Northern Pacific Center offers tours of historic railroad property

The Northern Pacific Center in Brainerd will begin offering free tours next month in June of the historic buildings or structures that make up the railway property’s grounds south of Washington Street and east of Southeast 13th Street.

Northern Pacific Center building exterior
The Northern Pacific Center in Brainerd includes many of the historic Northern Pacific Railway buildings that date back to the late 1800s, which have been converted to wedding venues, a restaurant, a convention center, businesses, offices and more.
Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

BRAINERD — The city of Brainerd owes much of its existence to the Northern Pacific Railway.

“The president of the Northern Pacific Railroad's wife's maiden name was Brainerd,” said Derek Owen, general manager of Northern Pacific Center. “That's where ‘Brainerd’ comes from. And the Northern Pacific Center putting roots here built our town.”

Beginning in June, people can learn more about that relationship and see firsthand the historic railroad shops at the Northern Pacific Center with free tours at 11 a.m. Mondays and Tuesdays.

“We’re going to show them around the property, the different buildings that we have,” Owen said of the Northern Pacific Center at 1511 Northern Pacific Road. “In total, we have about eight different buildings on the property.”

An aerial view of the Northern Pacific Center. (Brainerd Dispatch/Kelly Humphrey)
An aerial view of the Northern Pacific Center.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Before it was decided the railroad would come to the Brainerd lakes area, there was no Brainerd and no thought of a settlement here, according to historians.


“I was born and raised here and I had no idea what was out here,” Owen said of the Northern Pacific Center’s historic buildings. “And I still think there's a lot of people like that, that don't realize all the things that are here, so we're trying to introduce the past to the present.”

The surviving complex today represents about 15% of the complex on both the north and south sides of the tracks as it existed at the end of World War II, according to the National Register of Historic Places registration form.

Owen said of the tours, “We're going to do a walk that goes through the buildings, talk about what the buildings used to be, as part of the Northern Pacific Railroad, and then show them what it is today. It's a little bit of history and getting them up to speed with what our property is now.”

Winter picture of the Northern Pacific Office building. From 'Out of the Woods, A Pictorial History of The Brainerd Lakes Area', Published by The Brainerd Daily Dispatch. Copyright 1994.

The Northern Pacific Center south of Washington Street and near Southeast 13th Street is a 47-acre site where wedding venues, a restaurant, a convention center, businesses, offices and more are now located.

“It’s our first go of it, so we'll kind of see the feedback we get,” Owen said of the 45-minute tours. “But we're just offering those two days at 11 a.m. (Mondays and Tuesdays). And we do have a requirement: We'd like to see at least a group of six for the tour.”

The Northern Pacific car repair shops are south of the railroad tracks on a large rectangular parcel of property. But the first shops were all on the north side of the tracks. And the total number of engines on the entire road in 1872 was 22, all of them wood-burning.

The Northern Pacific shops and office in Brainerd are pictured circa 1875.
The Northern Pacific shops and office in Brainerd are pictured circa 1875.
Contributed / Minnesota Historical Society

“What we find definitely happening is once they're out here on the property visiting a business or going to a restaurant here like Notch 8, they want to know what used to happen in this building or what went on around the middle where our roundhouse used to be,” Owen said of the 45-minute tours.

According to U.S. Department of Interior documents, “The shop buildings were constructed with considerable uniformity of style and materials, cream-colored common brick with redwood trim and rusticated sandstone window sills, and date between the years 1882 to 1925.”


Before Brainerd, the railroad first considered locating at the Old Crow Wing Village. Little is left of it now at Crow Wing State Park, but it was a vibrant commercial outpost that was surveyed by the railroad company.

But a crossing was created at what later became the city of Brainerd, Old Crow Wing Village vanished into the pages of history as commerce and traffic moved north with the rail lines.

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

The former blacksmith shop at the Northern Pacific Center in Brainerd was once the second-largest blacksmith shop in the country, according to Rick Fargo, who managed the site for almost a quarter of a century.

“We get a lot of window-peeking — people just randomly looking in buildings and exploring on their own — which isn't always the greatest thing, so we want to be able to give a guided tour to people and show them around that way,” Owen said.

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

“The railroad brought mechanics, laborers and merchants. It established a great industry and built a fine city. Dreamers and men of vision speculated on the merits of such a road (nearly 150 years ago),” according to the Centennial Edition of the Brainerd Daily Dispatch (1871-1971).

Owen said of visitors to the Northern Pacific Center, “It's always like, ‘Hey, I had a grandpa who worked here’ or ‘My dad worked here’ … so that's my favorite thing about this property that it is Brainerd.”

Those interested in the free Northern Pacific Center tours that start at 11 a.m. Mondays and Tuesdays beginning in June should sign up by the Friday before a specific tour is scheduled for by visiting .

“I think it's just an incredible property,” Owen said. “And I'm glad that we're keeping it up, and that it has not gone to the wayside, and we're breathing new life into it and continuing with that history and honoring the railroad and the people that have worked here previously.”


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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