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Steamboat ferries were common sight in Brainerd’s past

Before semitrailers and airplanes became the dominant form of transportation for cargo and even personnel, the country’s waterways such as the Mississippi River in Brainerd were used. Ferries

Steamboat and ferry landing on the west side of the Laurel Street Bridge in Brainerd circa 1917.
Steamboat and ferry landing on the west side of the Laurel Street Bridge in Brainerd circa 1917.
Contributed / Carl Faust
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BRAINERD — The waterways of the Brainerd lakes area, including the mighty Mississippi River, were the lifeblood of commerce and transportation in the region’s early days.

Steamboats and ferries played an integral role in the growth of businesses and settlements that dotted the rivers and lakes before other communities expanded outward from those waterways.

“Throughout the early days of Brainerd, the Mississippi River served as the highway for the millions and millions of logs driven to the sawmills of Minneapolis prior to the establishment of large sawmills on the river in Brainerd,” according to Ann M. Nelson, a local historian.

Nelson wrote about the importance of steamboats and ferries to the development of the region in her 2018 article entitled “Along the Mississippi from Rice Lake to Boom Lake.”

“Steamboats plied the river carrying equipment and other supplies to the logging camps of the northern woods as well as providing pleasure excursions for the citizens of Brainerd before the dam was completed in 1888,” Nelson wrote for the Crow Wing County Historical Society.

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A commemorative marker on the Dairy Queen property today along Washington Street and the Mississippi River in Brainerd pinpoints the location of one such historic ferry crossing site.

A sign on the Dairy Queen property along Washington Street and the Mississippi River in Brainerd denotes the historical significance of the location as, among other things, a one-time trading post.
A sign on the Dairy Queen property along Washington Street and the Mississippi River in Brainerd denotes the historical significance of the location as, among other things, a one-time trading post.
Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

According to the May 11, 1872, edition of the Brainerd Tribune, the following rates were fixed for the ferry at Brainerd: 25 cents for each double team; 20 cents for each single team; 10 cents for each loose horse, ox, cow or mule; and 10 cents for each foot passenger.

“Over the years, numerous bridges were built over the Mississippi at Brainerd, ferries carried passengers across the river; parks, as well as sawmills, breweries and hospitals were located along its banks,” Nelson wrote.

Ferries even played a life-saving role during the tragic collapse of the Northern Pacific Railroad bridge over the Mississippi River in 1875. The train’s weight on the bridge contributed to the accident on the morning of July 27.

“Boats were launched from the ferry and soon at the wreck, and the work of extracting the human victims from the horrible mass began,” according to the July 31, 1875, edition of the Brainerd Tribune.

The engineer, a fireman and several passengers perished. The engine, nearly a dozen cars of merchandise and almost a dozen cars of steel rails went into the Mississippi River in Brainerd

“The transfer of passengers across the river, by the ferry, was commenced the day of the accident, and will be continued until a temporary bridge is erected,” according to the newspaper.

A black and white image of a ferry crossing circa 1870.
A ferry crossing like this one circa 1870 was a common sight during Brainerd's early days as a settlement.
Contributed / Crow Wing County Historical Society

Nelson wrote the early steamers on the Mississippi River burned wood and were used mostly to haul men and supplies to the lumber camps that dotted the shores of the river.

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“Although not as profitable, steamboat owners also operated excursions and hauled farm produce from and supplies to the few farms that had been established near the river,” according to Nelson.

There were many steamboat landings on the Mississippi River, including one on the east side of the river, just north of the Laurel Street Bridge and another on the west side of the river a few blocks north of the Washington Street Bridge.

“After the Brainerd dam was completed in 1888, all serious steamboating below the dam between Brainerd and Little Falls was ended. Steamboating on the Mississippi began to decline in the early 1890s. One cause of the decline was the invasion of various railroads,” Nelson wrote.

Another factor in the decline in boat traffic along the Mississippi River was the logging industry in the Brainerd lakes area and the jams created by the sawed logs floating in the river.

“For weeks in 1892, the boats were laid up by jams and by booms and for all of these reasons the owners concluded that they may as well surrender; the last regular steamboat passenger and freight business was finished on the Mississippi in 1893,” according to Nelson.

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL .

MORE HISTORY ARTICLES BY FRANK LEE
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

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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