If you travel north on Highway 64 through central Minnesota, you will likely pass through Akeley. It’s is a small town of about 400 residents and nearly as many lakes. Nowadays, it’s hard to believe this sleepy community was once a lumber boom town.
Around the turn of the last century, the first logging camp went up on the east side of the Crow Wing River railroad bridge, between the Seventh and Eighth Crow Wing Lakes. In 1902, lumber baron Thomas Barlow Walker (yep, the guy that founded the Walker Art Center) built a sawmill along the southern shore of Eleventh Crow Wing Lake, which at the time was the largest in the state. Development in the area skyrocketed – a fur trading post and hotel were built on the west side of the Crow Wing River railroad bridge. By 1907 there were over 4,000 lumberjacks harvesting acre after acre of poplar, aspen, and pine forest. The Red River Sawmill ran night and day, year ‘round, cutting and planing the logs to be loaded onto rail cars and sent south.
In 1916 the sawmill closed, and like most timber towns, the population dwindled once the trees were harvested and the sawmill was closed. By 1926, years of lumber trains crossing the rickety railroad bridge had taken their toll, a new link needed to be built to get logs safely across the Crow Wing River from points further north and west. In 1927 a beautiful log trestle bridge was built to span the gorge high above the river.
By 1974 the trains had stopped rolling through Akeley and nearby towns. A program called “Rails to Trails” formed and turned the 49 miles of the old railroad line between Park Rapids and Cass Lake into a hiking and biking trail. Thousands of people have used the Heartland Trail since then, and most can’t help but stop once they reach the 314-foot high trestle bridge and take in the panoramic view of the Eleventh Crow Wing Lake from its deck.
Sadly, in 2010 the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources decided to tear down the amiable old trestle instead of restoring it. As I am writing this, a gloomy steel and concrete bridge is being built to replace it, through many argue nothing can replace the picturesque trestle bridge that welcomed visitors to Akeley.
Photos of the demolition of the trestle bridge can be found at the City of Akeley’s webpage.