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Danger in the pines: Area logging railroads 120 years ago

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In the closing decades of the 19th century, pine logging was a major industry in southern Cass and Crow Wing counties.

By 1889 lumbermen had already cut most accessible shoreline timber and floated the logs to sawmills downstream. The remaining pine forests, more remote from waterways, could be harvested most efficiently with railroads.

One early logging railroad, the Brainerd & Northern Minnesota Railway (B&NM), was built in 1892 to transport logs to a landing by Rice Lake on the Mississippi River in northeast Brainerd.

The B&NM mainline extended northward from the big Northern Mill Company lumberyard there, veered west at Lake Hubert and crossed the channel of Upper Gull Lake on a long trestle (near the present day Zorbaz restaurant), to reach untapped stands of pine in the Foot Hills region southwest of Pine River.

Rail-based logging was a dangerous occupation. Rail lines were often temporary and cheaply built, and the rolling stock might be secondhand. When it began operations in 1893 the B&NM used some old equipment and outdated procedures that endangered the health and safety of its employees.

For example, because the B&NM had yet to adopt the new air-brake technology, its brakemen were required to ride atop train cars and to set the car brakes by hand. As the train rolled and lurched along, negotiating hills and bends, the locomotive engineer blew a series of blasts on the steam whistle to inform the brakemen when to apply or release the brakes.

The B&NM also used the link-and-pin coupling system to connect its cars. For railroad workers, coupling cars by such primitive means was a game of chance. The process required that they stand on the track as the cars came together. Their job was to lift the link (like a large oval chain link) to a horizontal position and insert a large iron pin vertically through each end of the link and the car couplers to complete the connection.

There was little room for error. Many brakemen lost fingers or hands, or they were crushed between train cars. Pins and links would also break causing trains to come apart.

Tuesday, June 20, 1893, dawned like any other in the north woods. Elsewhere, the Chicago World’s Fair was in full swing. And, the nation was abuzz with the news that the infamous Lizzie Borden was just acquitted for the murder of her father and stepmother.

Before nightfall, an accident would claim the life of a brakeman on the B&NM.

Engineer Josiah (Si) Hallett was in charge of operating the small spur locomotive that day. Si was a pioneer resident of Gull River village, a sawmilling town on the Northern Pacific Railway south of Gull Lake.

Si had experience with steam-powered tractors and was one of the first locomotive engineers on the narrow-gauge, light-rail, Gull Lake & Northern Railway (GL&N).

After the B&NM acquired the assets of the GL&N in 1892, Si continued to work for the new company. He drove the converted narrow-gauge Lima Shay or Forney locomotives; both were well-suited to manage the inclines and tight corners of a logging railroad.

Shortly after lunch on June 20, on a branching spur of the railroad, Si coupled his locomotive to the front of a train of logs. Brakemen Andrew Swanson and J.H. Cameron took positions on cars in the middle of the train, while the conductor, Charles Millspaugh, manned the brake at the rear.

With a shrilling blast from the steam whistle and a ringing bell, the undersized locomotive began tugging the heavily loaded logging train on its short excursion to the mainline.

According to the June 23 Brainerd Dispatch, Swanson was atop a car load of logs when the train began ascending Birch Hill. As the front of the train passed over the summit, Si gave the pre-arranged signal with the whistle and Cameron applied the brakes to the rear end of the train.

The sudden tension caused a coupling pin to break, and the train separated in the middle.

On the down grade of the hill the two sections slammed together with terrifying force, derailing one of the cars.

When the train came to a stop near the remote logging camp of Munroe, 28-year-old Swanson was missing. His co-workers went back to search for him, and they found his mangled body lying in the middle of the track about 300 yards behind the train.

No one knew if he simply lost his footing or if the jolt of the impact caused him to be ejected from the train. Whatever the case, it was a sad ending. Swanson had worked for the company for a considerable time and he had the reputation of being cautious and dependable.

He also supported a young family in Brainerd. His wife was seriously ill at the time of the accident, and in July she suffered the heartbreaking loss of their infant son.

Ironically, about the same time, Ira Donay, another B&NM brakeman, was killed at Munroe while coupling cars. As Donay concentrated on setting a link and pins, his head was caught between protruding logs as the cars came together. He died instantly.

The remains of both Swanson and Donay were buried in Brainerd’s Evergreen Cemetery. It was reported that the Northern Mill Company, through its superintendent, Robert Stitt, attended to the details and rendered all assistance possible.

The coroner investigated the circumstances of Swanson’s death, and a panel determined that he fell from the train as a result of the train breaking in two. The B&NM was fully exonerated of “contributory negligence.” Investigation of Doran’s accident resulted in the same verdict.

The B&NM logging railroad line northwest of Gull Lake was abandoned the following year, along with the outpost of Munroe.

Unfortunately, the business records of the two Gull Lake logging railroads — Gull Lake & Northern and the Brainerd & Northern Minnesota — were destroyed in a disastrous fire in 1917.

Now we — Pine River native Douglas Birk, an archaeologist, and Jeremy Jackson, historian-lecturer — are researching the history and geography of these early logging railroad systems. We seek old photographs and documents, as well as interviews with descendants of people associated with early logging and settlement activities in this region.

With the help of volunteers we are also mapping the abandoned grades of the old railway systems. Our goal is to publish an illustrated history that reveals the big picture, yet tells stories of the lives and times of men like Andrew Swanson and Ira Donay.

If you have correspondence, stories, images, maps, artifacts or other information relevant to this project that you would like to share, email

You can also follow Jackson and Birk on their Facebook page, Lost Railroads of Gull and Spider Lakes in Cass and Crow Wing Counties, MN, or meet them in person at the upcoming cultural gathering at the Historic Pine River Railway Depot on the afternoon of Saturday, June 22.

As for Andrew Swanson and Ira Donay, June 20 marks the 120th anniversaries of their tragic deaths. They, along with Robert Stitt, Josiah Hallett and many other B&NM railroad employees, are interred at Evergreen Cemetery in Brainerd. Their gravesites and tomb stones, along with some obituaries, can be found on the and Evergreen Cemetery websites.