim Stafford, local drone operator and video editor, and I collaborated in documenting the very low water levels on the Mississippi River. We decided the best way to see all the historical aspects from the Brainerd Dam to Rotary Park was to fly a drone along the river's path.

On Aug. 10, we filed the flight plan with the Federal Aviation Administration for the drone flight that would take us under the restricted flight path of the Essentia Health-St. Joseph's Medical Center and the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport. I did the legwork and stopped at Brainerd Public Utilities, the Brainerd Police Department and visited with Steven Wright at the airport. The FAA approved the plan and we met at the dam at 9 a.m. Aug. 13 to fly the route.

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However, the drone did not respond, something that Steven Wright warned us about when flying so close to the Brainerd dam.

It was a beautiful summer day, and the drone would not fly. Stafford went to work with the FAA and after an hour filed a new flight plan, which was approved. The drone came to life and flew onto the landing at the Evergreen Cemetery.

Faust and I met the drone at each leg along the route. During one leg of the flight, we landed on the west bank of the river below the Washington Street Bridge, where the flying was successful but the steep grade gave us a workout in the deep sand. Not only are Stafford and Faust interesting people, they are physically fit.

"I have to say finding the pipe below the Laurel Street bridge and finally determining it was a water pipe from the Northern Pacific Shops well and was moved by gravity to the west shore of the river was my high point of the summer," Faust told me. "There was also a crescent-shaped series of pilings that was the area where river water was pumped to the steam engines sitting on the bridge over the river. This predates the well water pipe that supplied fresh well water to the Northern Pacific Hospital on the west bank of the river."

A day later, we completed the flight past Rotary Park. As we flew, we documented artifacts, pipes and cribs that were used in the logging industry. The video was created and narrated by Faust and me and we now have a film to show readers the different points of interest on the river during the drought of 2021.

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