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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.

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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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MORE ABOUT BRAINERD HISTORY BY FRANK LEE:
Brainerd High School volunteer archivist/curator John Erickson puts together an exhibit at the school to commemorate its sesquicentennial anniversary.
A marker was erected in September 2022 with information about the Headquarters Hotel, the Arlington Hotel and the second Northern Pacific Railway depot after the original was struck by a snowplow.
The Brainerd park off South Seventh Street is a little-known snow-sledding paradise. The 2-acre park was named after Brainerd real estate agent Vern Hitch and Wayne Rosvold, a 5-year-old boy.
Brainerd Rotary acquired 38 acres of land and 1,400 feet of Mississippi River frontage and donated the property to the city of Brainerd on Jan. 3, 2012, for use as a park.
Brainerd toboggan slides existed early in the city’s history. The outdoor recreational activity offered a fun way for Brainerd lakes area residents to enjoy winter.
The Brainerd Brewing Co. on Boom Lake’s east shore was in operation as late as 1914. Razed a decade later, part of the brewery’s foundation was uncovered by the Brainerd History Group in 2009.
The ground was broken for the Mississippi Landing Trailhead Park project in Brainerd in June. The planned greenspace with trails and pathways, a community amphitheater and an outdoor classroom with steps down along East River Road was previously a Tourist Park attracting thousands.
Sylvan Township and Pillager School Community Education sponsored a presentation by Brainerd lakes area resort owners and operators at the CTC Center in Pillager about the history of Kavanaugh’s Sylvan Lake Resort, Madden’s on Gull Lake and Cragun’s Resort on Gull Lake.
The Brainerd Fire Department observes its sesquicentennial this year and battled many of the blazes that ravaged and in some cases burned to the ground the historic businesses of downtown Brainerd, such as the early hotels and saloons that helped establish the city.
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Buster Park was a dog park created between Boom Lake and the Mississippi River near Kiwanis Park. The off-leash, fenced-in park includes playground equipment for dogs and is divided into two areas by dog personalities. The park was named after Buster, a Boston terrier.
The Northern Pacific Railway was the driving force behind Brainerd’s first bridge across the Mississippi River, and the bridge was constructed in 1870. But five years later, it came crashing down and five passengers were killed.
The J.J. Howe Lumber Co. played a key role in shaping Boom Lake in Brainerd’s past. But scant evidence of the business remains at the lake today near the popular Kiwanis Park.
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Army Lt. Col. Hortense McKay, a Brainerd High School graduate, served as a nurse in a makeshift hospital in the Philippines during World War II starting in 1941 and returned to the Southeast Asian country a second time as a nurse following her evacuation from it.
A locomotive engine of historic significance is on display at the Crow Wing County Fairground. Discussions have taken place to preserve that part of Brainerd’s railroad history by erecting a roof over the engine to shelter it from the elements, such as snow and rain.
Smiles on the 'Sippi is set July 30 and includes a Mississippi River paddle with points of historic interest highlighted. The inaugural event is sponsored by the Brainerd Family YMCA, CTC, Cuyuna Regional Medical Center, the Mississippi Headwaters Board and Smiles for Jake.
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The Battle of Little Big Horn, aka Custer’s Last Stand, took place almost 150 years ago in late June of 1876. George Armstrong Custer was no stranger to Brainerd, and former Brainerd resident Mark Kellogg was the only reporter to die in the battle between Native Americans and the U.S. Army.
The assassination of Chief Hole-in-the-Day the Younger occurred on June 27, 1868, or 154 years ago to the day on Monday the 27th. Hole-in-the-Day the Younger became chief of the Mississippi band of Ojibwe after the death of his father, Bagone-giizhig the Elder.
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The demolition of the second depot building, first erected in 1920, took place nearly a century after the first one was built.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church hired a Cincinnati-based company specializing in bell repair to rebuild the housing last month of its 1875 bell which has not rung in almost a decade after the rope broke. The church at North Seventh and Juniper streets is Brainerd’s oldest church.

“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 frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL .

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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