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Brainerd Minnesota History Tour

Home > Minneapolis > Places of Interest | Tours | Walks
by Gail Clifford MD (subscribe)
I'm a freelance writer and photographer traveling the world, often following my daughter. Visit our site at and follow us on Instagram @ABLETravelPhoto
Published November 29th 2021
How a railroad builds a town
Once a dense forest used solely as a hunting ground, the place we know today as Brainerd has a very rich and diverse history. While President Abraham Lincoln approved the railroad from the East Coast to Tacoma, Washington, it wasn't until 1870 that railroad companies searched Minnesota for the best land to develop.

The area that is now Brainerd was sixty feet above the river but there was plenty of lumber about, so the property purchased and a highline bridge built. As a peninsula, Brainerd was boarded to the north and west by the Mississippi River and to the east by a ravine. Brainerd was first declared a city on March 6, 1873. It quickly ran out of space.

New Neighbors joined Brainerd historian, Carl Faust for a walking tour. Luckily, the Brainerd History Tour remains one of his favorite pastimes. He and Ann M. Nelson are in their second decade of preserving Brainerd's history for us all.

Brainerd's History Walk, covers 1.4 miles downtown, meant to last an hour. Blue placards with QR codes contain information you can access through your smartphone. Forty of these blue placards are scattered around downtown, 40 more slated for outside downtown.

Brainerd shares a long connection to the railroads. The Northern Pacific Railroad (NPRR) formed to extend railroads west. As the library's guide states, "there were three key activities for the NPRR:
1. The building and operation of the railway to the Pacific
2. The identification of business opportunities linked to the railway
3. The settling of the towns through which the railway went"

The name, Brainerd, was the maiden name of the wife of NPRR president, John Gregory Smith. Whether the town was named in her honor, or her father's, a former Vermont governor with railroad ties, remains unknown.

As a railroad town, city life, the buildings and structure, organized around railroad needs. When the railroad came in, they built the Northern Pacific (NP) shops and then the NP tie plant in West Brainerd, a NP hotel and a YMCA.

The water tower remains the tallest and most photographed structure in town, its storage tank is 134 feet tall and can hold 300,000 gallons. It was the first all-concrete elevated water tank built in the US for a municipal water supply. But there's so much more to see.

From the National Registry of Historic Places' E.L. Menk Building with its rounded windows to the shopkeepers' restoration efforts on tin ceilings, you will be surprised by what's visible on this tour.

Murals beautify the sides of buildings. Have group photos taken under "You Betcha."

Find the Hidden Pillars of Brainerd State Bank at 7th & Laurel. On the old photograph, you'll find four pillars. Today, you see four columns. Those four pillars are embedded in those four columns. It helps to have the library guide to compare the current facade to the original one.

The Milwaukee cream brick railroad freight depot, 1904, is the oldest single use building in town.

Learn about the few remaining granite curbs, several foot deep "shorties" were found on a recent walk.

Nearby, see a horse tie up filled with a lead plug.

Guess what those circular things are in the midst of the curb.

Parking meters… well, perhaps some pieces of history are better off not repeated.

Why is the Legion building taller than any other by four feet? It used to be a theater, so needed the additional height for the projection room.

Have you heard about the ghosts and tunnels? North, just past the current Last Turn Saloon, find the Lakeland building, built as a steam laundry. It's the only building in town that has a subterranean basement, a basement under the basement. And that's where the boiler was. While there are tunnels, they weren't made for human transport. They were made to force steam through. Stories, yes, but no ghosts.

In the basement, historians assembled a collection of pictures and timeline of Brainerd. It shows the first picture ever taken of Brainerd, a tent city.

Nine panorama pictures taken from the top of the water tower c.1919 adorn the north wall in the back-room downstairs. Outside, on the red brick wall, under the faded painted Brainerd model laundry sign you'll find a horse tie up, one of only two remaining in town.

Reach the First National Bank and hear the 1933 story when Baby Face Nelson robbed the bank, taking over $30,000. His gang peppered bullets from their Thompson submachine guns through the neighboring old Ransford building and the original YMCA, both now gone.

Sad to have the tour end, one of the husbands said, "I didn't think this would be so much fun." Take your family and enjoy the time in central Brainerd. Create your own memories as you learn how much happened here in history.

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