Brainerd’s original railway passenger depot damaged by fire
The construction of the Northern Pacific Railway in the Brainerd lakes area didn’t come easy. But once the tracks were laid, officials immediately turned their attention to the construction of a
BRAINERD — The Northern Pacific Railway’s route through Brainerd in the city’s infancy brought supplies to the lakes area but also passengers and prosperity.
“The railroad absolutely counted on passenger traffic as a revenue source during planning,” said Jeremy Jackson, a historical researcher.
The original railway station was built in 1872 and had an estimated value of about $27,000. The two-story building consisted of the waiting rooms, ticket office, yardmaster’s office, and express and baggage department on the first floor of the 40-by-80-foot building.
“There were no highways or automobiles, so railroads became a primary form of transportation during the latter 19th century, especially for long-distance travel,” Jackson said.
Prior to the construction of the 1872 depot building, the Headquarters Hotel, which was built in 1871, served as the actual first passenger depot. The 1872 depot was the first building built solely for that purpose in Brainerd, according to Jackson.
“A few hundred feet further to the east, the company started a three-story depot and general office building, where the water tower now stands. About three-fourths of a mile to the east of the depot, it started building car-repair shops,” according to author Carl Zapffe.
Zapffe wrote “Brainerd 1871-1946,” which was published in 1946 by Colwell Press Inc. of Minneapolis
The style of architecture was Italian, with projecting turrets at each corner, running high above the roof. The grand tower of the main front entrance to the building was 16 by 16, projecting 6 feet from the main part, and 60 feet from base to pinnacle, with a clock in front.
“This ornate architecture of the completed Brainerd depot was an example of overspending along the line,” Jackson opined.
Plans for the original construction included on the first floor two passenger rooms, 32 by 39 each; a ticket and telegraph office in the center, with openings into each of the passenger rooms; and two 8 by 12 fireproof vaults.
“The depot was completed at a time when there was little oversight of the costs of constructing the intercontinental railroad,” Jackson said. “The early construction efforts were grossly mismanaged or undermanaged and fraught with financial corruption.”
The Northern Pacific did donate to the city of Brainerd, however, the use of two rooms in the second story of the depot for a public library, according to local historian Ann M. Nelson’s extensive research on the railway for the Crow Wing County Historical Society.
“After the Brainerd depot burned, the Northern Pacific Railroad donated the land where the old depot sat for the site of a proposed municipal water tower,” Jackson said. “Completed in 1920, the historic concrete water tower stands in the location of the original depot building.”
The second floor of the depot was occupied by the general offices of the Minnesota and International Railroad. But an early morning fire that was believed to have originated in the ladies’ waiting room caused substantial damage to the passenger depot in 1917.
Everything was saved, including mail, express and baggage, from the first floor of the two-story building. The danger of the fire spreading, however, was a very real possibility.
“With the temperature at 15 below and a fierce wind raging, the main business section of Brainerd 200 feet away was endangered for a time,” according to a newspaper account of the time.
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.
“Jay Cooke, who played a major role in financing the earliest construction efforts of the NPRR, would fail a few months later, leading to an economic depression that gripped the nation and stagnated construction of the railroad for a few years,” Jackson said.
When the depot building burned in 1917, the general offices of the Minnesota & International Railway (M&I) occupied the upper two floors of the depot. Brainerd’s second railway depot was constructed with brick at a cost of about $100,000 and officially opened on May 15, 1920
“All of the records and early photos of the M&I railroad built to International Falls via Walker and Bemidji may have burned up in this fire,” Jackson said of the original depot and fire. “Today, that abandoned railroad grade (M&I) has been repurposed as the Paul Bunyan Recreational Trail .”