Jury found railway officials ‘guilty of gross neglect,’ ‘incompetent’

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.

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

BRAINERD — The Brainerd lakes area is known statewide for its plentiful lakes. But it was the nationally-known Mississippi River and its bridges in Brainerd that really helped the city grow.

Many bridges were built in Brainerd even as ferries carried passengers across the river to parks to recreate or to jobs at riverside sawmills, breweries and hospitals in the city’s early history.

Trains, horses, wagons and early settlers crossed the river at Brainerd on bridges; the first bridge in Brainerd was completed in 1870 and the last one was completed in 1979.

The first bridge consisted of three spans of the Howe-Truss pattern of 140 feet each, with approaches of about 100 feet on the east side and 60 feet on the west — the center span being a “through” bridge, according to a Duluth-based publication at the time.

The Northern Pacific Railway bridge had a floor 60 feet above the water that allowed the passage of steamers under it. But the bridge would not last long; tragedy struck at about 8 a.m. on July 27, 1875, when the bridge collapsed, killing five people in the disaster.


James Peterkin, an engineer, and Richard Grandon, a fireman, were among the dead, and five other passengers were injured but survived, according to Ann M. Nelson, a local historian, who wrote about the development of the Brainerd lakes area in 2018.

“The conductor and brakeman were able to jump from the train and run across the bridge as it was collapsing behind them,” Nelson wrote in her article for the Crow Wing County Historical Society entitled “Along the Mississippi from Rice Lake to Boom Lake.”

The central span of the bridge broke down under the weight of the cars loaded with iron and both ends of the train were drawn into the wreck, according to Nelson, and the engine and several cars were drawn backward with the remainder of the train forward.

“The central span and the two western spans of the bridge went down; the engine, tender and two cars that were pulled backward fell on the west shore, and the remainder went into the river, which was six to eight feet deep. The crash made by the wreck was heard for a distance of three-quarters of a mile,” Nelson wrote.

Dr. John C. Rosser, the only doctor in town, called a coroner’s jury a day after the disaster to determine the cause of death of Peterkin and Grandon.

“We further find that several officials of the Northern Pacific Railroad, whose duty it was to make examination of the bridge as to its safety, were either incompetent to judge of its condition or were guilty of gross neglect in not making the necessary repairs,” the jury’s verdict read in part.

“Immediately after the collapse of the bridge on July 27th, plans were readied for a temporary replacement and it was reported that the temporary bridge would be up and ready for trains on August 11th,” Nelson wrote in her article for the Crow Wing County Historical Society.

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

I cover the community of Wadena, Minn., and write features stories for the Wadena Pioneer Journal. The weekly newspaper is owned by Forum Communications Co.
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