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A bridge to Brainerd’s past: Kicking off the city’s sesquicentennial

With Brainerd's 150th anniversary approaching, Mayor Dave Badeaux drew attention to the Northern Pacific railroad bridge, which was completed March 8, 1871.

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The Northern Pacific railroad bridge, seen here Friday, March 5, in Brainerd, was built March 8, 1871. The anniversary will serve as a kickoff to the city's sesquicentennial celebration in 2021. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

It’s a bridge, both literally and figuratively.

Completed March 8, 1871, The railroad bridge across the Mississippi River in Brainerd connected the Great Lakes to the western portion of the U.S. 150 years ago and connects today’s residents to the city’s rich history.

“The Crossing,” as it was so appropriately named in 1871, welcomed its first passenger train just days after completion. German immigrant Adam Brown, who later went on to own an artesian well on South Seventh Street, led the charge as the train’s engineer.

The wooden trestle bridge over the Mississippi was a necessary link in a longer track from Carlton, Minnesota, to Tacoma, Washington, following President Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Congressional Act in 1864, giving federal charter rights to the Northern Pacific Railroad Co., Carl Zapffe writes in his book “Brainerd, Minnesota, 1871-1946.”

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Built in March 1871, the Northern Pacific railroad bridge across the Mississippi River served as a connection from the Great Lakes to the western portion of the U.S. The original bridge was built of wood and included four abutments about 100 feet apart. Submitted photo / Crow Wing County Historical Society

The crossing was first considered at the trading post in Old Crow Wing (Now Crow Wing State Park), and then at French Rapids, near what is now County Highway 3 in northeast Brainerd. Eventually, though, land surveyors settled upon the current location, about halfway between the other two proposals, ending up with the northernmost railroad crossing of the Mighty Mississippi. Four wooden abutments about 100 feet apart held the bridge up, with the center two in the water, according to Zapffe’s book. At land level, the bridge was 647 feet long and 62 feet high.

Though the city of Brainerd had yet to become an official city, the area surrounding The Crossing was still referred to as Brainerd. The post office was incorporated in 1870, and some print publications referred to the area as “Brainerd” in that year, local historian Carl Faust said during a phone interview Thursday, March 4.

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Brainerd Front Street circa 1871. Submitted photo

“The problem is, we hadn’t recorded it with the state yet,” Faust said.

That happened in September 1871, meaning 2021 marks the city’s 150th anniversary — the sesquicentennial.

Just as the city has grown significantly from 1871 into what it is today, overcoming obstacles and progressing with the times, so has the bridge.

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Four years after its completion, tragedy struck The Crossing when the bridge collapsed under the weight of a freight train on July 27, 1875. The locomotive and its 22 cars plunged into the river, killing the engineer, the fireman (who tended to the fire that powered the steam engine) and two Native American women passengers from Sawyer, while injuring several others.

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The original wooden trestle railroad bridge built over the Mississippi River in Brainerd in 1871, collapsed under the weight of a freight train in 1875. A steel and wooden replacement was built the next year, with an all-steel bridge erected in 1901. Submitted photo / Crow Wing County Historical Society

Debris like nuts and bolts from the bridge and springs form the rail cars have been found in the river over the years, Faust said, explaining the bridge was under-built, while the freight train was overloaded with mostly heavy cargo like railroad equipment.

A temporary bridge was erected two weeks later, with a permanent replacement coming in March 1876. The steel bridge with cement abutments that stands today took its place in 1901.

With Brainerd’s history tied so much to the Mississippi River, for Mayor Dave Badeaux, the construction of the original bridge is an unofficial start to the city of sorts.

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Brainerd bridge looking east 1871. Submitted photo

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“This is really the first point where those Great Lakes are now connected to the western part of the United States,” Badeaux said in a phone interview Thursday.

That’s why the anniversary of the bridge’s completion will serve as an informal kick off to the 2021 sesquicentennial celebration.

Badeaux created a logo to commemorate the city’s anniversary and pay homage to the diverse history.

Check Monday’s e-edition of the Brainerd Dispatch for Badeaux’s logo and why the mayor feels celebrating the city’s history is so important.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa .

Related Topics: HISTORYCENTERPIECE
Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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