Construction of Northern Pacific Railroad faced challenges

Those early days of building the Northern Pacific Railroad in the Brainerd lakes area included the physical or logistical challenges of constructing something from scratch in the woods and lakes of

Northern Pacific Railroad survey crew in 1870 along the east bank of the Mississippi River
Northern Pacific Railroad surveyors stand on the east bank of the Mississippi River in the spring of 1870 at the location where the railroad was to cross the river.
Contributed / Crow Wing County Historical Society
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BRAINERD — It was an ambitious undertaking. But just how ambitious they were about to find out.

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.

“The NP had been created by an act of Congress in 1864, largely as a political sop to regional interests, and was not considered with great seriousness,” according to “Twenty-six feet: Constructing the Northern Pacific Railroad,” by M. John Lubetkin.

The Aug. 4, 1870, edition of the St. Cloud Journal detailed what the initial surveyors of the Brainerd lakes area encountered and the prospects of constructing a railroad in the region.

“The country, for farming purposes, is not very good for 20 miles from the Crow Wing River — except well up northward. After that, there is a steady improvement all the way to Otter Tail,” according to the publication.


Often the grade per mile is measured in inches, not feet.
— M. John Lubetkin

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 New Year’s Day that year to build the transcontinental railroad.

"Thus the NP, always low on cash and with only a skeleton staff, was suddenly faced with the daunting task of living up to the expectations and promises of a $100 million, 2,000-mile construction effort,” Lubetkin wrote.

According to the Aug. 4, 1870, edition of the St. Cloud Journal: “With the exception of a few miles at Leaf Lake, where there is an ascent of about 200 feet, there is but little hard railroading country.”

Lubetkin is also the author of “Jay Cooke’s Gamble: The Northern Pacific Railroad, the Sioux and the Panic of 1873.”

“Often the grade per mile is measured in inches, not feet,” Lubetkin wrote. “For more than 125 east-to-west miles, there was porous glacial moraine with lakes, swamps or tamarack bogs, 'sloughs,' pine barrens, sinkholes and floating islands of 'solid' ground.”

Jeremy Jackson is a historian who grew up in the Brainerd lakes area. The Eagan resident does contract work for Hamline University in the anthropology area, helping to identify living descendants of those found in unmarked graves in Minnesota.

“The key point is that the survey selected by the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1870, which determined the site of Brainerd and the river crossing, contributed to the failure of Jay Cooke because of the reoccurring excessive costs to repair the grades through the marshlands east of Brainerd, and the loss of traffic revenue while the track was being repaired or relocated around the wetlands,” Jackson said.

The Jan. 28, 1871, edition of the Minneapolis Tribune reported that track was laid on the Northern Pacific Railroad to Crow Wing River.


“Between this point and the crossing of Red River, there remain about 40 miles of grading to be done, and about 100 miles of track laying. The work goes bravely on,” according to the publication.

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

Lubetkin wrote that in addition to creeks and rivers, there were underground streams not visible to the naked eye.

“The deceptive covering was a forest of pine, spruce, tamarack, birch and elm protected by seemingly impenetrable undergrowth,” Lubetkin opined.

But by January 1871, about 1,600 men were working on constructing the Northern Pacific Railroad and three carloads of bridge iron arrived from Milwaukee for the Northern Pacific bridge across the Mississippi at Brainerd.

"If the land were not fit for man nor beast, unchanging water levels made it ideal mosquito habitat," Lubetkin wrote. "In addition to the swamps and mosquitoes, winters were exceptionally cold and long, significantly reducing the effective construction season."

The Jan. 28, 1871, edition of the Minneapolis Tribune reported: “A large portion of the grading was done in the winter months and here and there. At heavy marsh crossings, the roadbed has gone to the bottom. The running of through trains is therefore interrupted.”

Lubetkin wrote, “All of these problems were compounded by the land’s freezing and expanding each fall, and, in the spring, thawing and contracting. Over this, the first 150 miles of the Northern Pacific Railroad had to be built.”

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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