Brainerd native helps preserve part of city’s railroad history

A Michigan resident with ties to the Brainerd lakes area kept his earlier promise to donate $2,500 to construct a roof over a locomotive engine at the Crow Wing County Fairgrounds because his relatives were employees of Northern Pacific Railway.

A locomotive with ties to Brainerd's railroad history is protected from the elements under a roof.
A locomotive with ties to Brainerd's railroad history is protected from the elements Thursday, Nov. 24, 2022, under a roof that was constructed after this year's Crow Wing County Fair because of a donation from a Michigan resident and Brainerd native who is the son of a Northern Pacific Railway worker.
Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch
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BRAINERD — Robert Mass never worked a day in his life for Northern Pacific Railway.

But that did not stop the Brainerd native from wanting to preserve a piece of the city’s history by donating funds for a new roof to protect a locomotive at the Crow Wing County Fairgrounds.

Robert Mass
Robert Mass
Contributed / Robert Mass

“I was born in Brainerd where the McDonald’s is on the east side of town … across from the (railroad) shops. But I have a sister that lives a couple of miles out of town and I come back to visit her,” Mass said of how he ended up at the Crow Wing County Fair and saw the locomotive.

Engine No. 8 sits outside by the fair’s antique tractor display near the blacksmith shop. The locomotive was roofless in August during the annual fair off of Southeast 13th Street.

“He wanted to give me $2,500 if I promised to put a roof over the locomotive,” Gary Doucette, the fair’s general manager and board member, said in August of Mass’ proposal.


The locomotive now is protected from the elements by a new roof, but Doucette and Mass have future plans to preserve and restore the locomotive for future generations.

Attached to the rear of the locomotive engine at the Crow Wing County Fairground is a millstone.
Attached to the rear of the locomotive engine is a millstone that was recovered from the Mississippi River and believed to be used in making wood pulp at the paper plant, according to the Crow Wing County Historical Society.
Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

Mass recalled of his roofing offer to Doucette, “I said that was badly needed to protect that piece of history — protect it from the elements. And it was showing signs of wear and tear from the rain and snow.”

The tangible piece of Brainerd’s ties to the railroad industry was on display during the five-day fair, especially to those who paid to park their vehicles on the strip of land adjacent to the street.

“He gave an off-the-cuff number of $5,000, so I said I'd give him half if he’d do it,” Mass said of Doucette and the cost to erect a roof. “He held up his end of the bargain and I held up my end of the bargain.”

Locomotive engine on the Crow Wing County Fairground
A locomotive engine is on display Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022, at the Crow Wing County Fairground during the county fair.
Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

The 82-year-old retired chemical engineer for Dow Chemical Co. lives in Midland, Michigan, where the company is headquartered, but has fond memories of his upbringing in Brainerd.

Mass said his dad started working for Northern Pacific Railway in Brainerd as a 15-year-old tool boy and was employed by the company for half a century before retiring as a machinist in 1973.

“With my dad being in the railroad, I learned all kinds of things about it and actually went over to the tie plant one time and saw the setup,” Mass said of the railway shops along Southeast 13th Street south of Washington Street.

Northern Pacific Center buildings
The Northern Pacific Center is located south of Washington Street and east of Southeast 13th Street in Brainerd.
Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

A sign attached to the locomotive at the fairgrounds states it was used to transport railroad ties to and from the Brainerd tie plant, according to the Crow Wing County Historical Society.


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“I don't know if I saw this particular locomotive or not,” Mass said of his childhood. “This little locomotive would push timbers into a big pressure cooker that pumped in hot creosote under pressure into the pieces of wood and so they made the pieces of wood into creosote ties.”

At least two of Mass’ granduncles and a cousin also worked for the company.

“My dad got passes and I rode back and forth even to graduate school in Illinois. I got a Ph.D. there in ‘66 and then came to Midland to work for Dow Chemical Co.,” Mass said. “After Brainerd Junior College, I went to the University of Minnesota for a B.S. and then on to Illinois.”

Restoration plans

Northern Pacific Railway Engine No. 8 is a narrow gauge locomotive that has been on display at the Crow Wing County Fairgrounds since the 1980s.

The locomotive was used to move railroad ties around the Brainerd tie plant, especially in and out of the pressure vessels that applied creosote with heat and pressure to the dry oak timbers.

Plans to preserve and restore the locomotive include:

  • Patching sheet metal and sealing rusted openings left in the cab.
  • Cleaning and preparing surfaces by sandblasting and applying etching primer.
  • Painting with gloss black paint.
  • Replacing floorboards in cab.
  • New window frames and plastic windows made of polycarbonate or Plexiglas.
  • Building a wooden platform and stairs so visitors can inspect the cab safely.
  • Displaying a placard in the cab to explain the function of the controls.
  • Oiling and greasing mechanics and bearings.
  • Making operational with compressed air on a segment of new track.

The creation of the Northern Pacific Railroad began with the groundbreaking near Carlton, Minnesota. It was the country’s second planned transcontinental railroad and the first to be built solely by a single business entity.
Construction work on the Northern Pacific Railroad began in the summer of 1870. Jay Cooke, the nation’s leading banker, and railroad President J. Gregory Smith had formally agreed on New Year’s Day that year to build the transcontinental railroad.

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at . Follow him on Twitter at .

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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