If you travel north on Highway 64 through central Minnesota, you will likely pass through Akeley. It is a small town of about 400 residents and nearly as many lakes. Today, it’s hard to believe this sleepy community was once a lumber boom town.
The first logging camp went up around the turn of the last century 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 who founded the Walker Art Center) built a sawmill along the southern shore of Eleventh Crow Wing Lake. It was the largest operation in the state at the time.
Development in the area skyrocketed and 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.
The sawmill closed in 1916. Like most lumber towns, the population dwindled once the trees were harvested and the sawmill was shuttered. By 1926, years of lumber trains crossing the rickety railroad bridge had taken their toll. A new link was 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.
Trains stopped rolling through Akeley and nearby towns by 1974. A program called Rails to Trails formed and turned 49 miles of the old railroad line between Park Rapids and Cass Lake into a hiking and biking route known as the Heartland Trail. Thousands of people have used the trail since then, and most couldn’t help but stop once they reached the 314-foot high trestle bridge to take in the panoramic view of 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, though 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.